BEHIND BARS: THE BIG HOUSE (1930)

May 13, 2014

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Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.

The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.

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Prison riots were a major story in 1929, with huge uprisings occurring across the country, from Colorado to New York. President Hoover launched an investigation into its causes. George Hill believed a major problem was mixing hardened criminals with first-time offenders, and wrote a 27-page story treatment called The Reign of Terror: A Story of Crime and Punishment. Irving Thalberg liked the idea, and assigned Hill’s friend Frances Marion to help him work out an outline for a script (they enjoyed their work together and married soon after production in 1930). The potentially controversial subject was cleared with the Hays Office, who provided Marion and Hill with an “expert”, one P.W. Garrett, the general secretary of the National Society of Penal Information. Marion wanted more than second-hand information, however, and arranged to receive a tour of San Quentin. In her biography of Marion, Cari Beauchamp quotes her as feeling she was an object of “repressed ridicule” in the male-dominated institution. She trudged ahead anyway, and was inspired to cast the comedian Roscoe Ates when she met a stuttering inmate in the prison garden.

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Hill was personally invested in the material, and was intent on presenting a starkly realistic portrait of prison life. It is strongest in its earlier stages, when its emphasis is on the procedural day-to-day of the jail. The movie begins with the processing of Kent, the wilted playboy convicted for a ten-year stretch for a New Year’s Eve hit and run. In head-on, planimetric compositions, Kent is poked and prodded and set on the assembly line from man to number. He gets his mug shot, is measured for clothes, and is spit out as another faceless inmate, just another pair of gray pants and plodding shoes trudging in circles, which is the image that runs underneath the title. Kent’s final initiation is a walk up a spiral staircase to his room, which the camera follows in an rising crane shot. It’s one that Fejos would probably scoff at, after the 50ft camera crane he constructed for Broadway (’29), but Hill’s is effective in its own modest way, Kent’s rise up the stairs sealing his fall from grace.

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The strongest impact in The Big House is felt through the sound, whether its Wallace Beery thundering against the “swill” he’s forced to eat at meal times (a scene memorably parodied in Naked Gun 33 1/3), or the metronome of marching feet that morphs into that of machine guns at the film’s close. The most experimental use of sound occurs in solitary, or the “dungeon”, as its called in the movie. After Morgan is denied parole for a crime he didn’t commit, he is shoved into a cell, right next door to Butch. After the door seals him in, the camera does not cut to the interior. Instead it stays on the darkened hallway with no human activity. No words are spoken for fifteen seconds, the image a silent tomb. Then Butch bellows “Hello!”, and begins a bull session with Morgan, the camera remaining in the static hallway. For two minutes the camera doesn’t move, nor is an actor shown. All of the action is off-screen and in the viewer’s head. It’s a challenging gesture, and one only possible in the early days of sound, when the status quo had yet to be defined.

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The Paul Fejos version is exactly the same in almost every particular. The only freedom Fejos seems to have been given is the ability to position actors in the frame, as even the camera positions are nearly identical. Fejos recalled little of the project: “Possibly the only interesting thing in it was that I imported for Big House an actor who afterwards became quite a potentate in Hollywood – Charles Boyer.” Boyer gives a more dashing rendition of Morgan, more of a witty Lubitsch thief than the working class thug that Hill elicited from Morris. Morris recalled Hill’s requests for unadorned performance:  “If someone overacted, he had the scene done over, scoffing, ‘You did that like a New York actor.’ His technique was like Spencer Tracy’s – underacting.”

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Both Fejos and Hill were not long for Hollywood. After Fejos was denied the directing job on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, directed by Lewis Milestone), he lost interest in dealing with the studio machine, and his fortunes dwindled respectively. His unfond memories: “I found Hollywood phony. I found everything artificial. I found the people impossible . . . writers—so-called writers—utterly unintelligent, utterly uneducated, stupid hacks.” He wanted to return closer to the world, without interference, and he did so in his few films abroad, including the Austrian production Ray of Sunshine (1933). He eventually ditched artifice altogether to study anthropology. He stopped making films in 1941 to study his new obsession, which he later taught at Yale, Stanford and Columbia, and became the president of the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. George W. Hill had no such second life. His alcoholism busted up the marriage to Frances Marion, and sabotaged his work. After he suffered a concussion and cracked ribs in a car accident, he sunk into a depression. He died at the age of 39 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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