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Some contemporary sources, including a studio synopsis of the film found in its production file at the AMPAS Library, refer to Robert Montgomery's character as "Dean Marlowe," although he is "Kent Marlowe" in the released film. The Big House received glowing reviews when it opened, with many critics acknowledging the film as one of the best of the year. The picture also became one of M-G-M's biggest box office hits of 1930. Frances Marion won an Academy Award for Writing Achievement and Douglas Shearer received M-G-M's Sound Department's Academy Award for Best Sound for The Big House. The film also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery).
The Commission on Human Relations Progressive Education Association, New York, prepared an extensive study guide on The Big House and Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Warner Bros., 1932, see below) to be distributed to high school students. The study guide discussed elements of the two films as they related to conditions in prisons and paroles. A copy of the guide, which was undated but appears to have been published in the early 1930s, is contained in the AMPAS Library production file for The Big House.
A September 1930 article in International Photographer offers extensive discussion of the innovative camera angles, dolly shots and lighting techniques used by cameraman Harold Wenstrom for The Big House. Singled out, in particular, was the scene of Montgomery when Kent is shown being measured by prison guards in a medium shot, from behind, nude to the upper hips, with his arms outstreateched. The sequence in which Wallace Beery as "Machine Gun 'Butch' Schmidt" disrupts the prison mess and creates a near riot has been acknowledged by many film historians as the first of its kind in the prison genre that became popular in the 1930s.
According to modern sources, Marion travelled to San Quentin Penitentiary for background color on the screenplay. Modern sources also state that when the film had its first previews, The character of "Anne Marlowe (Leila Hyams)" was actually Kent's wife, but audiences so disliked the idea of an adulterous relationship between Anne and "John Morgan" (Chester Morris), that M-G-M production chief Irving Thalberg decided to reshoot several key scenes and change Anne to Kent's sister. In the January 19, 1946 Life magazine column "The Role I Liked Best," Morris called Mogran his favorite screen character.
The Big House was the first M-G-M film for Beery, who went on to many roles similar to Butch in his long and successful career at the studio. The Big House also was instrumental in the rise in popularity of Morris and Montgomery, the latter of whom was an M-G-M contract player into the late 1940s.
M-G-M also produced versions of The Big House in Spanish, German and French, with various directors and stars, among them Charles Boyer, who appeared in the French version. For information on the foreign-language versions, please consult the entry below for El presidio.