Monday June 20, 2022
Movie Review: The Big House (1930)
Hollywood’s ur-prison film depicts a system, like in “Les Misérables,” that reduces a man to a number—or a series of numbers. This, for example, is Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery):
That’s his prison number, cell number, and the years he’s serving for vehicular manslaughter.
We first see Kent after the opening credits (shown against the machine-like clomping of prison feet), when a van pulls up to a vast, concrete prison—an obvious matte drawing—and three men get out. Two are guards. The third is Kent and we immediately sympathize with him. He’s clearly out of his element: dazed and scared. He’s surprised that he has to call the guard “sir,” semi-stunned when they take his possessions after frisking him, stunned that his body is no longer his own. I like the moment when the initial guards leave and he watches them go as if he's a kid whose parents have left him at camp.
We get more numbers from the warden (Lewis Stone): 3,000 and 1,800. The latter is the cell accommodations in his prison; the former is how many prisoners they actually have. “They all want to throw people into prison but they don’t want to provide for them after they’re in,” he tells a guard. “You mark my word, Pop, someday we’re going to pay for their shortsightedness.”
The first to pay is Kent.
The early “Les Mis”-like theme.
Boldness cowardice blame
They stack him atop two other prisoners in cell 265. These two just happen to be the toughest men in the yard: Morgan (Chester Morris) and Butch (Wallace Beery).
Even with this open, though, with Kent wholly gaining our sympathy, and Morgan and Butch the tough guys, they becomes the film’s heroes while Kent becomes its villain. A key line comes from the warden:
Remember, this prison does not give a man a yellow streak. But if he has one, it brings it out.
That’s Kent. Early on, a rat named Oliver takes him aside and gives him some advice, and you can see the movie setting itself up. Will Kent be on the side of Oliver the rat, or on the side of Butch and Morgan, cons but decent joes? I assumed the latter. I assumed, hey, it’s Robert Montgomery, he’s handsome and sympathetic, he’ll side with the decent joes. Nope. It’s an interesting twist, given the open. But at this point in his career, Montgomery (Elizabeth’s dad) wasn’t yet a star. He’s actually fourth-billed here, after the warden.
The stars are Morris and Beery, and they’ve got great rapport. Morgan, easy-going and handsome, but with steel in his eyes, is the only one who calls Butch on his bullshit—who’s got so much it’s hard to sort out. At one point, Butch tells Kent he’s the guy who wiped out the Delancey Gang—and he probably did. He also talks about how well he does with the ladies—and maybe he does? He has a repeated phrase when called on his crap: “Who, me?” He’s that ne’er-do-well kid found out, the lovable mug with an “Aw shucks, I didn’t mean to try to kill ya” demeanor. It’s a fine line but Beery walks it like a pro.
There’s a great early scene. In the yard, Butch gets a letter from a girl named Myrtle and begins to read it aloud to the boys. She tells him she misses him, how he’s “it.” Then he leaves off. Amid jeers, he says the rest is just for him and Morgan and they go to their own corner of the yard—where Butch hands Morgan the letter to read to him since he can’t read. Turns out there’s no Myrtle. “If I even knew a dame called Myrtle, I’d kick her teeth out,” he tells Morgan. No, the letter is from a fellow gang member, Tony Loop, who lets him know his mother was sick and now she’s dead. It’s nicely underplayed. Morgan gets Butch to talk about her and he does, a small smile on his face, absent-mindedly running gravel through his hands, about how she was “as big as a minute. And game.”
But the movie doesn’t pretend Butch isn’t also brutal and a cheat. Basically Butch’s boldness causes problems that Kent’s cowardice exacerbates, and somehow Morgan gets the blame.
Example: The guards are searching for Butch’s knife, so in the prison mess he passes it down the line and Kent winds up with it. When they do a cell search, he panics and stashes it among Morgan’s stuff and it’s found. So instead of parole, Morgan gets another year, plus solitary, and vows revenge against Kent. To this end, he breaks out of jail to pursue Kent’s sister, Anne (Leila Hyams), a looker. If that doesn’t make much sense, well, you’re right. Anne was originally supposed to be Kent’s wife, so Morgan would’ve been cuckolding him. But women in preview audiences didn’t want a matinee idol like Chester Morris doing dirty like that, so they reshot scenes to make Anne the sister. It mostly works but it means Morgan’s motivation here is a little odd.
Of course, he falls for her, and she for him, but he’s spotted by a cop (Robert Emmett O’Connor, Paddy Ryan from “Public Enemy”), and sent back to jail. There, we get that boldness-cowardice-blame dynamic again. Butch plots a prison break, Kent snitches, and when it turns violent Morgan is blamed for the snitching. Amid gunfire, and a WWI Army tank(!), our two heroes go gunning for each other. After they're both plugged, they crawl toward each other:
Morgan: Sorry, Butch. Did I get ya?
Butch: I’m on my feet, see?
Morgan: Don’t lie to me.
Butch: Who, me?
Morgan: Yes, you.
A guard then lets Butch know it was Kent—already gunned down—who was the snitch. At this point, the two men should’ve died in each other’s arms. Theirs is the movie’s true love story. Ah, but those women in the preview audience wouldn't like it. So Butch dies, Morgan survives, and is suddenly and nonsensically pardoned. He leaves the prison and into Anne’s arms. Who, him? Yes, him.
I like the penultimate scene, where the warden asks Morgan about his plans. “I thought I’d go to the islands of some new country,“ he says, ”and take up government lands.” That was still a thing back then? To just go to a place and just get land? Oh, to be free, white and 21.
Call and response
The role of Butch was originally intended for Lon Chaney, but he died suddenly in 1930, so Beery, who’d had trouble making the transition to talkies, got the nod. It not only resurrected his career, it supercharged it. He was nominated for an Academy Award for lead actor, losing to George Arliss (“Disraeli”), but a year later he won for “The Champ.” He made a series of popular films with Marie Dressler, starred in many of the early classic MGM ensemble films (“Grand Hotel,” “Dinner at Eight”), and played everyone from Pancho Villa to Long John Silver to P.T. Barnum. During the first four years of Quigley’s Top 10 Box-Office Champions (1932-35), he was one of four stars listed every year. The others were Joan Crawford, Will Rogers and Clark Gable.
“The Big House” was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two, including best writing for Frances Marion, the wife of director George W. Hill, who became the first behind-the-scenes woman to win an Oscar. Apparently she visited a prison to get a sense of what it was like. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the sharp details of the opening scenes come from.
Speaking of: There’s another good numbers scene there that made me do a double-take. Kent is being given his (what turn out to be) ill-fitting prison clothes, and we get a kind of sing-songy call-and-response, as one prison official lets another know the sizes:
- Coat, 36 (coat, 36)
- Underwear, 4 (underwear, 4)
- Pants, 5 (pants, 5)
- Shirt, 16 (shirt, 16)
- Hat, 7 (hat, 7)
A year later, Warner Bros. ripped off this riff in “The Public Enemy” when Tom Powers first gets a suit. It actually makes more sense—and is more effective—here, since it plays into the whole reduction-of-a-man-to-a-number theme. In “Enemy” it’s just a slightly homophobic moment showing Cagney rise.
The Anne angle aside, “Big House” is an amazing early film. There’s a documentary feel to scenes, a power to Beery’s performance, and even a great tracking shot (Morgan visiting Anne at her parents’ house) that demonstrates that not all cameras in early talkies were stagnant.
The star turn: Beery filling a whole prison with the force of his face.