Hell’s House (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

June 9, 2013 by  

“Hell’s House” is a pre-code, early Hollywood film featuring the early film appearances of Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien.   It’s a rarity to find an early ’30s film shot on nitrate in good shape but also to receive a Blu-ray treatment.  Overall, an enjoyable moralistic ’30s drama and a Blu-ray release that I recommend not just for fans of the talents in the film, but also fans who want to see more early Hollywood cinema on Blu-ray! Recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2013 Kino Lorber, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Hell’s House


DURATION: 71 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1 aspect ratio, B&W, Monaural

COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber


Release Date: June 18, 2013

Directed by Howard Higgin

Story by Howard Higgin

Adaptation and Screenplay by Paul Gangelin and B. Harrison Orkow

Cinematography by Allen G. Siegler

Edited by Edward Schroeder

Art Direction by Edward C. Jewell


Bette Davis as Peggy Gardner

Pat O’Brien as Matt Kelly

Junior Durkin as Jimmy Mason

Frank Coghlan Jr. as Shorty

Emma Dunn as Emma Clark

Charley Grapewin as Henry Clark

Morgan Wallace as Frank Gebhardt

Independently produced by Bennie Zeidman, HELL’S HOUSE (1932) is a Pre-Code melodrama that captured Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien just before they were catapulted to superstardom at Warner Bros. An exposé of the American penal system (not unlike I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Mayor of Hell), HELL’S HOUSE stars Junior Durkin as a wholesome farmboy who moves to the city after the death of his mother. Dazzled by the smooth talk and beautiful girlfriend (Davis) of a wily bootlegger (O’Brien), the naive lad runs afoul of the law and is sentenced to a brutal reform school. Abandoned by the legal system, the boy’s only hope is the conscience of the criminal responsible for him being there.

A young Bette Davis, the struggling actress was trying to make it in Hollywood.

Close to being terminated by Universal Studios a year prior, fortunately she was defended by cinematographer Karl Freund and was given a chance to be in a motion picture.

Davis would make her debut in “The Bad Sister” and would star in a few other films in 1931, but nothing that the actress could capitalize on.  But Universal Studios renewed her contract for three more months and lent out to various movie companies.

In 1932, she was lent to B.F. Zeidman Productions Ltd. for the movie “Hell’s House” which would be directed by silent film director Howard Higgen and would star Bette Davis, Pat O’Brien (who would later star in the James Cagney film “Angels with Dirty Faces” and the Ronald Reagan film “Knute Rockne All American”) and would star teen actor Junior Durkin (who would play Huckleberry Finn in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”) as the main protagonist Jimmy..

While the pre-code, low-budget film was not a box office hit, it is one of the few very early Bette Davis films that is in good condition and was shot during the latter years of the Prohibition Era.

And now “Hell’s House” which was mastered in HD from an original 35 mm print from Bette Davis’s personal collection (and was donated to the Library of Congress), will be released for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The Blu-ray will be released in June 2013 with another Blu-ray release for an early Bette Davis film titled “Of Human Bondage” (1934).

“Hell’s House” revolves around teenager Jimmy Mason (portrayed by Junior Durkin).   Jimmy lives with his loving mother and one day, while his mother was walking and making a delivery in front of their home, she is struck and killed in a hit and run accident.

With no parents, Jimmy travels to the city to live with his relatives, his uncle Henry (portrayed by Charley Grapewin) and Emma Clark (portrayed by Emma Dunn).  Both decide to take in Jimmy and raise him as one of their own.

The couple introduce Jimmy to their porter, Matt Kelly (portrayed by Pat O’Brien), a man who pretends he knows all the important people in the city and tries to impress his girlfriend Peggy Gardner (portrayed by Bette Davis).  But the truth is that Jimmy is a con man and has an illegal bootleg alcohol business that he runs.  But Matt wants to show Jimmy around, so they decide to meet up the following morning.

While things seem to be going well with the Clark family, Jimmy overhears his aunt and uncle talking about how his Uncle Henry has lost his job and has no income.  His aunt Emma doesn’t know how they will survive with another mouth to feed and it causes Jimmy some concern.

