The Big House is generally regarded as the first real prison film, and remarkably influential on the genre of such that would follow. Watching it for the first time myself, I can see how it was, but it’s rather unfortunate that the film ends up being as dated as it is. I started the film, and was only mildly interested for the most part, mostly due to a nagging thought that rose up in my head as soon as we were introduced to the two other men in our fresh-faced inmate’s cell. I alt+tabbed to check the cast, and saw the first name in the list, and that’s when I realized where my mild detachment was coming from: this film stars Chester Morris, who I remembered as the Academy-Award-nominated star of Alibi, and my excitement positively shot through the roof (and by that I mean I almost rolled my eyes in frustration at having to sit through another of his films). Even with this in mind, though, the film itself did a lot to make up for it as it went on, including Morris himself, and especially when we get into the climax of the story.
A young man, Kent, convicted of manslaughter after he killed a man drunk-driving, is sent to prison for 10 years. Unfortunately, the prison he is sent to is severely overcrowded; it’s built for 1,800 and is currently housing 3,000, so Kent is forced to share a tiny cell with two other inmates: Morgan, played by Morris, and the ape-ish Butch, played by Wallace Beery. Several things happen, including Morgan escaping and meeting Kent’s sister (which seemed to be the film throwing in the obligatory romance angle for the heck of it), Morgan getting recaptured & sent back to prison, and Butch and some of the inmates planning an armed prison break, the carnage of which takes up the last 10-15 minutes or so of the film. The Big House seems to be another good example of a film that has a lot that happens but doesn’t actually have a narrative; stuff occurs, which leads to other stuff, but there’s no narrative thread that makes the whole story of the film feel like it has a point, if that makes sense. That said, I was surprised how much I liked this one, even with it being only basically made. Somehow, this won the inaugural Academy Award for Sound (before it was split into two categories), but the sound, I thought, was one of the worst technical aspects of the film. The framing of some of the shots was also a little off, especially more near the end of the film, where the camera would nearly cut off the heads of some of the actors, and actually do so in a few of the shots. I wasn’t sure if it was the print I had watched or if it were the film itself, though, so I didn’t heed it too much. What did work were the characters, and this is where the two leads actually did impress me, even though the acting style on display here would become outdated in a couple decades or so. Wallace Beery doesn’t have much to do with his character, but he does it very well, especially given how distinctive he looks as a person. But it was Morris that was actually surprising to me, mostly because he was actually a character instead of a haphazard bundle of instructions given to him by a certain haphazard director. While the love angle is rather forced (of course it is), and it seemed really truncated, especially with how short the film is as a whole, the film really shines in the third act, where the prison break ends up going horribly wrong, giving the film free reign to enact as much chaos and anarchy as it can, while still resolving the film’s myriad plot points. There were a couple instances or so of ‘magic plot’, such as how the inmates somehow managed to get guns inside the prison for the climactic prison break at the end, but I was surprisingly okay with letting the film get away with it.
As much as I did like this film, it wasn’t really well made, and many of the things it did well are only done well from a 1930 standpoint, which I was thankfully able to use during my viewing to appreciate the film on its own terms. But, I can see how a lot of people won’t take too much to this one, for pretty much those reasons, and that coupled with the somewhat shoddy workmanship on the filmmaking side is largely why this film is getting the rating it is. I liked this more than the rating I’m giving it, but I felt like I needed to ding the film a little more than I might’ve wanted, especially if most of the problems were with the film and not just the rough print I watched. Still, this does a lot with the hour-and-a-half that it has, but its status as a progenitor of the prison film genre is readily apparent with all the flaws (and lack of stronger strengths) that it does have.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10