Despite receiving first billing, in ‘Hell’s House’ her role is a supporting one. The film tells the tale of Jimmy Mason (played by Junior Durkin) – a teenager during the Great Depression who moves to the city to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother dies. He falls in with a bad sort – the lodger Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). Kelly is a Prohibition era bootlegger, selling liquor from a secret warehouse. Jimmy is caught in the moonshine shop, and sentenced to three years in a reformatory. Bette Davis plays Peggy Gardner – Kelly’s girlfriend who had taken Jimmy under her wing before he was sent to juvenile hall.
The plot is a paper-thin effort about the need for reform in these industrial schools for boys. Watching it from a 2021 perspective is rather surreal. The cruelty of the school displayed in the film pales in comparison to what we now know what went on in these institutions – the sexual and physical abuse to which the inmates of the schools were subjected.
It’s an enjoyable little film though – Davis is luminous of course. It’s very unusual to see her so young, and pre-fame
What’s even more interesting are the backstories of some of the other cast members.
Pat O’Brien who plays Kelly was a member of the 1930s Hollywood Irish ‘mafia’ – a group of Irish-American actors who socialised together. Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Cagney were members of this group.
Even more interesting is the tragic tale of Junior Durkin who plays the lead role of Jimmy Mason. Durkin was seventeen when this film was made. Although completely forgotten nowadays, he’d been a child star for a number of years already– most notably for playing Huckleberry Finn (opposite Jackie Coogan as Tom Sawyer) in a series of films made before ‘Hell’s House’. He died in 1935 at the age of only nineteen in a car accident. Jackie Coogan was the only survivor of the crash that killed the four other passengers. At the time Durkin was living with Hollywood agent Henry Willson and the two were rumoured to be lovers. Wilson was 23 at the time and later found greater success as the agent of Rock Hudson, and arranged Hudson’s lavender marriage to Phyllis Gates. From the 1940s to the 1960s, it was a widely known secret among the Hollywood set that any male actor represented by Willson was gay. His character was portrayed with poisonous glee by Jim Parsons last year in the Ryan Murphy show ‘Hollywood’. Willson died a penniless, alchoholic and was buried in an unmarked grave in 1978. I wonder whether his life would have been different if Junior Durkin had survived?
‘Hell’s House’ is a minor film, but an enjoyable distraction all the same.