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The Big House

Released Jun 14, 1930 1h 27m Crime Drama List
75% Tomatometer 8 Reviews 71% Audience Score 250+ Ratings
After being convicted of manslaughter, drunk driver Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is inducted into the rigors of prison life. He befriends fellow cons "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt (Wallace Beery) and John Morgan (Chester Morris). Together they bristle at the prison's deplorable conditions and especially the inhumane policies of their cruel warden (Lewis Stone). Rising tensions culminate in a prison riot that may shake the institution to its core. Read More Read Less
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Critics Reviews

View All (8) Critics Reviews
Noel Murray The Dissolve It's an outsized, abstracted version of everyday life circa 1930. Rated: 3.5/5 Apr 7, 2014 Full Review Harry Alan Potamkin The New Masses Dialogue cannot carry the mood, the film as a whole is the vehicle. The accusations therefore remain incidents -- passing and unemphatic. Whatever suggestion of social guilt they contain is dissipated by the events of the story, and their treatment. Sep 6, 2019 Full Review Raquel Stecher Out of the Past George W. Hill expertly directed the film and some of the scenes with prisoners en masse are beautifully choreographed. I love how cinematographer Harold Wenstrom plays with light and shadow especially in the earlier part of the movie. Mar 3, 2019 Full Review Emanuel Levy EmanuelLevy.Com A good early prison drama with a strong, Oscar-nominated performance of Wallace Beery as a tough murderer; Beery took over after Lon Chaney's sudden death. Rated: B Feb 12, 2008 Full Review Dennis Schwartz Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews Despite its flaws, for those who love this genre it's a must see film. Rated: C+ Jan 23, 2008 Full Review Michael W. Phillips, Jr. Goatdog's Movies Any niggling doubts about the film disappear in the last twenty minutes. Rated: 3.5/5 Jun 25, 2005 Full Review Read all reviews

