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4.0 out of 5 stars (3.5 stars) "Hell's House" is a pre-code, early Hollywood film feat. the early film appearances of Bette Davis and Pat O'Brien, July 4, 2013
This review is from: Hell's House: Kino Classics Remastered Edition [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
A young Bette Davis, the struggling actress was trying to make it in Hollywood.

Close to being terminated by Universal Studios a year prior, fortunately she was defended by cinematographer Karl Freund and was given a chance to be in a motion picture.

Davis would make her debut in "The Bad Sister" and would star in a few other films in 1931, but nothing that the actress could capitalize on. But Universal Studios renewed her contract for three more months and lent out to various movie companies.

In 1932, she was lent to B.F. Zeidman Productions Ltd. for the movie "Hell's House" which would be directed by silent film director Howard Higgen and would star Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien (who would later star in the James Cagney film "Angels with Dirty Faces" and the Ronald Reagan film "Knute Rockne All American") and would star teen actor Junior Durkin (who would play Huckleberry Finn in "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn") as the main protagonist Jimmy..

While the pre-code, low-budget film was not a box office hit, it is one of the few very early Bette Davis films that is in good condition and was shot during the latter years of the Prohibition Era.

And now "Hell's House" which was mastered in HD from an original 35 mm print from Bette Davis's personal collection (and was donated to the Library of Congress), will be released for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The Blu-ray was released on June 2013 with another Blu-ray release for an early Bette Davis film titled "Of Human Bondage" (1934).


"Hell's House" is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and in black and white. It's important to remember that "Hell's House" is an older video filmed in the combustible nitrate that silent films were shot. While the picture quality for the film is very good for its age, it's important to note that the first reel of the print from which the master was derived from, suffers from nitrate decomposition and some missing frames. But the film is essentially intact.

While not pristine, considering that many silent films do not look perfect and some surviving films suffer from nitrate damage, for "Hell's House", it's not the type of damage that prevents you from enjoying the film. There are no black decomposition showing up throughout the beginning of the film, if anything, the film looks much better than I thought it would be. Grays and whites are well contrast, black levels look good and while there are some white specks, this is probably one of the better 1932 films I have seen on Blu-ray.


"Hell's House" is presented in LPCM 1.0 monaural. Dialogue was clear and dialogue was not difficult to understand whatsoever. I don't recall hearing any significant hissing, cracks or pops during my viewing of the film but for the most part, I was quite pleased by the lossless soundtrack and that it was not terrible, tinny, nor did it feature a lot of hiss.


"Hell's House" features no special features.


As a cinema fan, for any Bette Davis follower, trying to collect her films, especially earlier films, will learn quickly that they are not as easy to find. And when you do find some of them, the quality of the print and audio are bad.

So, when I found out that Kino Lorber was releasing two Bette Davis films on Blu-ray, I was surprised because I wasn't aware that her earlier films were in good enough quality to be released on Blu-ray, considering that Kino Lorber has a strict guideline of what films would receive the Blu-ray treatment.

But finding out that "Hell's House" was mastered in HD from an original 35 mm print from Bette Davis's personal collection that was donated to the Library of Congress, I was enthusiastic.

Why the excitement? Well, I am aware that "Hell's House" is not considered one of Bette Davis' major films. Afterall, she's not a supporting character and it's protagonist is a teenage boy.

But what I enjoyed about this film is the fact that it deals with a story about corruption in a reform school (which usually doesn't get made, unless there was actual problems of that era), it dealt with a major problem with bootlegging, but also you have three talents that would be well-known for certain reasons.

Bette Davis of course would become a legendary star, years after this film. But it's hard to imagine that at the time of this film, she was close to losing her job and the films she did star in, she wasn't getting any significant notice by it. But Bette Davis definitely shows the audience promise with her beauty and style in this film alone.

While Pat O'Brien, who may not be a legendary movie star, but has appeared in nearly a hundred films such as "Angels with Dirty Faces", "Knute Rockne All American" and "Riffraf". But similar to Bette Davis, his role in "Hell's House" very early in his career.

And as for young actor Junior Durkin, while playing the role of Huckleberry Finn in "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn", "Hell's House" was a major film in his career and he was becoming groomed by RKO Pictures for major work right after. But unfortunately, three years later, the day before Durkin's film "Chasing Yesterday" was to open in theaters and he would now go by the name "Trent" instead of Junior, Durkin would be killed in a car accident in San Diego along with John Coogan Sr., producer Robert J. Horner and the driver of the vehicle who had lost control. The only survivor of the car accident was his best friend Jackie Coogan (known for his role as "The Kid" in the Charlie Chaplin film and later as Uncle Fester in "The Addam's Family" but also responsible for the "Child Actor's Bill" in California).

But there is another reason why the film is rather interesting. For many Bette Davis fans who watched the film on television, some have blogged about their experience watching this film. While a pre-code drama, those who have watched the film also claim the film has homoerotic tones between the characters of Jimmy and his good friend Shorty.

Personally, I never saw it that way. I thought of the two characters almost like best friends, brothers who watched each other's back. And if there was any affection from Jimmy towards Shorty, it was more of how close they were as friends in prison. But I never saw it as the two were gay or the story was homoerotic. But then again, any friendship between young males have been seen and blogged by few viewers as being gay (ie. Frodo and Sam for "The Lord of the Rings").

The film is also an early Hollywood film that touches upon corruption and abuse in reform schools. And what is interesting about this is the fact that a film goes to show how children were mistreated. But fast forward to 2013, and many of these kids who were in reform schools during the 30′s through the 60′s have come forward to talk about the abuse they suffered. And these stories such as the recent Florida's Dozier School for Boys news or even the terrible news of reform schools overseas especially in Ireland are still appearing in the news. It makes me wonder if writer/director Howard Higgin had a mission to let audiences know of problems in the system.

The only pre-code element that I have felt the film may have contained is the bootlegging and moral dilemma. But nothing too serious and no one is seen murdering or doing drugs in this film, so it's pretty tame when it comes to films of that era.

If anything, "Hell's House" gives people a glimpse of an actress before she became a legendary star, a glimpse of an actor who would have a long career in film and television and a glimpse of a young actor who was destined to become something bigger but died at a young age.

As for the Blu-ray release, picture quality for this film was much better than I expected considering it's 81-years-old. Audio is clear and despite the nitrate decomposition of the first reel, it didn't make me flinch or even made me think that there were problems. Unfortunately, there are no special features included with this Blu-ray release.

"Hell's House" is a pre-code, early Hollywood film featuring the early film appearances of Bette Davis and Pat O'Brien. It's a rarity to find an early '30s film shot on nitrate in good shape but also to receive a Blu-ray treatment. Overall, an enjoyable moralistic '30s drama and a Blu-ray release that I recommend not just for fans of the talents in the film, but also fans who want to see more early Hollywood cinema on Blu-ray! Recommended!
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 17, 2013 6:32:15 PM PDT
Max Fabien says:
How does this Blu-ray disc compare to the "Of Human Bondage" Blu-ray? I purchased "Of Human Bondage" on Blu-ray and, though the black-white contrast is remarkable and the audio is very clear, I was disappointed by the numerous scratches and white spots throughout the film. How does the "Hell's House" Blu-ray compare? What is the result of nitrate decomposition? You say it's seen on the first reel, how long does that last? I had just purchased "Hell's House on standard DVD. When I saw it's available on Blu-ray. Is it worth dishing out more money to buy it again in Blu-ray?
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