johnlink ranks THE BIG HOUSE (1930)~

As the sound era was in its infancy, Hollywood was figuring out how to reinvent (or in some cases, just invent) its genres. THE BIG HOUSE was released in 1930 as the first major prison film of the sound era. It would prove to be a majorly influential film for the prison sub-genre going forward. sbMgjXnGeNNfFXRN4dCl6MIBt6i I watched THE BIG HOUSE (1930) on 4.29.15. It was my first viewing of the film. THE BIG HOUSE opens with a new convict, Kent (Robert Montgomery), in the first moments of his ten year prison term for manslaughter as a result of a drunk driving accident. He is immediately shuffled into a cell with a couple of notorious convicts, Butch (Wallace Beery) and Morgan (Chester Morris). One older guard worries openly about the fate of this young man, and he also decries the problems with overpopulated prisons (this particular spot has 3000 inmates in a place built for 1800). This quick intro shows a bunch of the tropes which would soon come to define the prison genre. The fresh fish. The career criminal who can’t control his anger and looks a bit like George “The Animal” Steele (Beery would be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Butch). We have the kind prison guard. We have the overly crowded prison. Soon the film will give us more. We see the rat. We see the odd duck inmates with a quirk. We see the corruptible prison guards. We learn of more than one potential prison break. What makes THE BIG HOUSE so interesting is that, as a movie written before the cliches, it also surprises plenty. Kent seems to open as the guy the audience will follow. But we learn pretty quickly that he isn’t all we would want him to be. Soon, we start to follow Morgan. The film takes place entirely in prison in the first act before bouncing outside for the second. A love story develops, though it is hard to tell how genuine a romance it is. Screenwriter Frances Marion, a woman working in a predominately male field, tells a unique and nuanced story in this pre-code film. She would win an Oscar for the script too, and it is one that is well deserved. While some of the auxiliary characters do come a cross as a bit of a schtick, the three central males are all strongly written characters who surprise throughout. Many of the films of this era seem to foretell their ending from the outset. THE BIG HOUSE has intrigue throughout. While the movie positions itself as a bit of a revenge flick for a legitimate gripe that happens in prison, it is hard to tell who exactly the protagonists and antagonists are supposed to be. tumblr_m0p7cuqlMh1qzdvhio1_r2_500 Director George Hill injects the film with a great amount of style. The opening meeting of the three lead inmates could not be more claustrophobic. Yet some of the scenes of vast emptiness reveals lots of open space which is soon filled by swarms of inmates. One dissolve shows an empty mess hall before wiping to the room entirely occupied by a seemingly impossible number of men being served food at a rate which seems almost impossible. indeed, the routine of prison life is often on display in the first act before the sheer chaos of prison life takes over in the final act as everything goes to hell. And, while I know I have said this before on these pages, because this is pre-code Hollywood, when something ‘goes to hell’ it can have surprising results as it pertains to our normal thoughts about morality in early cinema (though it should be noted that test audiences led to a changed relationship status of Kent to make another character more likable). The good guys don’t all make it through even though most of the bad guys get what’s coming to them. There is true suspense in the final standoff, and it is on a scale much, much greater than the first hour of the film might suggest we are heading towards. This is a surprising movie. While it is important to find a good print – because nothing sucks more than a poorly transferred early sound film – it should be noted that this movie did win an Oscar for Best Sound Recording. This movie isn’t as hard to listen to as many from the 1930s, even as there is often a cacophony of sound going on in the prison. But, truly, THE BIG HOUSE is a movie worth seeking out. SCORES FILM: 8; MOVIE: 8; ACTING: 8; WRITING: 8 8+8+8+8+0=31 FINAL SCORE: 8 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on April 29, 2015.

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