Win: Best Sound, Recording - Douglas Shearer
Win: Best Writing, Achievement - Frances Marion
Nomination: Best Picture
Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Wallace Beery
The Big House has been sitting on my DVR since I recorded it on February 3rd during Turner Classic Movies's "31 Days of Oscar," and the description sounded so boring and generic that I repeatedly passed it over in favor of other recordings. It sounded like every other prison film ever made, and I could never muster up the energy to watch it. But when I only had an hour and a half to watch a movie last night (The Big House clocks in at 87 minutes), I reluctantly gave it a chance.
Starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, and Robert Montgomery, the film is the story of a man (Montgomery) sent to jail for vehicular manslaughter as a result of drunken driving who must acclimate to prison life. Beery plays Butch, the hardened criminal who is the alpha dog of the prison, and he gives an explosive performance. Beery had been unceremoniously dumped from Hollywood after the transition to sound, and The Big House marked his comeback; he would soon be one of Hollywood's biggest stars. He is terrifying as Butch, a hulking presence that perfectly contrasts with Montgomery's fearful meekness. He doesn't have the typical look of a leading man, but his presence puts him in a class by himself.
The screenplay gets a bit schmaltzy at times, and there is the obligatory tacked-on love story. Despite this, The Big House defined much of what would become the prison genre, and certain tropes created in the film can be seen in films that were released decades later. The film is wildly ahead of its time, and displays almost none of the limitations that early sound filmmakers had to live with. The film's climactic prison break sequence is tense and exciting, a doubtless was the reason The Big House won the first Academy Award for sound.
Though much of The Big House feels inconsequential and at times little more than a pro-Prohibition advertisement, it is an exciting film with crackling dialogue, strong set design, and an outstanding performance by Wallace Beery.
Remaining: 3158 films, 878 Oscars, 5437 nominations