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The Big House (1930)

Passed | | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 14 June 1930 (USA)
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.

Directors:

George W. Hill (as George Hill), Ward Wing (uncredited)

Writers:

Frances Marion (story and dialogue), Joseph Farnham (additional dialogue) (as Joe Farnham) | 1 more credit »
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Won 2 Oscars. Another 2 nominations. See more awards »

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
Chester Morris ... John Morgan
Wallace Beery ... Machine Gun 'Butch' Schmidt
Lewis Stone ... Warden James Adams
Robert Montgomery ... Kent Marlowe
Leila Hyams ... Anne Marlowe
George F. Marion ... Pop
J.C. Nugent J.C. Nugent ... Mr. Marlowe
Karl Dane ... Olsen
DeWitt Jennings ... Wallace
Matthew Betz ... Gopher (as Mathew Betz)
Claire McDowell ... Mrs. Marlowe
Robert Emmett O'Connor ... Donlin (as Robert Emmet O'Connor)
Tom Kennedy ... Uncle Jed (scenes deleted)
Tom Wilson ... Sandy
Eddie Foyer Eddie Foyer ... Dopey
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Storyline

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 <kyousten@bev.net>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Taglines:

See 3,000 desperate convicts in their break for freedom! (Print Ad- Edmonton Journal, ((Edmonton Alta.)) 5 August 1930) See more »

Genres:

Crime | Drama | Thriller

Certificate:

Passed | See all certifications »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English | Russian

Release Date:

14 June 1930 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Big House See more »

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Box Office

Budget:

$414,000 (estimated)
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.20 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

Lon Chaney was originally cast in the role of Butch Schmidt. Due to his untimely illness, the role was given to Wallace Beery. See more »

Goofs

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

Quotes

'Machine Gun' Butch Schmidt: What's your name?
'Machine Gun' Butch Schmidt: [after getting no response] I said what's your name?
Kent: Kent Marlowe.
'Machine Gun' Butch Schmidt: Mine's Schmidt. I'm known the world over as "Machine Gun Butch." You heard of me, naturally.
'Machine Gun' Butch Schmidt: [after Kent shakes his head 'no.'] Never heard of the Delancey Gang bein' wiped out? Well, I done the wipin'.
See more »


Soundtracks

Ring the Bells of Heaven
(1866) (uncredited)
Music by George Frederick Root
Words by William O. Cushing
Sung by the Prisoners in Chapel
See more »

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User Reviews

 
You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!
27 December 2014 | by mmallon4See all my reviews

I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming off as worn out clichés.

The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30's and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However, I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn't have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, let alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film, you can tell he's completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide-eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it's a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.

Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However, I feel these technical limitations are one of the film's greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.

The film's screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personnel when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don't look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison's warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don't care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.


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