Audience Reviews

View All (24) audience reviews
Louisa E I loved Beery in this movie. I thought his character and acting was great. The cinematography was fantastic. What bothered me about this movie was the pace (I felt it was a bit too slow), and the whole sister romance thing. I read in the trivia of the movie that the original version had it as the goody-two-shoes' wife. That would have been much more interesting and realistic. I guess I also didn't like that they basically made it seem that ratting out the prisoner's escape plans was a bad thing. It just felt a bit disjointed for me but had some wonderful elements. 6.75/10 Rated 3.5 out of 5 stars 05/08/23 Full Review Audience Member As one of the first prison movies, this inspired others in this genre. This early example of prison melodrama is still entertaining. This is still good, hard-bitten stuff with one of Beery's best tough guy roles. Rated 3.5 out of 5 stars 02/08/23 Full Review Audience Member Still relatable to most prisons. I think prisons have gotten somewhat better as far now there's commissaries and more activities/access to outside things, but yea overall prison is still garbage at least for most poor ppl. Not the worst classic film, but def kinda boring at parts as its very simple and no subtitles (my pet peeve) esp with old movies where the sound isn't great. The best part of film was interesting rship btw Morgan n Butch, Honestly tho I'd rather watch one of those reality shows about prison nowadays than this film as they're more relevant/interesting. Rated 2.5 out of 5 stars 01/15/23 Full Review steve d A erly prison film that somehow is still effective. Rated 3 out of 5 stars 03/30/23 Full Review Audience Member Prison films from this era tend to serve as social dramas hoping to be Oscar bait that involve an innocent man trapped inside a prison system where he is mistreated before escaping and falling in love with a nice girl. This film had many similarities to the later I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) but it tried to expand the scope of the story with many supporting characters and a little more moral complexity than that film. I found myself liking the film even as I had low expectations for it and due to it's brief running time and some surprisingly involving conflicts I think this earned the critical acclaim it received at the time. Kent, Robert Montgomery, is imprisoned due to drunk driving charges and believes himself to be innocent but he finds himself struggling to fit in at an overcrowded prison. He is roommates with the violent, mercurial Butch, Wallace Beery, and the friendly, fatherly Morgan, Robert Montgomery, but both are members of a clique established in the prison that Kent cannot break into. Kent decides to become a stool pigeon to try to get out of prison early and when Morgan is to receive parole early for good behavior he plants a knife in his bed and has him sent to solitary confinement. When Morgan gets out he fakes an illness and escapes, finding Kent's sister Anne, Leila Hyams, and falling in love with her before he is found and taken back to the prison. Butch has been planning a mass prison escape while Morgan is away and when he arrives back at the prison suspicion is directed his way. He tries to warn the prison guards of the conflict that will arise but they do not listen to him and violence breaks out. One of the major issues with the film is the image quality as unlike other notable films from this era it does not appear to have been restored and so it appears blurry throughout. The cinematographer also appears to have done a poor job of framing as actors will regularly have the tops of their heads cut off or bounce in and out of frame. This occasionally took me out of the film as it was hard to make out what was occurring at some points and at many points where Morris was delivering a dramatic line of dialogue I suddenly could not make out his eyes. This also took away from the set design and cinematography in place as there were some impressive shots, such as the tracking shots of the prisoners passing guns back and forth, that were compromised by the fuzzy image. Here's for hoping that this film does receive some sort of restoration soon as I would like to see some of the imagery in the film clearly. The film also includes an unnecessary interlude in which Morgan escapes from prison and falls in love. This was entirely unnecessary as we already supported Morgan and trusted that he was morally in the right so it was not correct to take him out of the prison environment in an attempt to make the audience care about him more. This section of the film takes you out of it as a big part of the tension of prison films is drawn from the inescapability of the situation the men are in and seeing a man go free halfway through stops this tension from existing. Add in the fact that the Morgan, fascinating while in prison, becomes generic when interacting with his equally standard love interest and you have a big old dead weight in the middle of the film. What could have elevated the film was leaving Morgan in prison and having the aftermath of Kent's betrayal dealt with but instead the film takes the easy way out and gives the audience a plot contrivance that feels forced and lacking in excitement or intrigue. The fun of the film comes with the scenes inside the prison as the dynamic between the three roommates is fascinating and the double crossing has some real shock to it. Montgomery is well cast as a less than intelligent villain and Morris proves to be more capable than he appeared in Alibi (1929) while Beery relies on the same old shtick he employed in a lot of his other roles. For people who love the work of these actors this film will be a real treat. Rated 3.5 out of 5 stars 02/01/23 Full Review david l The Big House is a very influential early prison flick as it features most of the archaic plot points we'd come to know very well by now. The first half is much more interesting than the second half, but this Oscar-nominated film is quite well scripted, recorded and particularly well acted with the standout being Wallace Beery who portrays the most interesting character here. It's clunky at times, but it succeeds thanks in large part to its strong dialogue, emotion and character interactions. Rated 4 out of 5 stars 03/31/23 Full Review Read all reviews
The Big House

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Cast & Crew

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Movie Info

Synopsis After being convicted of manslaughter, drunk driver Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is inducted into the rigors of prison life. He befriends fellow cons "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt (Wallace Beery) and John Morgan (Chester Morris). Together they bristle at the prison's deplorable conditions and especially the inhumane policies of their cruel warden (Lewis Stone). Rising tensions culminate in a prison riot that may shake the institution to its core.
Director
George W. Hill
Screenwriter
Joseph Farnham, Frances Marion, Lennox Robinson, Martin Flavin
Distributor
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Distributing Corp.
Production Co
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Genre
Crime, Drama
Original Language
English
Release Date (Theaters)
Jun 14, 1930, Wide
Release Date (Streaming)
Jun 22, 2009
Runtime
1h 27m
Sound Mix
Mono
Aspect Ratio
Flat (1.37:1)
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