A reform school drama buoyed by early charismatic performances from Pat O’Brien and Bette Davis. Junior Durkin plays Jimmy, a fourteen-year-old who travels to the big city to live with his aunt and uncle. He soon becomes enraptured by their smooth-talking boarder, played by O’Brien, who takes a shine to Jimmy and hires him to watch his office and take messages.
Of course, O’Brien’s business isn’t on the up-and-up and Jimmy’s arrested. When he won’t squeal on O’Brien, he’s sent to reform school where he endures the genre’s usual soul-crushing indignities. This film proffers an interesting twist where Jimmy’s made a kind of hall monitor and guards other juvenile inmates.
I wanted to commend the film’s lack of cliched melodrama, but it gets weepy down the stretch, with Jimmy cradling another inmate in his arms, tears streaming across his dirty face. Still, compared to entries like Crime School, Hell’s House proves restrained. And O’Brien and Davis are great, albeit underutilized.