Thursday, May 20, 2010

Montgomery's Warden

May 21 marks the birth anniversary of Robert Montgomery, and TCM is marking the day with a morning and afternoon of Montgomery's movies. First up, at 6:30 AM ET tomorrow, is The Big House.

Montgomery only gets fourth billing, as Kent Marlowe, a young man who's been sent to prison on a vehicular homicide charge. Montgomery would of course go on to play much more elegant figures for the most part, but his gentlemanly look is used to great effect here, as Kent is clearly the young naïf who knows little about the brutality of prison life. Kent is put in a cell with two much more hardened men: conman John Morgan (top billed Chester Morris), and vicious murderer Butch (Wallace Beery).

Much of what happens next is stuff that would become standard in prison movies, but was new to viewers of The Big House, as it was released in 1930. Butch doesn't want to eat the ghastly prison food, and starts a riot over it; Butch and Morgan get sent to solitary; the warden with a heart of gold (Lewis Stone) tries to get Kent to become a stool pigeon; Morgan breaks out of prison and falls in love with Kent's sister, before getting caught and being sent back to prison; and there's the climax, the attempted mass breakout.

As I said, a lot of this is familiar to us. The Big House, however, stands up because of very strong performances, and an extremely strong script. Robert Montgomery doesn't normally get the credit he deserves for being a more than capable actor. Perhaps it's because those more gentlemanly characters look as though they're easier to portray. In The Big House, though, he has to play something much more difficult, and does quite a good job as the playboy who has to grow up quickly behind bars. Morris is quite good; he had not long before played another gangster in the not-often-seen Alibi, but could also play higher-class people easily, falling somewhere between James Cagney's gangsters and Robert Montgomery's gentlemen. Beery steals the show, though, as the vicious, conniving murderer; indeed, this is the one that made him a star of talking pictures. Not yet mentioned is Leila Hyams as Kent's sister. Hers is a well-played performance of a strong female character who, despite falling for an escaped convict, is nobody's fool. (Perhaps the fact that the script is by female writer Frances Marion has a lot to do with there being such a strong female character.)

All in all, The Big House is a movie that wrote the rules for a genre, and does so in excellent fashion. About its only flaw is that, having been made in 1930, it has some technological kinks, such as a long opening sequence of Montgomery being processed as a new prisoner that looks as though it could have been produced originally for a silent movie, and then had sound dubbed in. But such minor flaws don't take much away from a movie as good as this.

The Big House is one of the titles that's been released to the Warner Archive Collection, albeit at a higher price than normally-released DVDs.

No comments: