The Big House (1930) Review

The Big House (1930) Director: George Hill

★★★☆☆

A smash hit for MGM, The Big House is one of the first of the great prison films in Hollywood history, drawing inspiration from a series of highly publicized true prison escapes in the 1920s. The film launched Wallace Beery’s career, as he quickly became the highest paid actor in Hollywood within two years. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor (he later won the award for 1931’s The Champ). The Big House was also nominated for Best Picture, but it ultimately lost to All Quiet on the Western Front.

Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is charged with manslaughter in a drunk-driving incident and is subsequently sent to prison where he encounters a band of brutal criminals who become his compatriots, led by “Butch” (Wallace Beery), a criminal who leads a planned prison break. The prison is portrayed as an unforgiving and degrading wasteland. In the end, the escape attempt is ended thanks to a traitor within the group. The Big House foreshadows certain crime, gangster, and noir tropes which would soon take hold in Hollywood int the ’30s. Interestingly enough, the great Lon Chaney was initially set to play the role of Butch, but he tragically died of throat cancer before production began.

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