The Big House (1930)

80 or 84 mins | Drama | June 1930

Director:

George Hill

Writer:

Frances Marion

Cinematographer:

Harold Wenstrom

Editor:

Blanche Sewell

Production Designer:

Cedric Gibbons

Production Companies:

Cosmopolitan Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
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HISTORY

Some contemporary sources, including a studio synopsis of the film found in its production file at the AMPAS Library, refer to Robert Montgomery's character as "Dean Marlowe," although he is "Kent Marlowe" in the released film. The Big House received glowing reviews when it opened, with many critics acknowledging the film as one of the best of the year. The picture also became one of M-G-M's biggest box office hits of 1930. Frances Marion won an Academy Award for Writing Achievement and Douglas Shearer received M-G-M's Sound Department's Academy Award for Best Sound for The Big House. The film also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery).
       The Commission on Human Relations Progressive Education Association, New York, prepared an extensive study guide on The Big House and Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Warner Bros., 1932, see entry) to be distributed to high school students. The study guide discussed elements of the two films as they related to conditions in prisons and paroles. A copy of the guide, which was undated but appears to have been published in the early 1930s, is contained in the AMPAS Library production file for The Big House.
       A Sep 1930 article in International Photographer offers extensive discussion of the innovative camera angles, dolly shots and lighting techniques used by cameraman Harold Wenstrom for The Big House. Singled out, in particular, was the scene of Montgomery when Kent is shown being measured by prison guards in a medium shot, from behind, nude to the upper hips, with his arms ... More Less

Some contemporary sources, including a studio synopsis of the film found in its production file at the AMPAS Library, refer to Robert Montgomery's character as "Dean Marlowe," although he is "Kent Marlowe" in the released film. The Big House received glowing reviews when it opened, with many critics acknowledging the film as one of the best of the year. The picture also became one of M-G-M's biggest box office hits of 1930. Frances Marion won an Academy Award for Writing Achievement and Douglas Shearer received M-G-M's Sound Department's Academy Award for Best Sound for The Big House. The film also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery).
       The Commission on Human Relations Progressive Education Association, New York, prepared an extensive study guide on The Big House and Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Warner Bros., 1932, see entry) to be distributed to high school students. The study guide discussed elements of the two films as they related to conditions in prisons and paroles. A copy of the guide, which was undated but appears to have been published in the early 1930s, is contained in the AMPAS Library production file for The Big House.
       A Sep 1930 article in International Photographer offers extensive discussion of the innovative camera angles, dolly shots and lighting techniques used by cameraman Harold Wenstrom for The Big House. Singled out, in particular, was the scene of Montgomery when Kent is shown being measured by prison guards in a medium shot, from behind, nude to the upper hips, with his arms outstreateched. The sequence in which Wallace Beery as "Machine Gun 'Butch' Schmidt" disrupts the prison mess and creates a near riot has been acknowledged by many film historians as the first of its kind in the prison genre that became popular in the 1930s.
       According to modern sources, Marion travelled to San Quentin Penitentiary for background color on the screenplay. Modern sources also state that when the film had its first previews, The character of "Anne Marlowe (Leila Hyams)" was actually Kent's wife, but audiences so disliked the idea of an adulterous relationship between Anne and "John Morgan" (Chester Morris), that M-G-M production chief Irving Thalberg decided to reshoot several key scenes and change Anne to Kent's sister. In the 19 Jan 1946 Life magazine column "The Role I Liked Best," Morris called Mogran his favorite screen character.
       The Big House was the first M-G-M film for Beery, who went on to many roles similar to Butch in his long and successful career at the studio. Additionally, The Big House was instrumental in the rise in popularity of Morris and Montgomery, the latter of whom was an M-G-M contract player into the late 1940s.
       M-G-M produced versions of The Big House in Spanish, German, and French, with various directors and stars, among them Charles Boyer, who appeared in the French version. For information on the foreign-language versions, please consult the entry for El Presidio. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Exhibitors Herald-World
5 Jul 1930
p. 35.
Film Daily
29 Jun 1930
p. 10.
International Photographer
Sep 1930
p. 45-46.
Life
11 Jul 1930
p. 17.
New York Daily News
25 Jun 1930.
---
New York Times
25 Jun 1930
p. 31.
New York Times
29 Jun 1930
p. 3.
New Yorker
5 Jul 1930
p. 46.
The Saturday Evening Post
19 Jan 1946.
---
Time
7 Jul 1930
p. 62.
Variety
9 Jul 1930
p. 25.
DETAILS
Release Date:
June 1930
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 24 June 1930
Copyright Claimant:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Distributing Corp.
Copyright Date:
19 June 1930
Copyright Number:
LP1367
Physical Properties:
Sound
Movietone
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
80 or 84
Length(in feet):
7,901
Length(in reels):
10
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Kent Marlowe, a frightened young man convicted of manslaughter while driving drunk, becomes cellmates with hardened prisoners "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt and John Morgan, who are serving time, respectively, for homicide and robbery. Conditions at the prison are extremely harsh, especially in the prison mess, where the convicts are fed small amounts of spoiled, inedible food. One day, when Butch loudly objects to the food, causing an unruly outpouring of complaints from the other prisoners, Warden James Adams orders him to be placed in solitary confinement, called "the dungeon," for thirty days. Before he is taken away, Bush passes his contraband knife down a row of prisoners until it reaches an anxious Kent. When yard snitch Oliver later tells Kent that his time in prison could be significantly shortened if he passes on information to the guards, his naiveté and fear cause him to hide the knife among Morgan's things. When head guard Wallace searches Morgan's bunk, he finds the knife and sends him to the dungeon, even though Morgan was to be paroled the next day and swears that the knife is not his. At the end of his time in the dungeon, Morgan feigns unconsciousness and is taken to the prison hospital. Late that night, by sneaking away from his hospital bed and changing places with the corpse of another prisoner who has just died, Morgan is able to escape the prison in the mortician's wagon. Intending to get back at Kent, whom he deduces planted the knife, Morgan goes to a bookstore owned by his sister Anne, whom Morgan had briefly seen visiting Kent in prison. Although Anne recognizes ... +


