The Big House (1930, George W. Hill)
Do we give enough credit to Irving Thalberg for the infinite and long-lasting appeal of his MGM regime? It looks so very different from our conception of what’s now regarded as the stuffiest and “classiest” (in a derogatory sense) of the five major studios of the classic period. By any standard, The Big House was an unusual picture and, perhaps as a result, an enormously influential one — it wrote the book on the Prison Film and has been endlessly imitated ever since, and as with Underworld, it’s now staggering to see the number of genre tropes it invented. It’s the kind of movie that casts other movies made since in an entirely new light. Quite apart from that, though, it’s extremely vivid and entertaining thanks to a perceptive script by giant Hollywood wordsmith Frances Marion — who wrote about camaraderie and jealousy among men more convincingly than most any of Hollywood’s male writers — and solid, engrossingly claustrophobic direction.
The odd structure of the film opens by following as protagonist the man who turns out to be its key villain, a terrified and naive drunk driver named Marlowe (a very young Robert Montgomery) whose anxiety and maliciousness fuck over his cellmate Morgan (Chester Morris), who was set for parole and now loses it. Empowered by the injustice, Morgan breaks out and, in a very Hollywood twist of fate, runs across and falls in love with Marlowe’s adoring sister — when he’s eventually caught, he’s embroiled in a more organized prison break and discovers that crucial information has been entrusted to the traitor Marlowe. As you can sense from this, The Big House gets away with broad story strokes that wouldn’t fly in a modern picture, but that’s what makes it so brilliant — almost Shakespearean in its larger-than-life personalities and playfully big story, it senses humanity itself and the propulsion of upheaval, crime and justice as sufficient cinema in a time when not every basic story idea had been exercised yet. Without coming across as terribly unique, it feels fresh, new, exciting.
A large part of the resonance of Marion’s script is certainly in the populism that marks so much of her work and endeared her strongly to Thalberg, whose passion was always bringing people the sort of movies he felt they’d want to see (and pay to see). There’s also some of the clarity and impressionism of silent cinema still on display, which renders poetry of its quite bare-minimum story and has kept it vital for all these years. Marion enthusiastically avoids moralizing to the viewer or demonizing her characters. Murderous criminals and beleaguered guards and wardens alike are drawn sympathetically, believably.
My only big quarrel here — besides the too-clean sets, the sole element that’s very strongly MGM — is that Montgomery’s snitchy character isn’t developed enough, nor is his relationship with the other two leads. That’s only too apparent when he’s stacked up against a remarkable full-bodied creation like Wallace Beery’s Butch, crafted with such complexity you almost feel like you met and hung around with him when the film’s ended. Butch is the cellmate of the other two principals and is a fearsome, hulking man whose meanness, blunt spirit and sense of honor quietly drive the film. Given how tense the closing moments are in the extended shootout (long, violent and chaotic), one yearns for a more fully cathartic triangle — but it’s also hard to wish for anything to temper the perfection of that 87-minute runtime.
Those 87 minutes get so much across about the lives, fears and miseries of these characters — without the weight of some great moral Point, a stark contrast to the way all prison films in its wake would soon operate. That said, it’s not as if it flinches before the horrors of the system it depicts; though it’s a human story and not the story of a “system,” it does find time to make prison look like a not-necessarily-deserved hell (and for solitary confinement look absolutely horrifying without showing the inside of a cell for more than a couple of seconds!), and this is yet another way (even as it points the way to better and more eternally poetic films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) that it lives on as a fascinating, absorbing artifact and entertainment.
[This is another film I had to buy from Warner Archive. Their DVDRs and my computer don’t get along. Sorry the screencaps aren’t better or more interesting.]