This prison may be enormous, but it is still overcrowded with almost twice as many inmates inside than it was designed to hold. And here is another criminal to enter its gates, Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), a twenty-four-year-old sent down for ten years on a manslaughter conviction thanks to his drunken driving killing someone. But he is not the typical hardboiled type, and the Warden (Lewis Stone) is well aware that time spent behind bars will corrupt a young man who made a terrible mistake yet has no option but to be punished in jail, placed in a cell with two others, hardened lawbreakers Machine Gun Butch (Wallace Beery) and John Morgan (Chester Morris).
It is perhaps the curse of a pioneer and innovator, in pop culture at least, to look hackneyed once your innovations are adopted by countless others, and so it was with The Big House, a sensational prison drama in its day that time imposed a slew of imitators on, to the extent that watching it now it seems you have seen it all before, even if this was your first encounter with it. Such was the influence of Frances Marion's screenplay (which won her an Oscar, the first ever given to a woman in a non-acting category) that it provided the template that is followed to this day, call them clichés but that's not what they were when this exploded onto the screen back in the early thirties.
Certainly everyone involved was very proud of their efforts here, with star Morris calling it the best picture he had ever made, and it was probably the pinnacle of a career that was coasting to new heights at this point before he fell into doldrums only boosted in the forties by his signature role as Boston Blackie in a series of B-movies, ironically making him so identified with the sleuth that his career once again struggled away from it. Morris was convincingly tough here, yet could turn on the charm as he does when Morgan became the focus, escaping prison and romancing Marlowe's sister Anne (Leila Hyams, like Morris, a major star in Pre-Code talkies) instead of killing her (!).
He wanted revenge for being framed by the increasingly weaselly Marlowe, and if you're used to seeing Montgomery in smoother, more urbane parts then his squirmy, sweaty, unsympathetically devious weakling here would be a revelation. But it was Beery who did the best out of the main cast off the back of The Big House, it revived his career as the public warmed completely to his screen image as the big lug with the heart of gold, something a million miles away from his actual personality; well, he was a lug, all right, but he was also one of the most unpleasant celebrities of his era as anyone who met him would attest. It could be that this streak of aggression and hostility was channelled into his tough guy persona, though curiously no matter what he was like offscreen, he did have a charm of sorts.
Screenwriter Marion, one of the most important scribes in early Hollywood and a veteran reporter to boot, made sure there would be a social conscience to the script after researching key points she wanted to be included - overcrowding, corruption, daily violence, and so on - all of which were present as MGM aped the crusading style of their rivals over at Warner Bros. Some would have it that no matter how massive a hit this was, the respect of Warners' production eluded it, but you just have to look at how much has been taken from The Big House down the years to understand that nobody would look at it and see a failure, as it played like a greatest hits package in a genre that had not been established yet. With the most squinting seen in cinema until Clint Eastwood appeared in A Fistful of Dollars thirty years later, naturally it climaxes in a riot at the titular prison, characters massacred willy-nilly, and even an armoured tank involved. Fair enough, you watched this for its (non-cosy) familiarity now, but benchmarks can be entertaining. And yes, Beery did wield a machine gun eventually.