Friday, January 30, 2009
Directed by: George W. Hill
Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, and Robert Montgomery
Plot: A reckless young man convicted for manslaughter learns about prison life the hard way.
Thoughts: After being somewhat disappointed with the 1928-1929 nominees, along comes The Big House. I do have a soft spot for prison movies, probably because of The Shawshank Redemption, but this film is pretty good aside from being set in prison.
The fairly accurate (accurate for 1929 anyway) look at prison life, coupled with decent acting, and an interesting story is what likely got it the Oscar nod. Chester Morris, who played an unrepentant ex-con in Alibi, returns as a robbery convict here. He's not quite the crook with a heart of gold, but he's certainly a likable guy. Allegedly, George Hill threatened to fire anyone who was "acting" and did not allow makeup to be used.
All the things we've learned about prison are pretty much in this film: bad food, violent discipline, the prison code about talking to the guards, etc. However, I did find one aspect somewhat disturbing, which was the presence of prisoners who were clearly mentally ill (in this case, quite delusional and possibly mentally retarded). I don't doubt that was commonplace at the time, but I don't recall seeing that sort of thing in other mainstream prison films (other than the obligatory psychopath). Lots of great stuff in here, even if the story is somewhat hokey at times.
The Big House was released on VHS back in 1994 and occasionally shows up in the Turner Classic Movies schedule rotation. Oddly, there was no laserdisc release and there's no current DVD release planned.
While the film didn't take home Best Motion Picture at the 3rd Academy Awards, it did win Best Writing, Achievement, for Frances Marion's terrific script and Best Sound, Recording, for Douglas Shearer's great work (listen to the rhythmic foot shuffling in the crowd scenes). The Big House was also nominated for Best Actor for Wallace Beery's portrayal of "Machine Gun" Butch - a role originally meant for Lon Chaney, who had unfortunately died before he could be cast.