May 14, 2018
The Big House (1930)
Grade: 67/100

Director: George W. Hill
Stars: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery

What it's about. A prison drama with a romance subplot. Robert Montgomery has been convicted of vehicular manslaughter. His cellmates are stupid and violent Wallace Beery, a former bank robber; and slick and cunning Chester Morris, a forger. Montgomery decides to become a snitch to the warden, stiff and humorless Lewis Stone.

Morris learns of Montgomery's squealing, and decides to get even by escaping from prison and tracking down Montgomery's hottie good-girl sister, Leila Hyams. He presumably plans to murder her, but she proves to be such a swell dish that Morris instead falls for her. Because it is a movie, she feels the same for him, even after he is arrested by dogged flatfoot Robert Emmett O'Connor and returned to prison.

Morris is determined to go straight so he can serve out his time quickly and return to Hyams' arms. His opportunity for a commuted sentence arrives when the prisoners riot, led by Beery. Guards are taken hostage by the inmates, and the body count rises as the army arrives with tanks and tear gas.

MGM filmed four versions of The Big House, the others in German, Spanish, and French, the latter with Charles Boyer in the romantic lead.

How others will see it. The Big House will be of primary interest in fans of classic Hollywood movies. The attractions are the two moviestars with better days ahead, Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery. Berry is as gruff and blustery as his later performances, already typecast due to his face and voice. Montgomery is a different story, more of a sissy here instead of the heroic lead he played so often during his 1940s heyday.

The Big House was a commercial success, the second biggest MGM film for the year behind Min and Bill. It was also a critical smash, nominated for four major Oscars (we will consider Best Sound a major for 1930, the first full year of talkie production) including Best Screenplay (a win), Best Actor (Beery), and Best Picture (deservedly losing to All Quiet on the Western Front).

Today, it is considered a stereotypical but entertaining prison drama. The user vote total of 1,460 is low by modern standards but is high for a 1930 movie. The user ratings are relatively high, 7.2 out of 10. Women over 45, presumably pleased by the romance with a happy ending, grade the film 7.4. The user reviews effuse with praise over the tense prison drama.

Although the characters and situations seem familiar to jaded cinemaphiles, it has to be admitted that they may have been less so way back in 1930, when sound film was in its infancy. In any event, even the most formulaic film can be enjoyable if it is well made, witness Winchester '73 (1950), where fearless Jimmy Stewart hunts down the malevolent bad guys with entertaining but ultimately predictable outcomes.

How I felt about it. Robert Montgomery is such a coward here, one wonders why he didn't buy up all the prints and burn them after Here Comes Mr. Jordan made him flush. Stardom for Montgomery would have to wait another years, with his weird but memorable performance as a murderer in Night Must Fall.

Instead, the break-out star is Wallace Beery, an unlikely star in an era as such (Edward G. Robinson, Marie Dressler). Hollywood producers believed that beautiful faces like John Gilbert would best adapt to the sound era, but instead the ugly blokes, such as Victor McLaglen, did surprisingly well. It turns out that folks would rather see Beery lead a prison break than watch Gilbert woo blondes. Even the blondes themselves.

It may surprise you that the primary screenwriter for The Big House was a woman, Frances Marion. The film set its footprints in the wet cement that hardened for better prison movies, most notably White Heat. It is odd that the movie implies that its story will center on Robert Montgomery, perhaps making a "man" of him despite a life softened by privilege.

But no Shawshank Redemption arrives. Instead, Montgomery fades into contemptible cowardice as his cellmates Morris and Beery take center stage. Oddly, we are supposed to sympathize with both criminals. In particular, we feel Beery's resentment, since parole seems unlikely. Though Morris is a likable rascal, his romance with Hyams is out of place, a subplot inserted to place female seats in the theaters. The subplot worked, from a commercial if not a critical perspective, and proves that the Hollywood of 1930 is like its counterpart today at least in that regard.