Kent Marlowe, a frightened young man convicted of manslaughter while driving drunk, becomes cellmates with hardened prisoners "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt and John Morgan, who are serving time, respectively, for homicide and robbery. Conditions at the prison are extremely harsh, especially in the prison mess, where the convicts are fed small amounts of spoiled, inedible food. One day, when Butch loudly objects to the food, causing an unruly outpouring of complaints from the other prisoners, Warden James Adams orders him to be placed in solitary confinement, called "the dungeon," for thirty days. Before he is taken away, Bush passes his contraband knife down a row of prisoners until it reaches an anxious Kent. When yard snitch Oliver later tells Kent that his time in prison could be significantly shortened if he passes on information to the guards, his naiveté and fear cause him to hide the knife among Morgan's things. When head guard Wallace searches Morgan's bunk, he finds the knife and sends him to the dungeon, even though Morgan was to be paroled the next day and swears that the knife is not his. At the end of his time in the dungeon, Morgan feigns unconsciousness and is taken to the prison hospital. Late that night, by sneaking away from his hospital bed and changing places with the corpse of another prisoner who has just died, Morgan is able to escape the prison in the mortician's wagon. Intending to get back at Kent, whom he deduces planted the knife, Morgan goes to a bookstore owned by his sister Anne, whom Morgan had briefly seen visiting Kent in prison. Although Anne recognizes Morgan, when a policeman acquaintance, Sgt. Donlin, comes into her shop while Morgan is there, she covers for him, saying he is an old friend named Everett. Morgan starts a job and begins to spend time with Anne and her family, and the two fall in love, but his freedom is short-lived when Donlin, who had recognized Morgan, arrests him at the Marlowes' home. Back at prison, Morgan determines that he will serve his time and start life over when he is released. Butch wants Morgan to come with him, Kent and some of the other prisoners who are planning a prison break, but Morgan refuses, saying that he plans to go straight, despite the wretched food and horrible conditions at the prison. On the day of the planned escape, just before noon, when the attempt will be made, Morgan is called into the prison office. When Butch and some of the others start to break through the prison gates, which were momentarily opened to allow fellow conspirator Gopher, the prison gardener, hand a bunch of flowers to a guard, they are greeted by Wallace's men firing machine guns at them. Butch is convinced that Morgan had revealed their plans, even though Morgan refused to give Wallace any information. Unknown to Butch, Wallace has confirmed to Morgan that Kent is the informer. After some of the prisoners are killed in the escape attempt, Butch and his remaining cohorts barricade themselves inside a cellblock and, using prison machine guns they have confiscated, threaten to kill all of the guards they have taken prisoner. Morgan risks his life to save some of the guards, despite being wounded. As tear gas canisters and finally an army tank enter the cell block, a panicked Kent is killed. Butch, who has been mortally wounded, is about to kill Morgan when one of the other prisoners reveals that it was Kent who was the informer. As he dies, Butch smiles at his friend, saying he would never kill him and was "just kidding." After the riot is quelled, Morgan is proclaimed a hero and pardoned by the governor. He promises Adams that he will go straight from now on and plans to move to the islands or another country where government lands are available. As he leaves the prison gates, Morgan is embraced by Anne, who has been waiting for him. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.