The Big House Reviews
The Big House stars Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery (who also appeared together in The Divorcee), and Wallace Beery as cellmates. Each handles prison life in a different way. Robert Montgomery plays Kent, who has just begun a 10-year sentence for killing someone while driving drunk. He is put in a cell with Morgan (Chester Morris), a thief on the verge of parole, and Machine Gun Butch (Wallace Beery), a ruthless multiple murderer that runs the cellblock. Beery had been out of work for more than a year when cast in The Big House. Though Beery had been a successful character actor during the silent era and done a successful sound test, his contract was dropped by Paramount when the studio converted to sound. Beery's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and his career rebounded.
Directed by Francis Marion's husband, George Hill, The Big House is well paced and well shot. The lighting design of certain scenes with low light and harsh shadows is reminiscent of Film Noir, a subgenre that is defined in part by its use of shadows and antiheroes that wouldn't be fully developed until the mid-1940's. As Morgan is marched from the cell block down to the dungeon for solitary confinement, the light fades and shadows envelope the frame. Morgan and Butch, also in solitary, call out to each other over the shouts, screams, and singing of the other inmates. All we see is the empty, dark hallway as the scene slowly fades out.
There is a brief respite from the bleak drudgery of prison life when Morgan escapes after losing his parole. He visits Kent's sister, Anne, with whom he has been infatuated since seeing her picture. Anne goes from being suspicious of Morgan to falling in love with him rather quickly. It is his brief time with her that convinces him to go straight after he's captured and taken back to prison. When Morgan won't go along with Butch's big escape plan, Butch thinks that Morgan has turned into an informer. The climax of The Big House is a full-blown riot and shootout between guards and prisoners. Each side has pistols, rifles, and Tommy guns. At one point army tanks roll into the fray.
The performances all around are pretty good. The first character we meet is Kent as he is being processed into the prison. As he unravels and buddies up to the prison's main informer, Morgan emerges as our sympathetic hero. Montgomery is great playing a character that is not cut out for prison, scared, and just trying to get by and get out, misguided as he might be. Chester Morris is quite good as Morgan; when he decides to go straight we believe his change. The warden, played by Lewis Stone, is also an interesting character. Neither cruel nor corrupt, he is a reasonable, benevolent man. He sees clearly the problems of his prison and the prison system as a whole, but is powerless to make any changes to better the situation. He tells a guard that the prison was built to hold 1,800 men but has 3,000 prisoners. They want to lock them up, he says, but don't want to provide for them after they're locked up. The guard replies, "The whole prison system is cock-eyed." The flaws of the prison system that Francis Marion observed and wrote into her screenplay in 1930 still remain unfortunately accurate.
Douglas Shearer, Norma Shearer's brother, won the first Academy Award for Sound Recording for his work in The Big House, and the sound design is very good and effective indeed. The first thing we hear is the sound of marching footsteps of prisoners. That sound is repeated throughout the film, and it is also the last thing we hear over the "The End" card instead of closing music. The footsteps on hard floors and gravel, food slopping on plates, and crowd noises are all pronounced and important to the effectiveness of the images. The sound cues in The Big House do more than just match what happens on screen, they underline and emphasize it. The shots of dozens upon dozens of prisoners marching in line, often from the shoulder down, or filling the mess hall, sitting at the same time, being served at the same time, all wearing the same uniform and making the same sounds suggests that humanity and individuality have been stripped away from these men.
I think The Big House is as realistic as a film of this time could be, even during the Pre-Code era. The Big House probably would not hold up to more recent prison dramas, but it is still an entertaining film. It has good performances from all the main players, great cinematography, a great screenplay, and even a dark sense of humor. Morgan warns Butch against including a certain violent prisoner in the escape, but Butch replies, "sure, Hawk cut his mother's throat, but he was sorry about it."
The Big House has every prison movie cliché you would expect to see in a prison movie: escape plans, stool pigeons, riots, cruel guards, bad food. However, like many genre films from this time period, it is the source of those clichés. All of the beats and plotlines still work and are still effective and entertaining.
Full review coming soon