Junior Jimmy goes to Juvie
"Hell's House" sounds like an interesting movie; a young boy ends up in reform school when he keeps quiet for a bootlegger he idolises and discovers the brutal system in operation behind closed doors. It also sounds interesting because it stars Bette Davis and Pat O'Brien. But first up Bette Davis is hardly in it and Pat O'Brien plays second fiddle to young Junior Durkin as the story focuses on the young boy Jimmy. And whilst you have to allow for certain things considering that "Hell's House" came out in 1932 it is a surprisingly weak storyline. Ironically it is the performance from Junior Durkin which makes it work despite all the issues.
Following the death of his mother naive Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin) heads to the city to live with his Uncle and Aunt live and it doesn't take him long to start idolizing their lodger Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien - Some Like It Hot) who seems to know everyone and has a beautiful girl in Peggy (Bette Davis). It's because Jimmy idolizes Matt that when his bootlegging operation gets busted and Jimmy is arrested he refuses to spill the beans even when he gets sentenced to 3 years in Reform school, believing that somehow Matt will pull some strings to get him out. But whilst at the reform school Jimmy discovers the brutal truth of what goes on behind closed doors as the boys are treated like slaves and cruelly punished leading him to try and escape in order that not only people learn the truth but to also save his friend Shorty (Frank Coghlan Jr.) who is inside and very sick.
"Hell's House" is a two part movie which starts with Jimmy loosing his mother when she is killed in a hit and run and so heads to the city to live with relatives. It is actually quite a surprising start as we watch Jimmy cradle his mother's dead body but really it's there just to provide a reason for Jimmy being in the city and being naive having lived out in the country. The main emphasis of this first part is Jimmy idolising Matt Kelly who seems to know everyone and has the gift of the gab. And that idolisation comes from Jimmy keeping quiet for Matt when the young boy is arrested thanks to Matt's bootlegging operation. It's all quite simple stuff and dealt with in a quick and easy manner but what makes this first part surprisingly interesting is the idolisation of Matt as Jimmy never stops believing that he will pull some strings to get him off despite us knowing the opposite, that he ran when he saw the cops make the arrest.
The second part of the movie is all about Jimmy being sent to reform school where he has to learn things quickly or else end up being a victim, not of just the other boys but also the guards. And we also watch as he befriends the sickly Shorty who helps show him the ropes. Now this is where "Hell's House" feels weak especially watching it now as whilst the boys are treated like slaves and punishments for misbehaviour seem cruel it doesn't feel like the abuse which say filled "Sleepers" a more recent look at reform school issues. Maybe back in the 1930s what was being suggested went on behind close doors did appear shocking but it is also the fact that things are dealt with quite lightly. To the point that the ending which really should be an emotional feel good outcome not only feels cliche but also a little cheesy.
One of the ironies of "Hell's House" is that it is billed as a Better Davis and Pat O'Brien movie and to be fair they are both in it with Davis being extremely lovely as Peggy whilst Pat is fly as dodgy dealing Matt. But the star of "Hell's House" is Junior Durkin as Jimmy with everything revolving around him and to be honest whilst the opening scene is initially ropey Durkin's performance grows on you by the time the ending comes. It is as you would expect very old fashioned where "Gee Whizz" doesn't sound out of place but the scenes where Jimmy decides he has to escape from reform school to tell everyone exactly what goes on in there are surprisingly powerful and passionate. It is in fact those few scenes and the touching if cliche friendship which Jimmy forms with Shorty which makes watching "Hell's House" worth while.
What this all boils down to is that "Hell's House" is very much a product of a bygone era when watched now should be more out of curiosity than for entertainment. But whilst Bette Davis and Pat O'Brien may receive top billing they play second fiddle to Junior Durkin who despite a few wobbly scenes does a good job of delivering the drama of the storyline even if that drama does feel a bit week when viewed now.