The Big House - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

The Big House Reviews

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February 19, 2017
The Big House, released in 1930, is considered by classic film fans and film historians to be the first realistic prison movie produced by Hollywood. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg sent screenwriter Francis Marion to San Quentin State Prison to observe real prisoners, guards, and conditions inside prison walls. She interviewed inmates and prison staff alike. The result was a screenplay that won Marion the Oscar for Best Writing, making her the first woman to win a non-acting Academy Award.

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.
April 27, 2015
Starring Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. Montgomery is very good cast against type as a drunk driver convicted of manslaughter who loses his individuality behind bars. This is truly the definitive prison picture -- unrelentingly damning in its portrait of the penal system, all the hallmarks are here from the requisite riot to the sadistic warden. Superbly photographed to illustrate with great fluidity the anonymity and claustrophobia faced. convicts. Wallace Beery is his typical, tough-as-nails self as Montgomery's violent cellmate; Lewis Stone is fine as the warden. Only an unnecessary but fairly typical romantic subplot drags the action down a notch. Directed by George Hill, who at the time was married to screenwriter Frances Marion.
½ February 15, 2014
yet another prison movie like 'brute force' or '20,000 years in sing sing"
August 25, 2013
The great granddaddy of all prison films. This film set the standard and many of the tropes of prison films for years to come and still holds up as a tough, gritty film.
May 22, 2013
Watching old gangsta movies & they are just as good if not better than the ones from these days, This is 1930!!!
July 26, 2011
Competing against "All Quiet on the Western Front", I'm surprised this movie isn't more popular.
April 16, 2011
Prison break film from 1930. Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery were excellent. Wallace Berry unforgettable and comical at times. Great script. Loved the slang used by the inmates. Gives you a good glimpse at what prison life was like back then. Loved it.
February 7, 2011
Still very entertaining tale of prison. Robert Montgomery is Kent, a young man just sent to prison for manslaughter. He gets thrown into a cell with the two toughest guys in the joint - the more cerebral Morgan (Chester Morris) and tough guy Butch (Wallace Beery). Lewis Stone plays the Warden, who wants to do what is right. After Kent double-crosses Morgan causing him to lose out on his parole, Morgan escapes and seeks out Kent's sister, Anne. The two fall in love. But there is much more to this film. Sure there is the typical cheesy acting attributed to this period, but the writing of Frances Marion is well-researched and the dialogue far better than many films of the era. Wallace Beery is perfectly cast as the tough heavy Butch who has had enough of the joint. The original prison movie and still highly enjoyable.
February 3, 2011
chester sneers beery roars in this pre code drama
January 1, 2011
Early prison drama features Wallace Beary, Christopher Morris and Robert Montgomery as a trio of prisoners, each with different plans of getting out of the slammer early. While it does have nifty glimpses of prison life during the 30's, the creaky plot doesnt move a lot.
½ February 17, 2010
Solid prison drama, good cast. Wallace Berry is particularly good and very convincing as one of the prisoners. Good pace and an interesting story. It?s more brutal than I was expecting. Good editing.
½ February 17, 2010
Solid prison drama, good cast. Wallace Berry is particularly good and very convincing as one of the prisoners. Good pace and an interesting story. It's more brutal than I was expecting. Good editing.
Super Reviewer
½ May 22, 2009
an early prison break film. robert montgomery is completely overshadowed by the now forgotten actor chester morris. i'm afraid montgomery would be everyone's bitch at prison. wallace beery is fun and this film made him a huge star. frances marion became the first woman to win an oscar for screenwriting. it's a little hokey at times. i'd like to see what warner bros could've done with it. interesting to note that prison overcrowding was already an issue in 1930
Super Reviewer
June 23, 2008
A classic jailhouse saga.
½ June 10, 2008
George W. Hill's "masterpiece" features some good stark lighting, a nice riot ending (with TANKS!), and Wallace Beery. Montgomery turns yellow almost instantly and plays the weasel well.
January 3, 2008
ahahaha!!! Finally Flixster has added this movie to the list, i looked it up a while ago and it wasnt there........this has to be my favorite black and white movie.....for some reason the movie doesnt seem cliche and its so serious and bgelievable and a true work of art!
September 11, 2007
Greta prison drama. Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery are awesome, but this one belongs to Wallace Beery.
April 19, 2006
Full review coming soon
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