Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien, Junior Durkin, Frank Coghlan Jr., Emma Dunn, Charley Grapewin, Morgan Wallace, Hooper Atchley, Wallis Clark, James A. Marcus
Written by: Paul Gangelin, B. Harrison Orkow, based on a story by Howard Higgin
Directed by: Howard Higgin
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 71
Date: 01/30/1932

Hell's House (1932)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This overcooked pre-code item is, to borrow some jargon of the time, "a lotta hooey." Bette Davis is top-billed, but she plays arguably the least important character in the story. It's really about a teen farm boy, Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin), with a cracking, "gee whiz" voice, whose loving mother dies in a freak (and horrifyingly laughable) accident. He's sent to the big city to stay with his aunt and uncle, where he meets their border, Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien). Jimmy begins to idolize the breezy Matt, who actually works as a bootlegger. Matt gives Jimmy a job, and in minutes Jimmy is arrested and sent to reform school. (The craven, selfish Matt ignores him and doesn't bother to help.)

If that's not enough, in reform school, Jimmy befriends a sickly kid, and learns the ropes. In more subplots, a reporter tries to get the real lowdown on the prison's inhuman treatment of kids. Finally Bette has her moment when she convinces Matt to help. It's a lot of heavy plot crammed into a fast-paced 71 minutes, but it's also very highly-pitched and quickly becomes annoying and monotonous. The movie is in the public domain and is available to watch for free, but Kino Lorber has rescued it and given it an official Blu-ray release (along with another Bette Davis film, Of Human Bondage).

Best Buy Co, Inc.