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Hell's House (1932)

Approved | | Drama | 30 January 1932 (USA)
Jimmy idolizes bootlegger Matt, and when he refuses to implicate his friend, he is sent to reform school. He befriends Shorty, a boy with a heart condition, and escapes to let the world know about the brutal conditions.


Howard Higgin


Howard Higgin (story), Paul Gangelin (adaptation) | 1 more credit »


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Complete credited cast:
Bette Davis ... Peggy Gardner
Pat O'Brien ... Matt Kelly
Junior Durkin ... Jimmy Mason (as Junior Dirkin)
Frank Coghlan Jr. ... Shorty (as Junior Coughlin)
Emma Dunn ... Emma Clark
Charley Grapewin ... Henry Clark (as Charles Grapewin)
Morgan Wallace ... Frank Gebhardt
Hooper Atchley ... Captain of the Guard
Wallis Clark Wallis Clark ... Judge Robinson (as Wallace Clark)
James A. Marcus ... Superintendant Charles Thompson (as James Marcus)


Jimmy Mason idolizes bootlegger Matt Kelly who is dating Peggy. Unwilling to squeal on his idol, Jimmy winds up in a cruel reformatory where a new- found friend is dying from abuse. Jimmy escapes to report the abuse. Matt and Peggy help him once he has escaped. Written by Ed Stephan <stephan@cc.wwu.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


EXPOSED! The Grim Joke of Justice! (Print Ad- Syracuse Journal, ((Syracuse NY)) 18 May 1932)




Approved | See all certifications »






Release Date:

30 January 1932 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Juvenile Court See more »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA Photophone System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


This film was first telecast on New York City's pioneer television station W2XBS 12 June 1940. See more »


Peggy Gardner: If you'd give the kid a chance, Kelly, he might amount to something, instead of always thinking about yourself.
See more »


Referenced in All About Bette (1994) See more »

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User Reviews

Vintage reform school drama
7 August 2001 | by lugonianSee all my reviews

"Hell's House" (Capital Films, 1932), directed by Howard Higgins, is a low-budget drama that might have been a much better reform school drama had it been produced at the Warner Brothers studio, in spite of pre-Warner Brothers contract players of Pat O'Brien and Bette Davis in supporting roles that give this the Warner Brothers feel. The central character to the story happens to be played by Junior Durkin (famous for his role as Huck Finn in Paramount's Mark Twain classics, "Tom Sawyer" (1930) and "Huckleberry Finn" (1931), both starring Jackie Coogan). But for today's viewers who may possibly find this movie in a local video store, Bette Davis is the one who brings added interest in a somewhat small role.

The story opens at a farm where Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin) helps his widowed mother (Mary Alden) with the chores. The pleasant day turns out tragically when Mrs. Mason is suddenly struck and killed by a passing automobile. Left alone, Jimmy decides to come to the city and live with his Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) and Aunt Emma (Emma Dunn), landlords of an apartment building. There he meets one of their tenants, Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien), who befriends the boy, and later introduces him to his girlfriend, Peggy (Bette Davis), a tough babe with a good heart, who takes an instant liking to this young teen. Jimmy, however, is quite naive and doesn't realize that Kelly is a smooth-talking, small-town operator and racketeer. Jimmy is soon offered a job by Kelly answering the telephone at his bootlegging headquarters. After showing him what to do and say, Kelly leaves Jimmy alone to tend to business. As Kelly slowly drives away, he looks at his rear view mirror to find the police barging in the place and arresting Jimmy. While in juvenile court, Jimmy believes that Kelly will come and speak on his behalf, and be released (no such luck). He refuses to identify Kelly as the man who hired him to the judge (Wallis Clark). Because of this, Jimmy is sentenced to three years in a state reformatory. While there, Jimmy becomes the victim of a cruelly-operated institution.

The supporting cast includes Junior Coughlan as Shorty, a reform school boy with a heart ailment who befriends Jimmy; Morgan Wallace as Frank Gebhardt, a crusading publisher wanting to improve reform school conditions; and James Marcus as the superintendent. While the opening credits presented on TV or video today give Davis and O'Brien star billing over Junior Durkin, the current opening credits are actually taken from reissue prints that capitalized on the stardom of both Davis and O'Brien, and is not the original opening credits as presented to 1932 audiences, hence the misspelling of Durkin's surname spelled Dirkin.

Although a reform school drama like this had been produced numerous times by other studios throughout the 1930s, "Hell's House," is really nothing new, in fact, a trifle slow at 70 minutes, handicapped by low-budget production values. Acting is good and reform school situations are grimly handled. However it's still interesting to see mainly because of the supporting actors of O'Brien and Davis, both of whom would become major film stars in later years, especially at Warner Brothers. (**1/2)

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