Tuesday, December 6, 2011

1929/30 - The Big House

I'm very happy to report that The Artist is a fantastic and innovative film, certainly worthy of its recent recognition. Thoroughly enjoyable, the film makes clever use of its genre and, let's face it, it's difficult not to be unique when you make a film in a genre that hasn't been around for 80 years. Anyway, you should do whatever you can to see The Artist. Undoubtedly, this clever film will be mentioned a lot in the coming months.

As we wind down the current year of review, don't forget to cast your vote for the next one. The poll is in the sidebar on the right hand side of your screen. But you knew that already.

The final film for us to have a look at from 1929/30's slate of Best Picture nominees is...

The Big House
George Hill
Frances Marion, Joe Farnham, Martin Flavin
Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, DeWitt Jennings
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Writing

Kent (Montgomery) arrives in prison for his first day of a ten year sentence for manslaughter after a drunk driving accident. His cellmates are two hot shots of the block, the intelligent and level-headed Morgan (Morris) and the uneducated murderous thug Butch (Beery). Kent struggles to fit in at first and finds himself further ostracised when he sets up Morgan to take the blame for a hidden knife. The incident results in Morgan being sent to solitary the day before he is due to be released on parole. He vows to get even with Kent and, after cleverly escaping prison, he tracks down Kent's beautiful sister Anne (Hyams). However, his desire for vengeance slowly dissipates as he falls for Anne and realises how important Kent is to her and her family.

While an engaging story, The Big House has some pacing issues. Potentially gripping dramatic conflicts are often glossed over far too quickly, occasionally leaving the feeling that we are merely watching a series of plot points. It would be far more interesting to see the characters struggle with their decisions and actions but too often they are given a less than appropriate time frame to do so.

It's actually quite a shame because the narrative otherwise holds our attention well and the climax is incredibly exciting. So, if there had been more emotional depth to the way the characters were written, this picture could really have been a classic. As it stands, however, the film still holds a place in film lore as being somewhat responsible for the popularity of the prison genre. It was one of the first of its kind to explore the harsh conditions of prison life and, in that regard, it is successfully fascinating. Nonetheless, some of the questionably superficial dialogue doesn't help its cause. When the warden tells his assistant that the inmates are planning an uprising at noon, the assistant checks his watch and exclaims, "Noon? That's one minute!"

Chester Morris (pictured, with Beery) is the stand out among the cast with his confident presence as Morgan. Wallace Beery's constant "Who? Me?" catchphrase is mostly caricature but he is appropriately cast, earning the film's only acting nomination. And Robert Montgomery is effective as the foolishly naive Kent. Both Montgomery and Morris also appeared in fellow 1929/30 Best Picture nominee The Divorcee, playing roles with interestingly similar social statuses to their characters here. Incidentally, after I downloaded this film from iTunes, I noticed they had incorrectly listed the director of The Big House as George Roy Hill (famed for helming The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) rather than its actual director, known simply as George Hill.


  1. I watched The Big House a few weeks ago on VHS. Some of the notes I scribbled down were: dead space (common with these early talkies and may have contributed to the pacing problems you observed). I also wrote sappy love story and lack of ??? - I can't make out my writing and don't know what I was getting at.

    Thinking back, I thought it did a good job of presenting the prison themes that would serve this sub-genre for years to come. The attempted break out at the conclusion didn't make much strategic sense, but was pretty exciting.

    Chester Morris was the stand out for me. Wallace Beery got the nomination, and does have a naturalistic sense of ease on screen. However, his 'aw shucks' style seemed at odds with his menace, or lack of in this case. Robert Montgomery was annoying at this early stage of his career.

  2. Sappy is right, partly because the love story was so compact. One of the moments I really wanted to see some emotional depth was when Anne covered for Morgan in the book shop. They'd only just met so, without any clear internal struggle on Anne's behalf, her actions to save him were difficult to buy.

    I too thought Montgomery was a little annoying but then I realised that it was more to do with his character than his performance. Kent is such a wet fish, needlessly spineless. Then again, the prospect of spending the next ten years in prison would probably turn me into a blubbery mess too.