Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Big House (1930)

The Big House (1930) takes place in an over-crowded Art Deco prison.

Warden James Arden (Lewis Stone) presides over the prisoners at a safe distance, so as not to get his suit and bow-tie dirty.

Now for the prisoners...

Prisoner #44789

John  "Morg" Morgan (Chester Morris) Morgan is a slick robber with a talent for wielding guns. After putting in 3 years with good behavior, Morgan's just about ready to get out of prison, into the real world and into the arms of some understanding dame. But the Big House doesn't quite want to spit him out yet.

Prisoner #42633

Butch "Machine Gun" Schmidt (Wallace Beery) This big lug has a weak spot for his momma but has no qualms about gunning down the whole DeLacey gang in one fell swoop ($500 for all three!). He's got opinions and he's not afraid to share him. His mind is always on the dames. Butch is the type to kiss a gal one moment and knock out her teeth the next.

Prisoner # 48642

Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) A yellow-bellied fish* (*a term for a new inmate) gets thrown into the slammer for vehicular manslaughter as a result of having too many drinks on one fateful night. Marlowe's from a respectable and wealthy family and feels he doesn't belong in the slammer and will do anything to get out. Even if it means backstabbing his fellow prisoners.

It gets mighty lonely for a chap in prison with all those other chaps. Butch entertains the other prisoners by fake reading letters from a fictional girlfriend named Myrtle, who just adores her great big boy. He also entertains himself with the thought of all notches that are supposed to exist on bedposts around the area.

Morgan has his eye on Marlowe's sister Anne (Leila Hyams) who looks positively angelic in the photo Marlowe carries around with him. Her blonde curls frame her face almost like a halo. Morgan gets several glimpses of Anne before he can lay his hands on the real thing. First a picture, then a glance during visiting hours, then it's a visit to the bookstore where Anne works. Morgan envisions a new life in the Pacific Islands and Anne is just the sort of dame he'd like to take with him. She's a good virginal specimen. Or is she? Morgan possesses her with his stare and she seems willing to be possessed. He comes looking for her and she thinks it's to seek revenge against her for her brother's backstabbing. However, she caves in to his good looks, his charm and a little taste of danger that could spice up her life.

Who knew a film about a bunch of men in prison could be so sexy?

The Big House (1930) is available on DVD as part of the Warner Home Archive collection.


  1. I want to see this movie. Why? Because Karl Dane is in it. ;D

  2. I love this film so much, adore Robert Montgomery! I think I remember Robert Osborne saying that the "sister" was originally his wife, but they thought that was too risque (for Chester Morris to steal his wife?) and dubbed the word "sister" in. Since this is pre-code, and wife-stealing isn't so daring, that seems odd..

    haha bringing sexy back. (twitter) :)

  3. oh man i LOVE this film, excellent choice Quelle!
    the Grand daddy of all men in prison films! Just Wallace Beery alone would make it worthwhile but i like Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery (such a spineless weasil in this!) as well, and i think Leila Hyams was one of the most beautiful stars of her era, i'd watch her in anything! Did you know Beery's role was originally supposed to be played by Lon Chaney? but Chaney suddenly died and so Beery got the role that basically made him into a HUGE star.
    for all i've read and heard about Wallace Beery i'd say this role is probly closest to how he's described as being in real life...NOT a nice guy!

  4. I do love this movie, especially the art deco sets. Who knew that a prison could look so good?

  5. "Who knew a film about a bunch of men in prison could be so sexy?"

    Um, me! Prison movies always have at least one scene where the men are stripped down. It's de rigeur.

  6. Nothing like raw physical power and a dash of corruption to spice up the justice system, eh? Women in prison also make for diabolical fun—there's a guy in France trying to catalog every Women in Prison film ever made! Talk about your niche markets.
    Great choice, Quelle!

  7. When you noted "art deco prison," I thought it might be a fun place to visit. Oh wait, that whole prison part... (lol)

  8. This movie relaunched Wallace Beery's huge career. Lon Chaney was originally cast in the part (the only other extant actor with Beery's raw power) but died of throat cancer. Beery, a huge supporting actor in the silent era, couldn't get work after the advent of sound because of his peculiar voice (similar to fellow Irishman Arthur Godfrey's) but Irving Thalberg realized how perfect for movies it was, dropped him into the now available Chaney part, and within a couple of years he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, with an MGM contract stipulating that he be paid $1 more than any other actor, a clause that haunted the studio when they hired Garbo for a then-astronomical sum, momentarily forgetting that they'd have to match it for Beery. A few years after that, Beery, gangster Pat DiCicco, and DiCicco's 19-year-old nephew "Cubby" Broccoli allegedly beat Ted Healy, original organizer of the 3 Stooges, to death in the parking lot of the Trocadero nightclub, according to a recent book about MGM's "fixers." Beery was sent by the studio to Europe until the heat was off and a story was concocted that it was 3 "college students" who killed Healy instead, then escaped.

  9. Call me shallow, but I want to see this movie because Robert Montgomery looks HOT in that picture. :-P


Leave me a comment! If it is a long one, make sure you save a draft of it elsewhere just in case Google gobbles it up and spits it out.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook