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So Big (1932) is the third of four film versions of Edna Ferber's 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an indomitable widow, Selina Peake Dejong, who struggles to eke out a living for herself and her son in a hardscrabble Midwest farm. Although her son proves to be a disappointment, she inspires another boy who grows up to be a well-known artist, fulfilling the hopes she had for him.
The novel had been made into a silent film in 1924, starring Colleen Moore. It was remade as a short in 1930, with Helen Jerome Eddy. (A fourth version starring Jane Wyman would be made in 1953.) The 1932 version starred Barbara Stanwyck, who had arrived in Hollywood from Broadway in the early days of sound, signed a contract with Warner Bros., and was already one of the busiest and most respected of the younger actresses. She had made films with such well-regarded directors as Frank Capra and William Wellman, and the latter would also direct So Big. Wellman, known as "Wild Bill," was a veteran World War I flyer, a rip-roaring "man's man," and director of robust adventure films. Working with him was not for the faint of heart, but he and the Brooklyn-born Stanwyck (who was outspoken, a "man's woman," and a fearless actress) got along well and made a total of five films together.
Playing a supporting role in So Big was another recent Broadway émigré and Warner Bros. contract player, Bette Davis. She was about the same age as Stanwyck, but had not yet achieved leading lady status. In So Big, she showed up near the end of the film, playing the girlfriend of Selina's son. In her autobiography, Davis writes that being cast in a Stanwyck film meant that the studio was recognizing her work. "It was a source of tremendous satisfaction, and encouraged me to unheard-of dreams of glory." But according to other sources, the two women did not get along. Wellman later told an interviewer that Davis "was jealous because a contemporary had achieved stardom quickly while she had to grind through small roles and bad pictures." Wellman recalled that Stanwyck felt Davis used her mannerisms and fidgeting to draw attention to herself. When a nervous Davis blew her lines, Stanwyck not only showed no sympathy, she scolded her publicly. Years later, Stanwyck minced no words about Davis with biographer Lawrence J. Quirk. "She was always so ambitious, you knew she'd make it. She had a kind of creative ruthlessness that made her success inevitable."
So Big was the first time Davis worked with George Brent, who would become one of her favorite and most frequent co-stars. Brent was born in Ireland and immigrated to the U.S. at age 11, after his parents' deaths. At 17, he returned to Ireland and got some small roles at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. He also joined the Irish Republican Army in their subversive activities against the British. Pursued by the British army, Brent was smuggled back to America, eventually ending up on Broadway, and going to Hollywood in 1931. He and Davis would appear in 11 films together. They had an on-and-off affair for several years, and always spoke fondly of each other.
As for So Big, most critics felt there was too much story to tell adequately in the film's brief running time. According to Variety, "Wellman's endeavor at kaleidoscopic flashes in the life of Selina Dejong...make for a choppy continuity....as it is, the 83 minutes are overly long, but in toto, it's a disjointed affair." However, both Stanwyck and Davis earned praise for their performances. The New Yorker critic wrote, "in her impersonation of the American farmer's wife, Barbara Stanwyck does the best work she has yet shown us." The New York Mirror critic gushed, " Barbara Stanwyck is exquisite....Her great talent as an actress never has been demonstrated more brilliantly. A sparkling performance. She is magnificent." And Andre Sennwald wrote in the New York Times, "Bette Davis, as the young artist who sees into the complicated story of Selina's life, is unusually competent." By the mid-1930s, Davis had caught up with Stanwyck, thanks to the success of such films as Of Human Bondage (1934), and by the end of the decade, she had two Oscars® and was Warner Bros.' top star. As Stanwyck predicted, Davis' success had been inevitable.
Director: William A. Wellman
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Screenplay: J. Grubb Alexander, Robert Lord, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Editor: William Holmes
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: W. Franke Harling
Principal Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Selina Peake Dejong), George Brent (Roelf Pool), Dickie Moore (Dirk Dejong as a boy).
by Margarita Landazuri