Directed by George W. Hill
Screenplay by Frances Marion, additional dialog by Joe Farnham and Martin Flavin
Starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion and J.C. Nugent
Old movies are just different. That’s a fact. They come from a different time, they come from a different era, they came from a different sensibility.
They are products of their environment.
And yet, too often people forget that. Instead, they get too stuck in their own love of the present – or the near-present – and everything from it, and everything it does, to be able to look through the world they’re used to in order to see something of value in what come before them. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard somebody complain about a movie being in black and white, or the old garish Technicolor, and therefore not being worth their time, I wouldn’t have money to retire on, but I could at least get a cup of coffee.
Here’s the thing: Comparing films of yesteryear with films of a more contemporary vintage is unfair. Moreover, it does both types of films a disservice. It punishes the old film for being old and discounts any gems to be found. Moreover, it inherently damns current movies to a lack of relevance because, if old movies must be discarded by virtue of being ‘different’, there will come a day when current movies have no value because the medium of film has passed them by just as well. After all, what might look like cutting-edge special effects today will almost surely look ridiculous in just a few years, and will look beyond-amateurish in a couple decades. So current film, old film? Both are destined for the scrap heap and all of film is disposable.
Perhaps we should all just agree that, in the future, we’ll treat movies as a result of the work of professionals, who were doing the best they could with what they had at the time. And if technically, or stylistically, they clash with what we’re used to, we should at least appreciate the chance to see where we came from, learn from that history, and stop being the bunch of basic bitches we’ve all become.
What’s It About?
Dateline – The Big House. A man arrives at prison (Montgomery), fresh off a manslaughter conviction for killing a man while drunk driving. He is assigned to a cell with a machine-gun killer (Beery) and a thief (Morris). Through them we get a sense of life in jail, we see an escape, and eventually the violent death of two of our three protagonists in another escape.
How Was It?
Not bad, actually, but not great. Which is like damning it with faint praise, but c’est la vie.
Looking past the technical differences of a 1930s film and a film of today, of which there are many, the film is a bit of an unfocused mess and lacks a cohesive narrative arc to hold it together.
At first, when Montgomery arrives in the prison, we’re given some hint the film is going to be about the wimp-Montgomery being rudely initiated into the ways of jail life, and possibly broken by them. After all, he’s a bit of a sop, thrown into a cell with hard men. And while the film gives us hints of this intention – it shows us some of the indignities of prison life – it quickly dispatches with that idea, focusing instead on a man (Morris) escaping from prison, and what he does on the outside. And while he’s gone? The prison might as well not exist, because we don’t return to it until he does.
And when we return to it, Montgomery’s role is diminished down to about nothing. Morris, too, is all-but-marginalized as the film focuses on Beery’s escape attempt, thwarted when Montgomery turns stool pigeon.
To put it simply – the film isn’t sure what it’s point is, what it’s story should be, and neither do I.
Beyond this, the film is directed rather bland, which is not something it needed to be. After all, there were no technical limitations in play at the time requiring the director to simply put the camera down and shepherd the actors back and forth in front of it. The art of filmmaking had progressed enough by that time that there was no reason the film couldn’t have some life.
Indeed, there is one memorable shot, late on, that proves it could. This is when the camera rises up along the full height of the cell block, following the inmates up the winding stair case the inmates have to climb to get up and down the block. There is little point to the shot, other than to show us the cellblock in its full height, but after the film spent most of the previous time being a bit dull in direction, it stood out.
In the end, it comes down to this – the film is 87 minutes long and feels flabby and undeveloped.
Wallace Beery – Oscar Nominee
Wallace Beery plays the one true killer in the film, Butch. He’s the only one of our three heroes in prison for murder, and has no real hope of getting out alive. Moreover, he’s built for prison, being a rough and tumble type, who can be both threatening, and courtly.
For the role, Beery was nominated for Best Actor, the first of two back-to-back Best Actor nominations he’d receive. My first thought on this is that how in the hell Beery was nominated for Best Actor for a role that is rightfully supporting? Yes, it’s the featured supporting role, but it’s still supporting.
And, if I’m honest, there is no lead in the film – they are all supporting. After all, each of the men is the focus of about a third-to-half the film – some stories overlap – and at least two of them are basically offscreen altogether for about a third of the film. If any of the men are the lead, it’s Morris, followed by Beery, then Montgomery.
