Long, long before it was a bumpy night for the guests of Margo Channing (“All About Eve”), and even before “Now, Voyager,” Bette Davis appeared in dozens of films as a rising actress. Two of her early films, “Hell’s House” and “Of Human Bondage,” are newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, in what is touted as an “archival restoration.”
“Hell’s House” was Davis’ sixth film, and while she gets second billing behind Pat O’Brien in the picture, she’s not on screen for a lot of the film’s 71-minute running time. The real lead is Junior Durkin, who plays Jimmy, a lad that gets sent to reform school for refusing to squeal on his bootlegger friend Matt Kelly (O’Brien). Davis does have a pivotal scene where she convinces Kelly to turn himself in to keep Jimmy from getting thrown back in the clink after an escape. Durkin’s role is typical of kid actors of the time, and he spends the movie in either a state of amazement or anguish, with little in between.
Two things are of interest in the film. First, “Hell’s House” tries to blow the lid off reform school abuse the way “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” would do more successfully in an adult version. Secondly, I found cinematographer Allen Siegler’s camera movements to be ahead of their time. On at least three occasions, he either physically moves in on the actors in the middle of a scene, or pulls back the camera, while simultaneously trucking either left or right. It’s a move straight out of Martin Scorsese’s playbook that would also be emulated by Paul Thomas Anderson in the 1990s. I don’t remember seeing it in as early a sound film as this (1932), and yet here it is in a rudimentary form.
Still, there’s little else to recommend “Hell’s House” for, unless you’re a Bette Davis completist.
Davis would go on to make over 15 more films before landing a plum role in “Of Human Bondage,” opposite Leslie Howard. Based on a novel by the acclaimed writer W. Somerset Maugham, “Of Human Bondage” refers not to leather or chains, but emotional bonds, in this case, that of a club-footed failed artist (Howard) who falls hopelessly in love with a waitress (Davis) that strings him along, repeatedly dumping him for older or more fashionable men. Davis is great as the shrewish Mildred, carelessly stomping on poor Leslie Howard’s heart. When Davis wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, an industry uproar led to the Academy allowing write-in ballots that year. Nevertheless, Claudette Colbert won Best Actress for “It Happened One Night.” Despite Davis’ performance, this drama film doesn’t age as well as others of the mid-1930s, especially comedies, which is one reason we’re still watching Colbert and Gable, and not Davis and Howard.
For these Blu-ray releases Kino Lorber used archival prints from the Library of Congress. In the case of “Hell’s House,” the LoC print came straight from Davis’ personal collection. Kudos to Kino for making these movies available for Bette Davis fans, but neither of these films has been completely restored for Blu-ray, and there’s noticeable damage on both prints, especially “Hell’s House,” which comes with an apologia from the company, as Davis’ print was suffering from nitrate decomposition and missing frames. There are no special features on “Hell’s House,” but “Of Human Bondage” comes with a feature-length documentary on the life of British author W. Somerset Maugham.