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The Big House (1930)

Passed  |   |  Crime, Drama, Romance  |  14 June 1930 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.2/10 from 1,185 users  
Reviews: 19 user | 20 critic

A convict falls in love with his new cellmate's sister, only to become embroiled in a planned break-out which is certain to have lethal consequences.


(as George Hill) , (uncredited)


(story), (additional dialogue) (as Joe Farnham) , 1 more credit »
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Title: The Big House (1930)

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Won 2 Oscars. Another 2 nominations. See more awards »
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After a failed attempt at running for governor, D.A. Mark Brady is appointed warden of the state prison where many of the criminals he prosecuted are incarcerated.

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Cast overview, first billed only:
George F. Marion ...
J.C. Nugent ...
Mr. Marlowe
DeWitt Jennings ...
Matthew Betz ...
Gopher (as Mathew Betz)
Mrs. Marlowe
Robert Emmett O'Connor ...
Donlin (as Robert Emmet O'Connor)
Tom Kennedy ...
Uncle Jed (scenes deleted)
Tom Wilson ...
Eddie Foyer ...


After a manslaughter conviction from drunk driving, nice but foolish Kent is sent to a prison over-crowded and unable to properly deal with it's inmates. There he meets veteran criminals like Morgan and his hardened pal Butch. And the system punishes them all, turning them against each other and bringing out the worst. Written by Ken Yousten <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Timely! Tremendous! Thrilling! Drama of Love and a Jail-Break!


Passed | See all certifications »





Release Date:

14 June 1930 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Big House  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

(Western Electric Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.20 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


MGM Production Chief Irving Thalberg sent screenwriter Frances Marion to San Quentin State Prison in northern California to be observe real prison conditions and adapt them as closely as possible to her script. The warden at the prison reminded Marion of the actor Lewis Stone, who was cast to play the prison warden in the film. See more »


The hallway area outside Butch and Kent's cell changes between scenes, possibly due to re-shoots (see trivia). See more »


Warden: [to Kent] And remember, this prison does not give a man a yellow streak, but if he has one, it brings it out.
See more »


Referenced in Chicago (2002) See more »


(1862) (uncredited)
Music by Daniel Butterfield
Played offscreen by a bugler
See more »

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User Reviews

Jail House Classic Still Rocks
2 January 2001 | by (Forest Ranch, CA) – See all my reviews

THE BIG HOUSE - prison of no hope - the last terminal for lost souls. Only the strong survive; the weak crack or are corrupted. As the warden shrewdly tells a new arrival, the place won't make you go yellow, but it you already are yellow it'll bring it out.

MGM was the only studio in Hollywood which would have let a female write the script for such a strong story. But in Frances Marion they not only had the most celebrated screenwriter in the industry, but also a person uniquely qualified to write about any situation. She headed off to California's notorious San Quentin Prison to observe the conditions & learn the lingo. Cheerfully deflecting the jibes & taunts of guards & prisoners alike, she reminded them that after being a frontline correspondent in the Great War there were few situations she couldn't handle.

The result is a wonderful film, tough, hard-bitten & stark. MGM did itself proud by supplying a terrific cast and production values. The scene where belligerent Wallace Beery refuses to eat the commissary slop remains a classic.

Chester Morris does a fine job as a resourceful crook who is actually helped by his time in prison, reformed against his will. This excellent actor is too often ignored when the histories of 1930's cinema are written. Wallace Beery, as murderous Butch, is absolutely unforgettable. Marion wrote the part with him in mind & it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing it. Lovable & dangerous in equal measure, he steals every scene he's in. THE BIG HOUSE would set Beery firmly on the road to major talkie stardom.

Robert Montgomery, on the cusp of his own salad days as a sophisticated, romantic leading man, here plays quite a different role. As a weak, cowardly stool pigeon, he's cast very much against type. It would be 1937's NIGHT MUST FALL before he received another such finely-nuanced role.

Lewis Stone is very effective in the small role as the tough-as-nails warden. Beautiful Leila Hyams is well-cast as Mongomery's spunky sister. George F. Marion & DeWitt Jennings are both memorable as elderly security guards. Champion stutterer Roscoe Ates provides a few moments of much needed comic relief.

Karl Dane is easily spotted as a hulking convict in several scenes, but he is curiously mute. Doubtless, his thick Danish accent was already giving the Studio trouble. Even though he had been an important comic star in silent pictures, he was quickly relegated to talkie bit parts. He was eventually further reduced to selling hot dogs from a cart outside the MGM front gates. This was the final indignity. He committed suicide in 1934.

Preview audiences were curiously cool to THE BIG HOUSE, until MGM executive Irving Thalberg figured out that female viewers didn't like con Chester Morris romancing another prisoner's wife. Thalberg instructed Marion to rewrite a few scenes and refilming made it clear that Leila Hyams was Robert Montgomery's sister, not his spouse. This pleased the patrons and the movie was a big hit.

15 of 16 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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