The grandfather of all prison movies is still engaging.
Synopsis: A convict falls in love with his new cellmate’s sister, only to become embroiled in a planned break-out which is certain to have lethal consequences. (IMDB)
Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, and Robert Montgomery
Writers: Frances Marion, Joe Farnham, and Martin Flavin
Director: George W. Hill
Rating: 14A (Canada)
Running Time: 87mins
After a manslaughter conviction from drunk driving, nice but foolish Kent Marlowe (Montgomery) is sent to a prison over-crowded and unable to properly deal with its inmates. There he meets veteran criminals like John Morgan (Morris) and his hardened pal Butch Schmidt (Beery). And the system punishes them all, turning them against each other and bringing out the worst.
Watching these really really old movies (The Big House is from 1930 after all) can be kind of tricky. A lot of them have not aged as gracefully as others which is understandable. Times were totally different back then from customs, fashion, the way society was, what was right and what was wrong… in one word, WE are quite different now. Take Birth of a Nation, for example. It was a groundbreaking film when it was released and stayed that way for decades because it was the movie that introduced or improved techniques that grounded the language of cinema that we still used today. Camera angles, flashbacks, transitions, and parallel narrative are just a few examples; it all started there. But it’s also a movie that paints Ku Klux Klan members as the heroes of the story, which is quite complicated to say the very least.
The films from the late 20’s and early 30’s had a additional setback: the introduction of sound occurred in that period and a lot of films from the first years of the new technique are awful; the industry was still learning how to adapt the narrative to the innovation and some movies are quite laughable because of that. Just watch Singin’ in the Rain, a movie that pokes fun on those difficulties to see how hilarious it all could be at that time.
Fortunately, some movies survived those setbacks. The Big House is one of them. Actually, this takes the opposite path: it’s really refreshing to see a Hollywood film packing such a strong punch like this one, especially being from MGM, maybe the most out-of-touch-with-reality studio at that time. The Big House looks very realistic; the prison is overpopulated, the shots are enclosed in small cells, they play with cockroaches and eat with hogs. It’s not at all glamorized. But also, it’s not like the prison in Midnight Express. It’s tough, it’s depressing in a lot of ways but it maintains a kind of sobriety to it. We see these inmates being dehumanized but we also have a chance to see them being human.
Life in prison wasn’t really a subject most people would know in the 30’s and to set this story in motion, Marion, the screenwriter, chose the perfect way to introduce audiences to it: using a good hearted man who did something very wrong and our conductor to that new universe. So he learns who prison works at the same time we the audiences do. It set many characteristics that were used time and time again in prison films that came after: alliances, betrayals, animosity between prisoners and the authority. There’s a riot, time in solitary, greedy inmates and a love story just to make things more “universal”.
Montgomery does a great job in portraying the innocent new inmate of the prison. Morris is very good as the clever inmate and Beery had the chance to rebuild his career here and he grabbed it; he’s amazing and totally deserved his Academy Award nomination as the sadistic prisoner.
The Big House is an entertaining film, but it’s not perfect. The last half an hour is not as good as the first part and in some moments it gets a little ridiculous. But it is still an engrossing and well crafted tale.
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