The Big House (1930) Director: George Hill
The Big House was a smash hit MGM film of the ’30s. It is largely known for being one of the first of the great prison films in Hollywood history, drawing inspiration from a series of highly publicized prison breaks in the 1920s. The film launched Wallace Beery’s career, as he 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, losing to All Quiet on the Western Front.
The Big House tells the story of a man named Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) who is charged with manslaughter in a drunk driving incident and is subsequently sent to prison. Here he encounters a band of brutal criminals who become his compatriots, led by “Butch” (Wallace Beery), a criminal who leads a prison break. The prison is portrayed as an unforgiving and degrading wasteland. In the end, the prison break attempt is put down thanks to a traitor. The Big House foreshadows certain crime, gangster, and noir tropes that took hold in Hollywood int the ’30s. Interestingly enough, the great Lon Chaney was set to play the role of Butch, but he tragically died of throat cancer before production began.
The Big House is a dated film and is slow moving, not one I would soon return to, but it is still an entertaining picture and maintains its importance as the first big prison break movie in Hollywood.