While meeting with Matt the following morning, Jimmy is surprised to see how well-connected Matt is.  He is introduced to Peggy and Jimmy thinks that Matt is a popular guy who knows everyone and has a beautiful girlfriend.  Peggy tells Jimmy that if she needs to talk to her, he is free to come by any time.

Meanwhile, Matt receives a call from his employee and he happens to be drunk.  Matt, concerned about his business goes to his office where he fires the guy for not doing his job.  Meanwhile, Jimmy follows Matt to his office and he explains how he needs to get a job to help his aunt and uncle.  So, Matt gives him a job to answer telephones at his work.  But the rules are he can’t tell anyone about his work, about knowing him or anything.  His mouth must be kept mum about his job and if he does well, he will earn $25 a week.

Excited about the new job, Jimmy can’t wait to start work the following morning.

And as Matt waits for Jimmy to stop by the office to start his first day on the job, a woman across the street contacts the authorities about a possible bootleg business happening across the street.

As Jimmy arrives for work for his first day on the job, Matt leaves the office to make some deliveries but not long after, police swarm in and Jimmy is arrested.  As Matt sees from his back window, he decides not to help him and keeps driving.

As Jimmy is taken to court, he is expecting Matt to get him out and explain that he was just started working at the office for only a few minutes, but Matt never arrives.  Jimmy is given a chance by the judge to reveal who put him up to the job and if tells the truth, he would be released.  But Jimmy made a promise to Matt to not say anything, so he doesn’t.  Because he didn’t tell the judge who set him up for that job, he is sentence to three years in a reform school.

When Jimmy arrives at the reform school, he still believes that Matt will bail him out but as that time never comes, Jimmy is put to hard labor.  It is learned that the reform school is low on money and so the kids are put to hard labor by working on bricks and are treated poorly.

While a newspaper columnist named Frank Gebhardt (portrayed by Morgan Wallace) wants to investigate rumors of a corrupt system at reform school, the reform school is good at hiding their tracks.

Meanwhile, Jimmy meets a good friend named Shorty (portrayed by Frank Coghlan Jr.) inside the reform school and both watch each other’s backs.  But the two come up with an idea to sneak a letter out and Jimmy hopes it gets to Matt and explain the terrible conditions the children are suffering at the reform school.

Unfortunately, as Shorty was trying to slip the letter out.  He is caught, but instead of ratting out Jimmy, he takes the blame and is put in solitary confinement.  And as Jimmy wonders where his friend is, he doesn’t know that Shorty is suffering in solitary confinement.

Will Jimmy find a way to escape from reform school and will Matt come to his rescue?


“Hell’s House” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and in black and white. It’s important to remember that “Hell’s House” is an older video filmed in the combustible nitrate that silent films were shot.  While the picture quality for the film is very good for its age, it’s important to note that the first reel of the print from which the master was derived from, suffers from nitrate decomposition and some missing frames.  But the film is essentially intact.

While not pristine, considering that many silent films do not look perfect and some surviving films suffer from nitrate damage, for “Hell’s House”, it’s not the type of damage that prevents you from enjoying the film.  There are no black decomposition showing up throughout the beginning of the film, if anything, the film looks much better than I thought it would be.  Grays and whites are well contrast, black levels look good and while there are some white specks, this is probably one of the better 1932 films I have seen on Blu-ray.


“Hell’s House” is presented in LPCM 1.0 monaural.  Dialogue was clear and dialogue was not difficult to understand whatsoever.  I don’t recall hearing any significant hissing, cracks or pops during my viewing of the film but for the most part, I was quite pleased by the lossless soundtrack and that it was not terrible, tinny, nor did it feature a lot of hiss.


“Hell’s House” features no special features.

As a cinema fan, for any Bette Davis follower, trying to collect her films, especially earlier films, will learn quickly that they are not as easy to find.  And when you do find some of them, the quality of the print and audio are bad.

So, when I found out that Kino Lorber was releasing two Bette Davis films on Blu-ray, I was surprised because I wasn’t aware that her earlier films were in good enough quality to be released on Blu-ray, considering that Kino Lorber has a strict guideline of what films would receive the Blu-ray treatment.

