Friday, November 1, 2013
Last night I watched a 1932 B movie directed by Howard Higgin called Hell’s House, notable primarily for early performances by Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien. When it was first released, the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall found it “hardly adult” despite a few “moderately interesting interludes.” Its very ordinariness, though, is central to its popular character. In spite of what might seem to some elitist, intellectual, and counter-cultural tendencies (I don’t care to watch most contemporary popular films), my pleasure in watching such a narrative doubtless derives from the same source as its original broad audience. The specific “popular” character of such works may thus transcend the decades in the same way that today’s mass market movies leap across seas both physical and cultural to claim the international audiences that American films have enjoyed since Hollywood’s founding.
In its themes popular art undeniably tends to reinforce attitudes which are socially normative, the sort their critics might call idées reçues. On the other hand “high art,” especially since the Romantic Movement, has sought especially to suggest problems, contradictions, and tensions in established ideas, if not to challenge or replace them altogether. Every work may be located somewhere along this continuum.
Hell’s House, like many popular works, is lavish with sentiment, melodrama, and shocking horror. At the outset our young hero Jimmy’s mother dies in his arms; the reformatory where he finds himself practices harsh discipline that borders on the absurd. Boys work like slaves in a brickyard are subjected to such punishments as standing toes to a line staring at a point on the wall and being sent to solitary confinement so neglectful it can be lethal. Once the hapless Jimmy’s own suffering is relieved (in a typical happy ending), the film-maker inserts then a recollection of the deceased Shorty to allow a wallow of emotion and send viewers out of the theater with a tear in the eye.
But such recreational indulgence in excessive pity and fear cannot itself explain my affection for Hell’s House and the success, not just of American films worldwide, but also of such different genres as Bollywood musical productions and Hong Kong martial arts films, suggests that their appeal is not exclusively thematic, though they do comfort the consumer by reaffirming his community’s specific preexisting attitudes. There is in addition a formal, structural delight in seeing oppositions raised and then dissolved that more resembles the patterning of a musical piece than it does other sorts of less predictable stories.
As the movie is presently little-remembered by either critics or cultists, it is doubtless necessary to explain the plot. I hope the parallels with a thousand other works will suggest themselves.
The film opens with an idyll of country life. Jimmy appears as consistently virtuous and naïve, a model of filial piety despite what the viewer imagines to be his wholesome and active boy-life. Suddenly, without reason or warning, the calamity of his mother’s death strikes. Dissolved in tears, he cradles her lifeless body.
The specter of mortality itself is here multiplied by the distress of the boy, the more shocking since it was caused by a callous hit-and-run driver. Yet, in the film, this problem is rapidly resolved. Jimmy travels to the city where a kindly Uncle Henry and aunt Emma Clark take him in. Lingering mourning, a unqualified or uninterested relative, a host of possible complications are all ignored to introduce the next opposition: honesty and dishonesty.
It seems a certain Matt Kelly (played by Pat O’Brien) boards with the Clarks. A boastful but amiable fellow, he claims to have high-level connections, though in fact he is a low-level bootlegger. Bette Davis plays his girlfriend Peggy Gardner, a character who consorts with petty crooks, yet seems altogether decent herself, if a bit street-smart.
Impressed by Kelly’s blather and exceedingly naïve, Jimmy becomes entangled in his business and gets arrested and sent to a reformatory while the real criminal remains free. Here the story’s central theme is established: an exposé of the juvenile justice system. The time-serving superintendent of the institution is not so much vicious as opportunistic. He would like to have the resources to run the place responsibly, but, failing that, he conceals its cruelty, presumably protecting the politicians who gave him his position. He acts as though he will assist campaigning newspaperman Frank Gebhardt, but conceals his institution’s failings. Despite its reformist theme, Hell’s House fails to evoke even a hint of the drama and pathos of Ford’s Grapes of Wrath or even Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
In the reform school, Jimmy meets his bunkmate, Shorty, who is not only small of stature but has a bad heart. At their first encounter, Shorty proactively knocks him down, suggesting the place’s pervasive brutality, but they soon become friends. Taking a rap for Jimmy, Shorty ends up in an isolation cell where his illness becomes critical. Desperate to assist him, Jimmy finds a way to escape and enlists Peggy’s help. They contact the crusading writer who is able gather from Jimmy the facts he needs to enlighten the public about the school’s shortcomings. Matt is pressured by his concerned girlfriend to confess his own role, exonerating Jimmy, but it too late for Shorty who dies, alone and ignored. The senseless death of Jimmy’s mother at the hands of an irresponsible driver is echoed in a nice unifying touch by Shorty’s death in a society that shirks responsibility for its “delinquent” youth.
Just as Jimmy’s orphan status was relieved by the generosity of his kindly uncle and aunt, Matt Kelly’s criminal habits are erased. Due to beneficent female influence, he is willing to abandon his lying and bootlegging, do his time, and presumably return to society prepared to marry Peggy and live as an upright citizen. It seems the newspaper’s coverage will be sufficient to produce more humane and effective juvenile facilities, and all is well in the world again, as in the opening rural idyll. Mortality itself, individual immorality, and social injustice are all resolved, though the closing scene milks poor Shorty’s memory for just a bit more pathos.
Like one of Dickens’ individual philanthropists saving a suffering poor boy from the dog-eat-dog lower depths, Gebhardt’s intervention magically settles the social question. This maneuver is no more convincing on the realistic level than the swift replacement of Jimmy’s mother or Matt’s moral awakening, but it doesn’t matter. Even on the thematic level, such stories are a sort of sympathetic magic. By such “happy endings” popular culture reassures its audience that all is well, that life is livable, people may stray but are all right in the end, and society is in fact operating smoothly -- any problems require nothing more than the spotlight of publicity.
Even apart, though, from the satisfaction derived from such exemplary unknotting of contradictions, there is surely an abstract pleasure in the pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis that goes beyond specific cultural data. This is one reason that widely divergent audiences in different lands who share few values may enjoy the same stories, and a critic who believes little of the moral, psychological, or social implications such a film presents about lived experience can still watch an inconsequential film with satisfaction. Such a narrative generates complacency beyond any ideology, reassuring the viewer that, despite difficulties and even traumas, all will come right in the end.