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Flower shop girl Sidney has the bad luck to have a vicious hoodlum fall for her in a big way. When she prefers Raymond, the hood has them both framed for murder. Some powerful moments when they're allowed to see each other for a few brief moments in the penitentiary not long before he's to be executed, and it turns out that the meeting been arranged merely to give a tabloid a photo op. The conventions of "the big house" story seem to have been already firmly established by 1931: the snitch with the facial tic, the girl with phony society airs, the tough gal, the big break, the heavy-set matron (Jane Darwell, unbilled), Beavers as a friendly "hot music" loving mama. The story, the characterizations, the writing, all have the familiarity of the mid-thirties; solid entertainment, but not with the freshness found in so many pre-Code films.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In several previous IMDb reviews, I've expressed my distaste for Sylvia
Sidney's acting. Stop the presses! I've finally seen her give a good
performance, in 'Ladies of the Big House'. Yes, it's a women's prison
movie, and I was pleased that two of the clichés of 1930s women's
prison movies were avoided: for once, the cellblocks are racially
integrated, and also there are no smirking references to lesbianism.
The premise of the film is somewhat contrived. Sidney's character is mildly criminal, but she dumps mobster Earle Foxe for a guy she's just met: Gene Raymond, as an engineer who's got a big damn project (I mean, a big DAM project) in South America. They get hitched, but before the marriage can be consummated, Foxe shoots cop Robert Emmett O'Connor and frames the newlyweds. They get sent to a co-ed prison, but they're staying in separate dorms: in fact, Raymond goes to Death Row. Sidney's cellblock has a lovely view of the prison courtyard and the gallows, so she'll be able to watch her husband hang for a murder he didn't commit.
As usual, there's some bad B-movie dialogue. When Sidney enters the prison, a female lag smirks and declares: 'Didja pipe the fish that just came in?' Another inmate is a pregnant Mexican who keeps lapsing into Spanish ... but when she dies, with nobody present to hear her last words, she implausibly lapses into English. On the night before Raymond is scheduled to hang, Sidney tells him: 'Wherever you go, I'm going.' At the end of the movie, there's a rather contrived visual device to mislead the audience about Raymond's fate. Plausibility is also weakened because Sylvia Sidney wears full makeup throughout her prison scenes: yes, I know that most female convicts have access to cosmetics, but in this case I get the impression that Paramount just didn't want to take the risk of letting Sylvia Sidney attempt a natural look.
End of bad news. Now the good news. There are several standout performances in this film. The best performance is by Wynne Gibson, as the tough moll who hates Sidney but (very plausibly) endangers herself to help Sidney when she realises that Sidney's been framed. Roscoe Karns, who was usually given weak material, is superb here as a condemned inmate who passes the time on Death Row by playing Twenty Questions, and then touchingly guesses the right answer just before he hangs. Louise Beavers, reprieved for once from her typecasting as a chucklin' maid, makes the most of a meaty role as an inmate who murdered her husband (who apparently deserved it). There are also fine performances from Evelyn Preer and Edna Bennett as inmates. Sylvia Sidney gives a genuinely impressive and convincing performance as the wife who risks her life in an escape attempt, desperately hoping to clear her doomed husband. The good performances outweigh all the clichés and implausibilities in this movie, and 'Ladies of the Big House' rates a solid 8 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wynne Gibson was marvellous at playing hard, flinty dames - usually
with hearts of stone. She made her debut in "Nothing But the Truth"
where she played Sabel, a tough talking chorus girl looking out for her
"simple" sister Mabel (Helen Kane). She did play a few Stella Dallas/
Madame X type parts but it was in roles such as Susie in "Ladies of the
Big House" that she is remembered - even though she shares a cell with
the Princess of the Down Trodden - Sylvia Sidney. This film really
packs a wallop - there is even a jail break - lead by Sylvia!!!
Tough gangster Kid Athens (Earle Fox) is completely smitten with beautiful florist Kathleen (Sylvia Sidney) but she is definitely not interested, especially when she finds out his line of business. When she meets and marries Standish O'Neil (Gene Raymond), Athens is so incensed that he frames them for murder and before you know it - Standish is facing the gallows and Kathleen is looking at many years behind bars. The only friend Kathleen finds in prison is Ivory (Louise Beavers) - the rest are firmly behind hard hearted Susie (Wynne Gibson) who vows to make life behind bars tough for the newcomer. Susie has her own reasons - she was Athen's girl before he got her sent up on a trumped up charge so he could romance Kathy. But when a vicious female warder conspires with a reporter to have a picture of the two "love- birds" plastered over the front page and does it in a really deceitful way - the inmates go over to Kathy's side. Susie even recognises the murder weapon as being a gun she had given Athens as a present. She then helps Kathy in a daring escape bid. A young mother to be is gunned down but Kathy almost makes it as she tries to swim to safety. All this time nothing much is going on at the men's prison except a game of 20 Questions. Kathy can't get anyone to believe in their innocence because the person in charge, Martin Doremus (Rockcliffe Fellowes), is also in Athen's pay.
This is a really super film - I could imagine that it would have been very popular in it's day - it had everything that people would expect from a prison movie - stool pigeons, fights, jail breaks - and all taking place in the woman's prison!!! Gene Raymond, in one of his first films, was competent and handsome but the film belonged to the ladies. Sylvia Sidney, breathtakingly beautiful, showed why Paramount had such faith in her - she is sensational. Wynne Gibson, even though she was only in her 20s, made you believe she really was that tough (except for the poignant scene where Kathy and she become friends). Noel Francis - why, oh why didn't she become a bigger star, she had the looks and the ability. She has the small part of Kathy's assistant in the flower shop.
When the film begins, nice girl Kathleen (Sylvia Sidney) learns that
her boyfriend is a gangster and she dumps him. A bit later, she meets a
nice guy, Stan (Gene Raymond) and they fall in love and marry. However,
the old gangster boyfriend is enraged and vows to get even. So, he
sneaks into her place and shoots a cop...and plants evidence to make it
look like she did it. Then, she and her new husband are sent to prison.
The film mostly follows her during her incarceration but you also see
Stan...on Death Row!
What happens inside prison to Kathleen is what makes this film interesting. The inmates, for the most part, are NOT shown as homicidal maniacs and deviants...nor is the prison staff. Instead the main focus is on Stan's upcoming execution and the efforts of women in the prison to help Kathleen. However, the prosecutor is corrupt and evil...and in league with the real murderer!!
The cast of this film is very good and I particularly liked Louise Beavers and thought it interesting that a black prisoner would be so sweet and decent in a 1930s film. Jane Darwell is also in the film but this film actually is well done all around. Perhaps not 100% believable but often underplayed and intelligently written and directed. It helped that they didn't make everyone sadistic and evil--and there was some real depth to the prisoners.
By the way, one shortcoming of the film is that the evidence that convicted both people seemed flimsy--especially since they didn't have criminal records nor was there any motive for their killing him...none.
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