DVD: ‘The Big House’ (1930)

The Big House, directed by George Hill from a script by the great Frances Marion, is the original men-in-prison drama. Which is not to say it’s the first so much as it is the blueprint for the genre. Produced in 1930 by Warner Bros., which was to become the grittiest of studios in the early thirties with their gangster blasts and scruffy, snappy streetwise pictures, the film gives us social commentary and underworld violence in equal measure.

The first shots of The Big House present the prison as a massive, intimidating, almost medieval-looking compound and usher us inside along with the new guy getting processed: Kent (Robert Montgomery), an affluent kid convicted of a hit-and-run who goes through the system with a dazed look and a shuffling manner. Montgomery has never had the screen strength or presence of other actors in his early performances role but it works perfectly for the spoiled, weak-willed Kent. He’s completely unprepared for prison and his ordeal is compounded when he’s assigned to a cell with bank robber Morgan (Chester Morris), our leading man and a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and prison-yard bully Butch (Wallace Beery), who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan.

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