Friday, April 17, 2009

The Big House (USA, 1930)

The U.S. great-granddaddy of prison films. The popular Roger Corman female-in-jail films (and the numerous Philippine shot imitations) that we all so love are the illegitimate offspring of this and that German classic (and possibly first ever) strange-sister film Mädchen Im Uniform (1931). But unlike all the bare-breasted prison and reform school films that have followed in their wake, both Mädchen Im Uniform and The Big House were very much message films criticizing social injustices of their time – or at least they claimed to be.
Whether viewed as a message film or simply good entertainment, though The Big House has become a bit creaky in parts it is still a relatively taunt, exciting and well-made film, if not the first true classic of the genre. George W. Hill was definitely a good director with an eye for detail, movement and action. Regrettably, his career was cut a bit short by his supposed suicide some four years later (according to the less than reliable Kenneth Anger in his sleaze-classic Hollywood Babylon, Hill “blew his head off with a hunting rifle in 1934"). (Chester Morris, who played John Morgan in The Big House also eventually killed himself as well, though he did wait another 40 years to do so. He died of a drug overdose in 1970, just as he was beginning to attempt a comeback. A handsome, popular actor in the 30’s and 40’s, he starred in all three of Roland West’s talkies and the classic B-film Five Came Back (1939) before going on to star in 13 films as Boston Blackie, a retired safecracker and private dick. By 1956, however, when he was to be seen in The She-Creature, his career was pretty much over.)
Aside from Hill’s fluid and competent direction and the excellent lighting, The Big House is greatly helped by a fabulous cast. Aside from the sexy Chester Morris, the movie also features excellent, nuanced performances by both Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery as well as pleasant, competent turns by Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams. (While all the important men of the film had long if uneven careers after The Big House, Leila Hyams retired by 1936. A one-time magazine model, she specialized in playing beautiful but strong, reliable and self-assured women, and her part in The Big House was no different. Though few people remember her name, fans of classic films might remember her as the sassy and likable Venus in Tom Browning’s Freaks (1932) and as the concerned but resourceful Ruth in The Island of Lost Souls (1933).)
The opening credits of The Big House are superimposed over the marching feet of the prisoners and then we are shown a tiny, ant-like car driving up to a huge, art deco prison that is actually more closely related to Metropolis (1927) than to reality – in fact, it is so obviously a mat shot that the initial impression is that of an UFA silent film. The young, most likely pampered Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is delivered to the prison, sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter after running over someone while driving drunk. We follow him as his identity is slowly stripped and he becomes just another numbered convict. (The overall effect of this concept is somewhat dulled later by the fact that all prisoners are always referred to by name, not by number.) A brief meeting with the warden (Lewis Stone) allows the main themes of the film to be stated – namely, that society wants to lock criminals away but not pay for them, and that prison won’t make a man yellow but will bring the yellow out of him – and then Kent is locked up in a tiny cell with the murderous Butch (Wallace Beery) and the small-time forger and criminal John Morgan (Chester Morris). John and Butch have an almost brotherly relationship for the most part, but it doesn’t stop Butch from eventually threatening John with a knife. When Butch gets sent to the hole for instigating a rebellion in the mess hall, his knife gets passed under the table to Kent, whose yellow side is growing by leaps and bounds every day that he is in jail. The day before John is to be released early for good behavior, Kent plants Butch’s knife in his jacket when the cell is searched, which costs John his pardon and results in his being sent to the hole as well. John is able to escape soon after, and outside he looks up Kent’s sister Anne (Leila Hyams) at the bookstore she runs. Why he does so is a bit unclear – if he did so merely because he though her pretty, why did he bring a gun? In any event, she gets his gun and is in the midst of calling the police when she realizes that she can’t bring herself to send him “back to that horrible place.” She even ends up covering up and lying for John when a cop who had recognized him on the street enters her bookstore. Though initially fooled, the cop nonetheless eventually arrests John at Anne’s house some months later, an event that leaves her parents surprisingly unfazed despite Anne’s tearful statement that she loves John. Back in The Big House, John learns that Butch has hidden guns and is planning a big break out on Thanksgiving’s Day, but he refuses to take part in it. As for Kent, the past months have converted the weak youth into a sniveling weasel and snitch who rats on the escape plans in hope of an early release. (Oddly enough, though they know of the plans, the warden and guards don’t really do anything in advance to stop them.) Come Thanksgiving’s, the breakout is a bloody fiasco and all the prisoner’s, now heavily armed with guns taken from the prison’s arms depot, are trapped in the prison with numerous guards as hostages. The situation becomes even more desperate when Butch begins to shoot the hostages and the warden brings in the tanks….
An interesting aspect of The Big House is how it sucker punches the viewer’s expectations through the gradual reversal of the film’s sympathies from Kent to John. While Butch may be obviously beyond redemption (and the viewer is seemingly not expected to question why), the growth of Kent and John in two separate directions automatically raises questions in regard to situation and development. Kent comes from a well-to-do, loving family but when put into the dangerous, stressful situation of the prison, the irresponsible youth steadily becomes more and more corrupt. John, who at one point even states that he has no family, might be a nice guy but he only really regains his social responsibility and desire to improve himself after he is exposed to the healthy environment of Anne and Kent’s family (and the job he refers to just before he is arrested and sent back to prison).
As mentioned before, the performance in The Big House are universally excellent. Still, Wallace Beery, one-time carnie, ex-husband of Gloria Swanson and renowned fan of the English Technique truly excels as the likable but volatile and dangerous Butch. It is less surprising that he was nominated for an Oscar for his part than that he didn’t get it. Blustery, good natured but often scary and obviously dangerous, he can get laughs when he reminisces aloud about how he shouldn’t have fed some ex-gal of his rat poison but can also strike fear when he pulls a knife after fixing a cockroach race. Still, even after he starts offing the guards he remains oddly likable – in all senses a good anti-hero.
Robert Montgomery does a good job as well, his scrubbed, pampered face perfect the role of a spineless and weak young man who is slowly turned into a weasel by the pressure of prison life. (But being a snitch was also an aspect of the real man: He eventually became a “friendly witness” for The House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and helped destroy a few careers.) Montgomery had a nice livelihood playing smooth good guys, but the films in which he was in that have aged the best had him work against character, as in Night Must Fall (1937), in which he played a psycho killer. Eventually he went on to directing films, including Lady In The Lake (1947), famed for being filmed from the subjective viewpoint of the film’s hero Marlowe (played by Montgomery). Panned as a gimmick at the time, the movie has aged excellently. Something that The Big House perhaps has not done as well, but it is a laudable credit to George W. Hill's film that despite its creaking bones it remains such a cinematic pleasure to watch.

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