|Hell's House (DVD, 2003) (DVD, 2003)|
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There is no movie with Bette Davis in it that I won't rate excellent. Every character she has played, she did as close to perfect as an actor could.
"Hell House," is the kind of film that Davis went on strike against Warner Bros. to fight for better roles. So, even she considered this script & story inferior...then. But, today, I have to keep my critiques in context historically (read on for why). Therefore, I probably have a different view of it than did Davis herself.
"Hell's House" is produced by Capital Films: a low-budget company that Warner Bros. could have run circles around to make a much better film. Davis & O'Brien were not yet contract actors for Warner Bros..
To the plot & characters: The protagonist is an adolescent, Jimmy (Junior Dirkin). I can recall Dirkin's performances as one of Mark Twain's classic protagonists: Huckleberry Finn, in Paramount's (1930) "Tom Sawyer," & (1931) "Huckleberry Finn," (both featuring Jackie Coogan as Tom).
Like every other motion picture Bette Davis graced, in "Hell's House," she is true to form: though her character, Peggy Gardner, is a supporting role, Gardner is the 1 who exposes the abusiveness of the juvenile reform prison & is responsible for gaining the freedom a friend of Jimmy's who's dying. In short, 24yo Davis manages to steal the show even in a low-budget film's supporting role!
Pat O'Brien (Matt Kelly) is the bootlegging bad guy that Jimmy went to prison covering-up for. O'Brien, who usually played an Irish good guy cop or priest, soldier or sweetheart, was 34yo when the film was released & had only been in movies for 2 years; whereas, Davis was only 23yo & had been in movies for only a year. Hollywood was just coming into movies with sound & was literally being created by these actors.
It's interesting to have hindsight & historical film documentation of how the 2 adult supporting actors (Davis & O'Brien) switched screen images in their lengthy acting careers: O'Brien became (mostly) the softer-spoken, likeable fellow & Davis, well, what I can say?, became one heck of a handful; feisty, tradition-breaking, fiercely independent, shrewd & mouthy. Davis deliberately played characters that hardly anybody would dare to cross without there being rather unpleasant consequences--even murder (many times). It's extra interesting to consider how Davis burst down the doors of women's gender role stereotypes (on film & off) by being anyone but June Cleaver!
I don't underrate "Hell's House," because both Davis & O'Brien were Hollywood newbies who not only brought the audiences into the box offices while being grossly under paid; but, also revealed an all too common social problem in the 1920's...one that is still plaguing Western societies today: how we mistreat juvenile offenders by judging them as if they were adults & not holding the adults around them more responsible.