Cast & Crew
Kent Marlowe, a frightened young man convicted of manslaughter while driving drunk, becomes cellmates with hardened prisoners "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt and John Morgan, who are serving time, respectively, for homicide and robbery. Conditions at the prison are extremely harsh, especially in the prison mess, where the convicts are fed small amounts of spoiled, inedible food. One day, when Butch loudly objects to the food, causing an unruly outpouring of complaints from the other prisoners, Warden James Adams orders him to be placed in solitary confinement, called "the dungeon," for thirty days. Before he is taken away, Bush passes his contraband knife down a row of prisoners until it reaches an anxious Kent. When yard snitch Oliver later tells Kent that his time in prison could be significantly shortened if he passes on information to the guards, his naiveté and fear cause him to hide the knife among Morgan's things. When head guard Wallace searches Morgan's bunk, he finds the knife and sends him to the dungeon, even though Morgan was to be paroled the next day and swears that the knife is not his. At the end of his time in the dungeon, Morgan feigns unconsciousness and is taken to the prison hospital. Late that night, by sneaking away from his hospital bed and changing places with the corpse of another prisoner who has just died, Morgan is able to escape the prison in the mortician's wagon. Intending to get back at Kent, whom he deduces planted the knife, Morgan goes to a bookstore owned by his sister Anne, whom Morgan had briefly seen visiting Kent in prison. Although Anne recognizes Morgan, when a policeman acquaintance, Sgt. Donlin, comes into her shop while Morgan is there, she covers for him, saying he is an old friend named Everett. Morgan starts a job and begins to spend time with Anne and her family, and the two fall in love, but his freedom is short-lived when Donlin, who had recognized Morgan, arrests him at the Marlowes' home. Back at prison, Morgan determines that he will serve his time and start life over when he is released. Butch wants Morgan to come with him, Kent and some of the other prisoners who are planning a prison break, but Morgan refuses, saying that he plans to go straight, despite the wretched food and horrible conditions at the prison. On the day of the planned escape, just before noon, when the attempt will be made, Morgan is called into the prison office. When Butch and some of the others start to break through the prison gates, which were momentarily opened to allow fellow conspirator Gopher, the prison gardener, hand a bunch of flowers to a guard, they are greeted by Wallace's men firing machine guns at them. Butch is convinced that Morgan had revealed their plans, even though Morgan refused to give Wallace any information. Unknown to Butch, Wallace has confirmed to Morgan that Kent is the informer. After some of the prisoners are killed in the escape attempt, Butch and his remaining cohorts barricade themselves inside a cellblock and, using prison machine guns they have confiscated, threaten to kill all of the guards they have taken prisoner. Morgan risks his life to save some of the guards, despite being wounded. As tear gas canisters and finally an army tank enter the cell block, a panicked Kent is killed. Butch, who has been mortally wounded, is about to kill Morgan when one of the other prisoners reveals that it was Kent who was the informer. As he dies, Butch smiles at his friend, saying he would never kill him and was "just kidding." After the riot is quelled, Morgan is proclaimed a hero and pardoned by the governor. He promises Adams that he will go straight from now on and plans to move to the islands or another country where government lands are available. As he leaves the prison gates, Morgan is embraced by Anne, who has been waiting for him.
George F. Marion
J. C. Nugent
Robert E. O'connor
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
The Big House
The Big House on DVD
The first shots of The Big House present the prison as a massive, intimidating, almost medieval-looking compound and usher us inside along with the new guy getting processed: Kent (Robert Montgomery), an affluent kid convicted of a hit-and-run who goes through the system with a dazed look and a shuffling manner. Montgomery has never had the screen strength or presence of other actors in his early performances role but it works perfectly for the spoiled, weak-willed Kent. He's completely unprepared for prison and his ordeal is compounded when he's assigned to a cell with bank robber Morgan (Chester Morris), our leading man and a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and prison-yard bully Butch (Wallace Beery), who isn't too bright but defers to Morgan.
Chester Morris, a somewhat wooden leading man who later eased into B-movies and played Boston Blackie in over a dozen films, comes off as a slightly tougher Richard Barthelmess, the square guy (by underworld standards, at least) rolling with tough breaks. Beery is at once childish and brutal as Butch, a killer with no remorse who nonetheless hews to the prison code. Morgan and Butch may not always agree but they have each other's backs. Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat and he ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: "Prison doesn't make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out." I guess we know his predilections. Silent movie veteran Lewis Stone (later famed as Judge Hardy to Mickey Rooney's Andy) is the tough but committed warden and Stone is indeed tough, a disciplinarian with a reformer's spirit. He knows that packing men in ever tighter and tighter is simply putting pressure on combustible elements and it's only a matter of time before everything blows up.
The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés. We see the regimentation and overcrowding of the prison, are introduced to the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, shown the culture of bullies and snitches and the prison code of loyalty and retribution. There's a prison reform speech, a frame-up, a spell in solitary, a cafeteria protest that erupts into a food fight, a prison break and a riot that gets way out of control.
The direct, however, is forceful and the presentation is striking. The cells are small and cramped, with barely any room for the men to move about. The mess hall is like a massive dungeon with high, blank walls looming over the inmates, who are packed into the tables lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision. Guards watch over them from on high. It's mealtime in purgatory and Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings out of sight for the guards below the table tops: close-ups of hands passing weapons and messages, an assembly line of covert dealings that has become part of the routine. The image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith and then distribute guns for an attempted escape. It makes a mockery of chapel as any kind spiritual reprieve.
The central cell block itself is an enormous four-story set with rows of cells stacked high and men ascending and descending through a spiderweb of metal staircases and walkways. An elevator camera passes through the levels and takes in the crowds of men in prison fatigues filing and out with every whistle, and when the riot erupts, the vertical movement enhances the sense of chaos as the violence inflames tempers. Hill has a cast of hundreds at his disposal and when he packs them into a set or the prison year, hemmed in by high walls and guard towers that loom over the men, he shows us exactly the kind of pressure that drives them to violence.
The overall effect is the machine-like ritual and numbing repetition of incarceration and the systematic dehumanization of the prisoners. Even before the opening scene and the impersonal processing of the new inmate, it begins in the credits, which play not over music but the lock-step trudge of marching feet across the prison yard. That beat crunches through the soundtrack of the film, a metronome that picks up with every stage of the prison routine. It's like a ticking time bomb that finally explodes in the riot.
The Big House was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the evocative sound and France Marion's screenplay. It was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The "special edition" of this release features a remastered edition of the film that is a significant improvement over the previous edition, at least according to those who have compared the two. I don't have access to the earlier release but this version looks quite good considering the age and the era. There's some minor wear, the contrast fluctuates throughout and there are some pops and scratches on the soundtrack, but it is perfectly watchable and you can hear all the dialogue clearly, which is good for a sound film of this vintage. The evocative soundtrack favors atmospheric effects over music and it comes through well.
But the "special" in this edition more specifically refers to the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like they were shot on an assembly line production schedule cranking out the alternate versions on the sets in turn with the same machinery but a different shift of workers.
The biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here--see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera--and he's unable to exercise his own eye for composition and camera movement. He and Boyer, however, turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn't the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved as the original American version but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.
by Sean Axmaker
The Big House on DVD
Director George W. Hill threatened to fire anyone who "acted", and forbade makeup.
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.