After the death of his mother, Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin) goes to live with his Aunt Emma (Emma Dunn) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) at their boarding house. Jimmy quickly takes a liking to Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien), who also lives at the boarding house. Jimmy is impressed with Matt’s suave demeanor, but doesn’t realize at first that Matt is actually a bootlegger. Eventually, Jimmy starts working for Matt and when the police come down on Matt, Jimmy refuses to implicate Matt and is sent to reform school.
Life in reform school is anything but pleasant. The conditions are rough and the people in charge don’t have an ounce of compassion. Jimmy makes friends with fellow inmate Shorty (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), but Shorty is very ill and isn’t getting the treatment he needs. Instead of being given medication, he’s placed in solitary confinement. Jimmy escapes to get help from Matt and his girlfriend Peggy (Bette Davis). Peggy puts Jimmy in touch with a newspaper reporter looking to do an exposé on the conditions at the reform school. However, the only way Jimmy’s name can be cleared is if Matt turns himself in to the police.
Plain and simple, Hell’s House is absolutely nothing to write home about. Mayor of Hell does a far more compelling job of telling the story of a corrupt reform school than Hell’s House does, plus it has the charisma of James Cagney to give it that little extra something. The only noteworthy thing about Hell’s House is that it features an appearance from Bette Davis early in her career. But Bette’s role is pretty small, so unless you’re trying to see every movie Bette was ever in, she’s not much of an incentive to watch. How Bette even got top billing on the poster and in the credits is beyond me.