The Big House (1930) Director: George Hill
The Big House was a smash hit MGM film. It is largely known for being one of the first of the great prison films in Hollywood. It was inspired by a series of highly publicized prison breaks in the 1920s. The film launched Wallace Beery’s career, as he became the highest paid actor within two years, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He later went on to win the award. The Big House was also nominated by the Academy for Best Picture, losing to All Quiet on the Western Front. It won two other Academy Awards.
It tells the story of a man put in prison on manslaughter charges for a drunk driving incident, and he encounters a band of brutal criminals who become his compatriots, led by “Butch”, a criminal who leads a prison break. The prison is portrayed as unforgiving and degrading. In the end, the prison break is put down thanks to a traitor to Butch.
Interestingly enough, the great Lon Chaney was set to play the role of Butch, but he tragically died of throat cancer before production.
The Big House is a dated film and is slow moving, but is still an entertaining picture and is important as the first big prison break movie in Hollywood.