Appellate Judge Tom Becker suggests you skip the lunch special at Hell's House of Waffles...even with the coupon.
First, the innocent country boy's Maw is mowed down by what is evidently the only car in the county. He goes off to live with his aunt and uncle, and while they're happy to have him, they don't have enough money to really take care of him.
But what they do have is a boarder, Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien, Angels with Dirty Faces). Matt is certainly an appealing sort: gregarious, hilarious, he seems to know everyone worth knowing, plus he has a hotsy girl, Peggy (Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?).
So, Poor Jimmy decides to throw in with this lovable lout. Bad move. It turns out, Kelly's a bootlegger, and Jimmy gets hauled in by the law. Being a stand-up guy, he refuses to give up Kelly and finds himself sent to the state correctional institute for boys—for three years!
Will our trusting corn-pone survive his miserable stretch in Hell's House? Will he turn squealer on Kelly? Will the brutal treatment of fresh-faced hoodlums turn him into a criminal? Or, will he make a best friend with a foreboding ailment, figure out the system is corrupt, make a daring escape, and expose the whole reformatory enterprise as borderline medieval while still remaining dedicated to the wastrel who got him into this mess?
Don't think too hard. Hell's House is about as routine a programmer as they come. Its only real draw for a modern audience is an early appearance by Bette Davis, and frankly, it does nothing to burnish her reputation: it's an undemanding supporting role in a forgettable film.
Despite the presence of the up-and-coming Davis and the nearly established O'Brien, the real star of Hell's House is Trent "Junior" Durkin, who plays Jimmy. Although there's a lot of "Gee, gosh" sort of elements to the role, Durkin handles it well and naturally. He was around 16 when the film was made, and he'd already played Huckleberry Finn twice (in 1930's Tom Sawyer and 1931's Huckleberry Finn). Hokey as this film is, Durkin's performance is actually kind of charming.
Evidently, the actor hadn't had an easy time of it. Acting since around the age of 5, Durkin and his siblings had spent time in an orphanage. Durkin was evidently being groomed for more mature roles when he was killed in a car accident at 19, along with the father of child star Jackie Coogan.
Hell's House (Blu-ray) comes from Kino Lorber sporting what is probably the best possible transfer. It's not really good, but it's not all that bad, considering the age and pedigree of the film. The occasional missing frames are annoying, but tech-wise, this is overall a reasonable representation. The only supplements are trailers for other Kino Lorber releases.
Hell's House gave Bette Davis the kind of role that caused her to fight for better parts and eventually flee Hollywood to make her breakout film, Of Human Bondage. For that, plus the rare opportunity to see the talented Durkin, I suppose this film has a bit of historical footnote cache. Beyond that, there's just not a whole lot of Hell in Hell's House.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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