Of course, at the time of the 1930/1931 Oscars, you couldn’t have this argument – there was only a single acting category for each gender. Best Actor and Best Actress. It would be another five years, in 1936, before a Supporting Actor/Actress category was finally added. So, if you put on a good show, you were in the Best Actor category, no matter how much or how little screen time you have.
All of this ignores whether Beery is worthy of the nomination, and without having seen too many films of that era, I can only give a qualified, “Yes.”
Of the three men in the film, Beery is the standout. Where Montgomery plays a one-note ‘wimp’ who turns stool pigeon to save his own neck, and where Morris plays his character as some sort of cliché of the 1930s tough guy, Beery actually gives some depth to his character. It’s Beery’s job to play the hard man, who’s also a softy, and he does it well. He can both hulk and charm. Beery also invests Butch with pathos, most visible in how he handles the letter he’s received, when we realize he’s not just some ape. He is truly a dangerous man with a soft side.
But even at it’s most basic level, Beery just has presence. Where everybody else seems to be acting, he is present. Not as if he’s acting, but as if it is real. It makes him believable, which is all any actor should hope to be.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 1929/1930 was All Quiet On The Western Front, Lewis Milestones anti-war epic. That film is long, earnest, and definitely stands by it’s convictions. Which is it’s problem – I remember the film putting more importance on the message than on the story and filmmaking, so found it more-than-a-little tedious. And while I don’t think The Big House is any great shakes on it’s own – it’s fine, but at least it’s short – if I had to choose which of these two to sit down and watch, it’s definitely The Big House.
A Wally Beery Picture
Most people might only know the name Wallace Beery these days from the constant references to him in Barton Fink – it is a Wally Beery wrestling picture that Barton is paid to write. Naturally, the joke here is that Fink wants to make art, and you can’t make art with a Wally Beery wrestling picture. Of course, we know this is decidedly untrue – Darron Aronofsky sure made art with his wrestling picture – but obviously the bigger joke in that statement is that all the time Fink was looking down on the film he was meant to write, he ignored that plenty of people had already made plenty of art out of Wally Beery genre flicks.
Hey, I Know That Dude
Playing the small role of Putnam is character actor, Roscoe Ates. He’s not the kind of character actor you’ll remember from history, like Walter Brennan, and Ates doesn’t do anything special in the role to make him standout from the crowd – at least from an acting standpoint. On the whole, he would otherwise be unmemorable here should he not do the one thing he seemed to excel in – his stuttering. The second he came onscreen and started doing the stuttering schtick, I immediately perked up, because, “Hey, I know that dude!” Because he did the exact same sort of routine just a year later in the Best Picture winning Cimarron.
It’s Sort Of Strange, But…
But the prison these fellas are in seems to be white’s only. I didn’t notice it right at first but as time went on it dawned on me that there were no people of any color but white on the screen. It was only in a wide shot when you finally spot one black guy and that’s it. To have a movie about a prison, which can be excepted to have been the most racially diverse settings in America at any time, to have only white men seemed strange. Part of me wants to chalk this up to there being segregated prisons at that time, though I doubt it, because I don’t think that was a thing. More likely is the studio behind the film just did not want to pay black actors if they could avoid it. Or, did not think a movie with a black actor in the background would do well at the box office.
In the end, I suspect this is just another instance of the subtle racism that existed in the early-1930s.
Update (March 12, 2018, 12:45 p.m.): Oops, turns out I already did an Also-Ran’s entry on 1929/1930, on The Love Parade. But rather than take one or the other down and act like it doesn’t exist, we’ll just let it go with two entries for the year.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 See also, “I don’t like reading movies,” said about foreign films.
 The one real technical question I have about the film – beyond the terrible matte paintings of the prison – is why was the film shot with a ‘vignette’ shadow around the edges of most of the scenes? Was this a limitation of the cameras at the time, or was this some sort of choice on the part of the director and studio?
 He would actually cop an Oscar on his second nom, for The Champ, though he didn’t actually ‘win’. At the time, Oscar rules allowed that if the top vote getters were within three votes of one another, they’d both win. Well, at the time they also announced the vote totals for the awards. Which is how we know that Wallace Beery lost the race to Frederic March by one vote, but still wound up an Oscar. Later on, the rules changed so only actual ties counted.
 Well, by ‘most’ I mean ‘some’, given Barton Fink did not actually set the box office on fire at the time, and has never been more than a cult film. Which means that most people likely don’t remember Wallace Beery at all, and those that do probably know him more from references in that movie than anything else.
 The Wrestler.
 Because nobody cares much about segregation when you’re just throwing people in prison.