Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: The Big House (1930)
- Standing: Nominated for Best Picture 1929/30 season
- Type: Drama, Crime, Prison Film, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Wallace Beery)
- Other AA Wins: Best Writing Achievement (Frances Marion), Best Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer)
- Director: George Hill
- Studio: MGM
- Producer: Cosmopolitan Productions / Irving Thalberg
- Cast: Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery, Lewis Stone, Leila Hyams
- Production Notes: Written by Frances Marion, Sound Recording by Douglas Shearer, Cinematography by Harold Wenstrom, Film Editing by Blanche Sewell, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons
- Viewing Order: 12/270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
Kent (Robert Montgomery) arrives at prison to serve his ten-year manslaughter sentence for killing a man while driving drunk. The warden (Lewis Stone) gives him a piece of advice if he wants to have his sentence reduced: follow the rules and don’t associate with rough characters. Unfortunately for Kent, the deck is stacked against him from the beginning. Due to overcrowding, Kent can’t be in a cell alone and finds himself bunking with Morgan (Chester Morris) “the slickest crook” the jail’s ever had according to one officer and “Machine Gun” Butch (Wallace Beery), a violent and callous character. After Kent is hauled off to meet them, the warden (who is fluent in foreshadowing), mentions how he tried un-successfully to convince higher ups that squeezing 3000 men in a jail meant for half that amount was a bad idea and remarks ominously that someday they will all pay for their carelessness…
Before being taken to solitary confinement for starting a row in the cafeteria, Butch slips his knife to Kent who then plants it in Morgan’s bed so he won’t be caught with it himself. Morgan is to be paroled the next day, but after a search of his bunk reveals the knife, his parole is revoked. Crushed, Morgan vows to get even with Kent.
After doing his time in “the hole,” Morgan fakes sick so he can be taken to the hospital, then escapes by switching places with a corpse on its way to the morgue. Having no family of his own, he tracks down Kent’s sister Anne (Leila Hyams), who he’d fallen for after seeing her photo. She realizes who he is, but doesn’t turn him in and soon they develop a romance. Unfortunately, a clever cop also recognizes him and he’s hauled back to prison. He returns just in time to catch wind of Butch’s plot to break out. This time, though, Morgan wants to keep his head down and do his time without incident. Unfortunately, when everyone’s playing the game from different sides, someone’s bound to lose…
I like that it’s unclear who the main character is of the three. When Kent is introduced, you assume it’s him. You instantly get the sense that he doesn’t belong there with the hardened Morgan and Butch and you assume the story will focus on him navigating through this new world. Yet Kent slinks into a supporting role as he becomes more underhanded and you realize that it’s actually Morgan who better fulfills the protagonist role. Not to be discounted is Butch, clearly the antagonist, yet Beery dominates the scenes he’s in and of the three was the one nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. All three of them could have been. Chester Morris as Morgan does the most work and does it well throughout. I have always appreciated his ability for intensity, but he’s exceptional in the quiet moments as well. Wallace Beery is convincingly cruel, yet you feel a twinge of sympathy despite yourself. He gives the character a depth that easily could have been missing. Robert Montgomery transforms himself as Kent. Most of his performances prior to this were either as matinee idol or comic relief so his meek and terrified wretch of a character took me aback. I honestly don’t know how the Academy picked which one to give the Best Actor nomination to. They all easily deserved it.
The love aspect between Morgan and Anne was perhaps the weakest aspect. Critics blasted it as a ploy to ensnare female viewers, but it did serve its purpose to motivate Morgan towards good behavior so at least it wasn’t completely pointless.
Behind the Scenes:
The title of the film was taken from the slang criminals used to differentiate a federal prison from a smaller city or county jail (emphasis on the “Big” in “Big House”).
Frances Marion, who wrote the story and dialogue for which she would win the Academy Award for Best Writing Achievement, married the film’s director George Hill the same year the film came out.
Paramount’s loss was MGM’s gain. When talkies took over, Paramount fired Wallace Beery and MGM signed him, putting him into The Big House right away. For the next several years he would be one of their top box office stars.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
Sound Director Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma) was praised for and won an Academy Award for his innovative sound recording. Specifically, the sound of bullets and machine gun fire hadn’t been heard yet in this capacity before. Though it sounds like a fairly easy thing to execute, sound was still new territory and accomplishing this successfully took several months of trial and error. This gave the film an edge over some others that may have been in the running.
How does it hold up today?
In my opinion, fairly well, as the themes translate just as well today as they did in 1930. I can certainly see how and why this film kicked off the “prison film” genre; not only does it hold up against modern examples, it surpasses them.
- IMDb rating = 7.1 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes rating = 75% out of 100% fresh by critics (6 fresh vs. 2 rotten) and 71% by viewers
Would this be my pick for 1929/30 Best Picture?
Possibly. The action is genuinely intense and exciting. The mood the film creates, especially by way of lighting and shadows, is ominous and frightening, akin to a horror film. The desperation to get out that Morgan, Butch, and Kent each express at various times makes sense in this Hellish maze of shadowy corners and locked doors.
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this and though I don’t think it will knock The Divorcee off its pedestal, I can’t imagine it being too far behind.
Click here for my complete ranking of 1929/30’s Best Picture Nominees
This does sound good! I think all prison wardens are “fluent in foreshadowing,” from the prison films I’ve seen. I got a big kick out of your turn of phrase!
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