by Susan King
Bette Davis may be one of the greatest film actresses of all time. She received ten Oscar nominations, winning the Academy Award for 1935’s “Dangerous” and 1938’s “Jezebel.” But she certainly wasn’t an overnight sensation.
After making her New York acting debut in 1928 at the Provincetown Playhouse, she appeared in a few Broadway plays including 1930’s “Solid South.” A Universal talent scout noticed her in that production and gave her a screen test. Davis made her film debut appearing with Humphrey Bogart in 1931’s pre-Code drama “Bad Sister.” But Universal just didn’t seem to know what to do with her. And in the fall of 1931, they lent her out to the Poverty Row B.F. Zeidman Productions for its ripped-from the headlines pre-Code melodrama “Hell’s House.”
You can check out the Divine Miss D in her first starring role in “Hell’s House” on Film Masters this July.
Shot in just 13 days, the 1932 production finds Davis playing the saucy, sweet, and more than a bit naïve Peggy Gardner, the girlfriend of Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien), a slick charmer who pretends he has friends in high places but is a bootlegger. Matt is rooming with an older couple when their orphaned nephew Jimmy (Junior Durkin) arrives to live with them. Jimmy is immediately enamored with Matt and Peggy and thrilled when Matt gives him a job at his office. When the office is raided, Jimmy refuses to give up Matt and is sentenced to three years of hard labor in a reform school from hell. While there, Jimmy befriends a young inmate with a bad heart condition who is sent to solitary confinement when he attempts to help Jimmy.
To save his friend, Jimmy escapes from the school and goes to Jimmy and Peggy. It’s Peggy who helps him and convinces Matt to give himself up.
Movies that exposed the brutalities of reform school and prisons were highly popular during the pre-Code era. Besides “Hell’s House,” other films in the genre included 1932’s “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and William A Wellman’s 1933’s “Wild Boys of the Road.”
Though young Durkin, who would die in car crash at 1935 at 19, is the de facto star of “Hell’s House,” you can’t keep your eyes off of Davis. With her big eyes and her platinum blonde do, she brings humanity and gravitas to a stereotypical role. In fact, you can watch her become the Bette we all know and love. And she even makes such dopey lines as “if you’d give the kid a chance, Kelly, he might to something, instead of always thinking about yourself” sound like poetry.
And this being a pre-Code flick there are some great double entendre lines such as “anytime you feel lonesome, come and see me.” Little wonder why Jimmy likes Peggy so much.
Though the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall wasn’t very impressed with this “B” production he found that “Young Durkin’s playing is sincere and likewise that of Bette Davis as Peggy.”
Pre-Code.com note that the film “is kind of a mixed bag. O’Brien and Davis, who are fully ensconced in fast-talking, street smart acting of the era, collides with Durkin’s quiet, less ostentatious style. Scenes between them feel like an odd mismatch in tones which is interesting to watch but does take you out of the picture.”
Davis was quite literally out of the picture, albeit briefly, after she completed “Hell’s House” because Universal didn’t renew her contract option. Discouraged, she was about to return to New York City when one of Warner Bros. top stars, the veteran British actor George Arliss, who won an Oscar for 1929’s “Disraeli,” wanted her for his 1932 film “The Man Who Played God.”
She earned rave reviews and a studio contract for her role as a deaf pianist’s much, much younger fiancée. Davis would forever look upon Arliss as her mentor. And Arliss recalled he “did not expect anything except a nice little performance. But when we rehearsed, she startled me; the nice little part became a deep and vivid creation, and I felt rather humbled that this young girl had been able to discover and portray something that my imagination had failed to conceive… I am not surprised that Bette Davis is now the most important star on the screen.”
Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.