Set in the Prohibition Era, Hell's House (1932) stars Bette Davis & Pat O'Brien, though in terms of screen time they are the support cast to child actor Junior Durkin, best remembered for his roles in Huckleberry Finn (1931) & Tom Sawyer (1930). He plays Jimmy, the real central character of this tale.
After Jimmy's widowed mom Lucy (Mary Alden) is killed by a hit & run vehicle, he's goes to his Uncle Henry & Aunt Emma (Charley Grapewin & Emma Dunn). They have a boarder, Matt Kelly (O'Brien), a charming fellow who takes an immediate liking to the young orphan, but is less than a positive influence on him.
Peggy (Davis) is Matt's bride-to-be. Even she does not know Kelly is a bootlegger. He gives Jimmy a job that really amounts to taking down messages in the front office of a warehouse full of illegal hootch. He's completely won over Jimmy who belives he works for an honest decent man, but that bad people in high places are trying to drag him down.
When the warehouse is raided & Jimmy the only person on the premise, the law would likely let him go free if he'd give evidence as to who runs the bootleg operation. But Jimmy never loses faith in his "friend" & stays mum. He's thus sent to reform school where nobody is reformed or schooled.
He finds himself a slave laborer in a brick factory, poorly fed, poorly clothed, physically & emotionally abused, denied anything resembling an education, & worked from before dawn until after dark. And still he refuses to rat on his friend Matt Kelly, whom he patiently expects to save him from the House of Hell.
This is obviously no comedy, yet the film is strangely lighthearted for it's first half hour. But from the point where the poor kid is arrested, it's a Dickensian horror, with a Dickensian "message" for the viewing public, that the juvenile justice system has plenty of juveniles & very little justice.
This is an early film of Juvenile Delinquence, though Jimmy as a specific case is innocent rather than delinquent.
Peggy is slow to realize her fiance is a total bastard. She asks about what happened to his young friend Jimmy, but Matt lies without batting an eye, having totally abandoned his ten year old fall guy.
Shorty ("Junior Coghlan" aka Frank Coghlan, Jr) is Jimmy's best friend in the workhouse. He takes six days in solitary rather than rat on Jimmy over a minor infraction. But Shorty has a bum heart (as kids frequently did in those days, usually from having once had rheumatic fever) & is getting sicker & sicker without even the slightest medical attention.
To get help for Shorty, Jimmy manages to break out of the workhouse, on the back of a garbage truck. Despite his best efforts, Shorty dies; Jimmy couldn't help him in time. But by the end, Peggy has found out what happened, a newspaper reporter (Morgan Wallace) gets involved with the express intent to use Jimmy & Shorty's cases to reform the system, & Matt has at long last grown a conscience.
Hell's House is no classic but it tackles some serious stuff & has reasonable performances all round. It may have more importance as cinematic activism than as serious drama, but it doesn't fail to entertain.
For Bette Davis fans it's a must-see even if her screen time is rather limited. Though at the height of her beauty before chainsmoking started her down the road to bug-eyed hag, she is already showing elements of a tough-as-nails type of goodhearted gal, & that sweet face can turn harsh in a trice.
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