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The Big House (Warner Archive)
The Big House (Warner Archive) (1930)
Actor: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery, Lewis Stone, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, Karl Dane, DeWitt Jennings, Matthew Betz, Claire McDowell, (more) Robert Emmett O'Connor, Tom Wilson
Director: George W. Hill
Genre: Drama, Prison Drama
Year: 1930
Studio: Warner Home Video
Length: 87 minutes
Released: April 1, 2014
Rating: NR
Format: DVD
Misc: NTSC, Full Screen, Black & White
Language: English (Original Language)
Three thousand men are crammed into cells designed to hold 1800. And with the overcrowding comes the hard-time toughness, the mess-hall ritual, the dark agony of the hole, the cigarettes as currency, the hidden shivs, the hushed voices in the yard, the scheming and the desperation of men with nothing to lose - all the conventions of prison films to come were set with Hollywood's first major men-behind-bars picture.

Wallace Beery as killer Machine Gun Butch Schmidt, Chester Morris as sly con Morgan, who grasps a chance to redeem himself, and Robert Montgomery as a scared kid-turned-stoolie lead the way in a gritty double Academy Award winner.* Im going to break this place open, Machine Gun says. He means it.

Contains 3 versions: Original MGM English Version, Plus French and Spanish Versions.
  • The template for all later prison pictures

    Ray Olson | 08/03/2013
    George W. Hill, the director of The Big House (and also the excellent Min and Bill), committed suicide in 1934, perhaps in despair of ever recovering sufficiently from injuries suffered in a car accident. Thus the American cinema lost a master just as he attained his full stature.

    The Big House harks back to Lang's Metropolis in its set design--the prison is as cyclopeanly oppressive as possible--and to the best in the open, "child-like" acting that American directors had developed from Griffith's early work forward--Beery's Butch is illiterate and domineering, infantile and gargantuan, innocent and sociopathic, simultaneously, and deeply scary; Morris is spot-on throughout, a smart guy who gets smarter without losing his integrity, and he always looks better in his prison uniform than he does in the suit he dons to blend in after his escape; Montgomery's performance is all about the swift degeneration of a pretty, spoiled brat into a weaselly, traitorous coward (in a similar film today, he'd be gang-raped, though the Morgan [Morris] character might not participate).

    The prison riot sequence is superbly executed in every aspect--choreography of masses of actors, highlighting of the principals, expressive but realistic lighting, good camera placements--and those chilling vertical pans up the tiers of cells (seems to be done by mounting the camera on an elevator) every time action in the cell block begins functions like a visual refrain, driving home the ominousness of the place. Though the lack of cursing affronts expectations nowadays (we assume that even a bishop swears a blue streak as long as he's not celebrating the eucharist), it also allows much better development of character (though it doesn't help the most annoying cast member, "comic" stutterer Roscoe Ates).

    Sure, there are a couple of lines that either were already cliches or became cliches because of the film's huge popularity in its time and its status as template for later prison pictures. Just a terrific movie. --Ray Olson
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