Film collectors of the 16mm and even the VHS era would often rely on public domain movies to build their collections. These were usually films from low budget studios that fell out of copyright. Some of them had major stars during the early part of their careers, before they hit the big studios. And often these low budget films had a cheap, aggressive charisma that made all of their limitations that much more appealing. A good example is “Hell’s House,” a gritty 1932 pre-code drama featuring Pat O’Brien and Bette Davis early in their careers — so early, in fact, that boy actor Junior Durkin is billed above them.
Durkin plays the orphaned Jimmy who goes to live with an aunt and uncle and comes to idolize their sharp-talking boarder Kelly (Pat O’Brien; Bette Davis plays O’Brien’s girl). The boarder is a bootlegger with big ideas and little ambition. When the innocent Jimmy gets involved in Kelly’s schemes and refuses to implicate him, he is sent to a reformatory. From this point, the film presents the grim reality of juvenile prison, adding Frank Coghlan as Shorty, a boy with a heart condition whom Jimmy befriends.
The body of the film follows two tracks — exposing the shocking, brutal treatment within the reformatory and the gradual evolution of the Jimmy character from naive farm boy to hardened prisoner. Being released in January of 1932, it pre-dates similarly gritty exposes like “Hell’s Highway” (RKO, 1932) and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” (Warner Brothers, 1932). Sweating in the brickyard, eating rotten food, being tortured for the slightest infraction, the film presents a level of realism that would no longer be possible after the 1934 production code. Writer-director Henry Higgin (whose career was cut short by his death in 1938) effectively frames each scene and his choices for lighting during the reformatory sequences are especially impressive. Perhaps the most impressive scene is one that is without dialog, where Jimmy, whose behavior has promoted him to monitor, must oversee a punishment room where boys must stand for hours and stare at a chalk line. The crosscut editing between the sweating, wavering boys and the stunned Jimmy makes this scene especially effective.
The adult cast is comprised of a few familiar faces like Emma Dunn and Charles Grapewin, but also a lot of stage and radio actors who found jobs in talking pictures, especially in low budget indie productions like this one (which was released by the Capitol Film Exchange via the states rights system). The acting of these performers was decidedly more tentative and melodramatic, especially in contrast to the genuine talent exhibited by O’Brien and Davis (who has quite a small role, but she stands out easily in this company). The younger cast, which includes a few familiar faces like Andy Shuford, are more natural and, fortunately, comprise the bulk of the footage (again, this is Junior Durkin’s movie, not Pat O’Brien’s). Even the melodramatic scene where Shorty dies in Jimmy’s arms avoids overplayed mawkishness.
Coghlan enjoyed a long career (and life), but Durkin’s promising career was cut short when he was killed in an auto accident in 1935, which also took the life of John Coogan of the Arbuckle-Keaton silents (and father of Jackie Coogan). “Hell’s House” might be his best film.
Kino-Lorber has gathered the best possible pre-print material from 35mm sources and restored “Hell’s House” for release on DVD and blu ray. Past prints released by public domain distributors offered grainy images and scratchy sound, but this restored release offers beautiful quality.
Some of the most interesting films in cinema’s history are its pre-code releases, especially B-level independent productions. “Hell’s House” is one of the best. It influenced later films that later influenced actual prison conditions after exposing the level of treatment. In the 21st century, “Hell’s House” is as much a cultural artifact as it is an effective and entertaining movie from one of American cinema’s most fascinating eras.