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One of the first and most powerful prison films ever to come out of Hollywood, The Big House (1930) played a decisive role in creating and defining the prison movie genre. Its influence on the hundreds of other prison films that have since followed is incalculable. From revealing the harsh environment, rampant paranoia and grimy reality of prison life, to the use of terminology we now so readily identify with prison dramas (guards are screws or bulls, solitary confinement is "the hole," etc.), it can all be traced back to the The Big House.
The film opens with an incident of vehicular homicide. While driving drunk, Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) kills some pedestrians and is sentenced to a 10-year manslaughter term. Montgomery quickly loses his identity as he is photographed, fingerprinted, stripped, measured, numbered and outfitted in prison drab. He is then tossed in a tiny cell with two hardened cons: forger and petty thief John Morgan (Chester Morris), and the cellblock leader Butch Schmidt (Wallace Beery), aka "Machine Gun," a crude, calculating thug who lives for the day that he can break out of prison. In order to procure some favors from the warden (Lewis Stone), Kent rats on Butch about his escape plans and is murdered during the climactic breakout as a consequence. However, John behaves courageously during the ensuing riot, saving the warden and the guards from Butch's murderous rage; as a reward, he earns a reduced sentence and the love of Kent's sister Anne (Leila Hyams), whom he met during a previous escape attempt.
The story seems fairly standard by today's standards, and the romantic subplot involving John and Anne is unnecessary, but these are minor flaws to a film that is brimming with riveting sequences, strong dialogue, superb acting and innovative direction by George William Hill. Indeed, the director's use of natural light and unconventional camera angles combined with a harsh view of prison life are strikingly effective in creating the stark, vivid mood of the picture. This is best exemplified in the chilling scene where Butch is escorted down a narrow hallway which leads to the solitary block: he is thrown into the cell and the door is bolted while the camera lingers in the empty corridor. A deafening silence prevails. Slowly, the voices of other prisoners are heard, making comments about the new arrival; one convict curses, another cries hysterically and another sings. All the while, the camera remains immobile, focused on that empty corridor which seems to stretch interminably.
MGM arranged for screenwriter Frances Marion to tour San Quentin and she kept a diary of conversations with prison officials and inmates to observe atmosphere, personalities and prison jargon. The studio spared no expense in building huge sets that reproduced San Quentin cellblocks, the mess hall and the high-walled prison yard. Harold Wenstrom's fluid cinematography enabled him to capture some impressive crane shots that travel up and down the spiral staircases leading to the tiers of cells, giving the film a sense of movement that was ahead of its time. (Most films still revealed their stage-bound origins in the early thirties.) Even the film's editing techniques (supervised by Blanche Sewell) are impressive, particularly in the mess-hall sequence; at first the room is seen empty, but with the use of a quick dissolve, it soon fills with convicts and the camera pans along a row of sullen faces as the men wait for the signal to turn over their tin cups. It's a superior example of pure cinematic storytelling that captures the anonymity of prison life beautifully.
Also noteworthy is the realistic use of sound by Douglas Shearer (brother of MGM's grand star Norma Shearer). Movie audiences for the first time heard the stomping feet of hundreds of prisoners parading down the stairs, the rapid fire of machine guns, and the sound of steel doors slamming shut. Shearer would go on to win an Oscar for this film (the first of his 14 Academy Awards), and was eventually appointed head of MGM's Sound Recording Studio, where his advancement in sound effects were later demonstrated in his brilliant earthquake climax of San Francisco (1936) and his ferocious aerial battle scenes in the exciting Thirty Second Over Tokyo (1944).
The Big House was also something of a breakthrough for the lead actors, especially Wallace Beery. Although the studio had originally tailored the role of Butch for Lon Chaney, the actor unfortunately died of throat cancer just prior to this production. Newly signed by MGM after his long-term contract with Paramount was cancelled, Beery had been out of work for a year (the longest drought in his 20-year film career) when Frances Marion saw him eating spaghetti in the MGM commissary. His massive frame and hulking visage reminded her of some of the San Quentin inmates, and Beery was promptly cast as Butch. Beery played the role with delicious intensity and he created a hulking, menacing figure, as violent as he was conniving.
Until this film, both Robert Montgomery and Chester Morris had mostly been cast as romantic leads opposite such strong female stars as Joan Crawford, Dolores Costello and Norma Shearer. In fact, both Montgomery and Morris starred with Shearer in The Divorcee (1930), one of MGM's biggest box-office hits in 1930 and made just prior to The Big House. But in The Big House, both Montgomery and Morris deliver tough and uncompromising performances that went against their established screen personas.
Although George William Hill would direct a few more noteworthy films for MGM in the next few years, most notably those scripted by his wife Frances Marion (Min and Bill, 1930, and The Secret Six, 1931), his promising career was never fulfilled; he unexpectedly committed suicide in 1934 at the age of 39, leaving many to wonder what he might have achieved had he lived longer. At any rate, The Big House continues to stand as one of the most impressive prison dramas to emerge from the era of early talkies.
Director: Paul Fejos, George W. Hill
Screenplay: Joseph Farnham, Martin Flavin, Frances Marion, Lennox Robinson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Costume Design: David Cox
Film Editing: Blanche Sewell
Principal Cast: Chester Morris (John Morgan), Wallace Beery (Butch Schmidt), Lewis Stone (Warden James Adams), Robert Montgomery (Kent Marlowe), Leila Hyams (Anne Marlowe), George F. Marion (Pop Riker), J. C. Nugent (Mr. Marlowe).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Michael T. Toole