But finding out that “Hell’s House” was mastered in HD from an original 35 mm print from Bette Davis’s personal collection that was donated to the Library of Congress, I was enthusiastic.

Why the excitement?  Well, I am aware that “Hell’s House” is not considered one of Bette Davis’ major films.  Afterall, she’s not a supporting character and it’s protagonist is a teenage boy.

But what I enjoyed about this film is the fact that it deals with a story about corruption in a reform school (which usually doesn’t get made, unless there was actual problems of that era), it dealt with a major problem with bootlegging, but also you have three talents that would be well-known for certain reasons.

Bette Davis of course would become a legendary star, years after this film.  But it’s hard to imagine that at the time of this film, she was close to losing her job and the films she did star in, she wasn’t getting any significant notice by it.  But Bette Davis definitely shows the audience promise with her beauty and style in this film alone.

While Pat O’Brien, who may not be a legendary movie star, but has appeared in nearly a hundred films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces”, “Knute Rockne All American” and “Riffraf”.  But similar to Bette Davis, his role in “Hell’s House” very early in his career.

And as for young actor Junior Durkin, while playing the role of Huckleberry Finn in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”, “Hell’s House” was a major film in his career and he was becoming groomed by RKO Pictures for major work right after.  But unfortunately, three years later, the day before Durkin’s film “Chasing Yesterday” was to open in theaters and he would now go by the name “Trent” instead of Junior, Durkin would be killed in a car accident in San Diego along with John Coogan Sr., producer Robert J. Horner and the driver of the vehicle who had lost control.  The only survivor of the car accident was his best friend Jackie Coogan (known for his role as “The Kid” in the Charlie Chaplin film and later as Uncle Fester in “The Addam’s Family” but also responsible for the “Child Actor’s Bill” in California).

But there is another reason why the film is rather interesting.  For many Bette Davis fans who watched the film on television, some have blogged about their experience watching this film.  While a pre-code drama, those who have watched the film also claim the film has homoerotic tones between the characters of Jimmy and his good friend Shorty.

Personally, I never saw it that way.  I thought of the two characters almost like best friends, brothers who watched each other’s back.  And if there was any affection from Jimmy towards Shorty, it was more of how close they were as friends in prison.  But I never saw it as the two were gay or the story was homoerotic.  But then again, any friendship between young males have been seen and blogged by few viewers as being gay  (ie. Frodo and Sam for “The Lord of the Rings”).

The film is also an early Hollywood film that touches upon corruption and abuse in reform schools.  And what is interesting about this is the fact that a film goes to show how children were mistreated.  But fast forward to 2013, and many of these kids who were in reform schools during the 30’s through the 60’s have come forward to talk about the abuse they suffered.  And these stories such as the recent Florida’s Dozier School for Boys news or even the terrible news of reform schools overseas especially in Ireland are still appearing in the news.  It makes me wonder if writer/director Howard Higgin had a mission to let audiences know of problems in the system.

The only pre-code element that I have felt the film may have contained is the bootlegging and moral dilemma.  But nothing too serious and no one is seen murdering or doing drugs in this film, so it’s pretty tame when it comes to films of that era.

If anything, “Hell’s House” gives people a glimpse of an actress before she became a legendary star, a glimpse of an actor who would have a long career in film and television and a glimpse of a young actor who was destined to become something bigger but died at a young age.

As for the Blu-ray release, picture quality for this film was much better than I expected considering it’s 81-years-old.  Audio is clear and despite the nitrate decomposition of the first reel, it didn’t make me flinch or even made me think that there were problems.  Unfortunately, there are no special features included with this Blu-ray release.

“Hell’s House” is a pre-code, early Hollywood film featuring the early film appearances of Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien.   It’s a rarity to find an early ’30s film shot on nitrate in good shape but also to receive a Blu-ray treatment.  Overall, an enjoyable moralistic ’30s drama and a Blu-ray release that I recommend not just for fans of the talents in the film, but also fans who want to see more early Hollywood cinema on Blu-ray! Recommended!

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