Saturday, June 23, 2018

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Hell's House' (1932)

Oftentimes in these quick and cheap programmers that Bette Davis made in the 1930s, she has a small part and relatively low billing, which means just a few scraps for Davis fans to hang onto. For some reason, 1932's Hell's House gives Davis top billing, but her part is just as small (if not smaller) than in other forgettable movies she made during the same time period. Pat O'Brien is billed just under Davis (and they're both prominently featured on the poster), but the real star is neither Davis nor O'Brien, but Junior Durkin as Jimmy, an annoyingly naive teen who gets caught up in a bootlegging operation (without even knowing it) and shipped off to juvenile detention.

Jimmy is such a simpering loser that it's hard to feel bad for him as he's stuck in the mildly abusive reform school, where kids are forced into hard labor (which appears to involve stacking bricks into endless piles) and punished by being forced to stare at a line on a chalkboard until they pass out. It's pretty tame stuff, but of course Jimmy can't handle it, and he's desperate to get back to his aunt and uncle, and more importantly to gangster Matt Kelly (O'Brien), the guy who got Jimmy in trouble in the first place. Jimmy is absurdly loyal to Kelly, whom he meets at his aunt and uncle's, where Kelly is renting a room. They've only known each other a few days when Kelly hires Jimmy to watch over his warehouse full of illegal booze, and Jimmy gets nabbed by the cops just a few minutes into his first day on the job. Despite this obvious set-up, he takes three years in juvie over ratting out his new best friend to the authorities.

Jimmy's love for Kelly has some serious homoerotic undertones, as does his relationship with fellow inmate Shorty (Junior Coughlin), who always calls Jimmy "big boy" and basically dies in Jimmy's arms from his heavily foreshadowed heart condition. It's all absurdly overwrought, with Durkin playing up Jimmy's good-hearted innocence so excessively that he becomes irritating and difficult to root for. And Kelly isn't much of a hardened gangster, barely shown doing anything menacing and portrayed as more of a coward for letting Jimmy take the fall for his (extremely non-specific) crimes.

Oh, and Bette Davis is also in this movie. She plays Kelly's girlfriend Peggy in just a handful of scenes, and she's suitably spunky, taking a shine to dopey Jimmy and later scolding Kelly for letting the kid rot away in juvie for crimes he didn't commit. She looks stylish and puts a bit of attitude into her lines, but Peggy is little more than a plot device, a tool for exposition and for getting Jimmy and Kelly to reconcile at the end. Davis deservedly received top billing in plenty of other movies in later years, but in this case she doesn't contribute much, and her name recognition probably wasn't yet strong enough to make an impact.

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