The Big House is a 1930 American Pre-Code crime drama film directed by George W. Hill, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Robert Montgomery. The supporting cast features Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J. C. Nugent, Karl Dane and Tom Kennedy. The story and dialogue were written by Frances Marion, with additional dialogue by Joe Farnham and Martin Flavin. Although the primary source is not mentioned in the film's credits, the screenplay was based on the 1926 original story, "The Big House" by Lennox Robinson.
Lon Chaney was originally chosen for the role of Butch, a violent career criminal who rules the prison cellblock. Due to the cancer that eventually resulted in Chaney's death, this role went to Wallace Beery. The movie launched Beery's sound career to new heights; a top supporting actor and frequent leading man in silents, he had been dropped by his previous studio Paramount when sound came in even though he recorded a successful voice test. After The Big House became a hit and his performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, he became the world's highest paid actor within two years.
Marion won the Academy Award for Best Writing Achievement. Douglas Shearer also won the first Academy Award for Sound. The film was nominated for Best Picture. The Big House was one of the first prison films ever made and was tremendously influential on the genre.
Kent (Robert Montgomery), a drunk driver who carelessly kills a man, is sentenced to ten years for manslaughter. In an overcrowded prison designed for 1800 and actually holding 3000, he is placed in a cell with Butch (Wallace Beery) and Morgan (Chester Morris), the two leaders of the inmates. Butch is alternately menacing and friendly, while Morgan tries to help out the frightened, inexperienced youngster, but Kent rebuffs his overtures.
When Butch is ordered into solitary confinement for sparking a protest over the prison food, he passes along his knife before being searched. It ends up in Kent's hands. Meanwhile, Morgan is notified that he is to be paroled. Prior to a search of their cell, Kent hides the knife in Morgan's bed. When it is found, Morgan's parole is canceled, and he is put in solitary as well. He vows to make Kent pay for what he has done.
When Morgan is let out of solitary, he escapes by switching places with a corpse on the way to the morgue. He makes his way to the bookstore run by Kent's beautiful sister, Anne (Leila Hyams). She, however, recognizes him. She manages to get his gun and starts to call the police, but then changes her mind and gives him back his pistol. Morgan (who has been attracted to Anne since he saw Kent's photograph of her) gets a job and becomes better acquainted with Anne and her family. They all like him, especially Anne. However, he is caught and sent back to prison.
When Butch tells Morgan of his plan for a jailbreak on Thanksgiving, Morgan tells him that he is going straight. In return for a promise of freedom, Kent informs the warden (Lewis Stone) of the attempt, though he is not privy to the details. Despite the warning, the inmates succeed in taking over the prison, capturing many of the guards, though they are unable to force their way out. Thwarted, Butch threatens to shoot the guards one by one unless they are allowed to escape. When the warden stands firm, Butch shoots the warden's right-hand man in cold blood, then tosses the dying man out for all to see.
Army tanks are called to break down the entrance. Morgan grabs a pistol from the prisoner assigned to watch the guards. He finds Kent cowering with the guards, but spares him. Kent panics and flees before Morgan locks the guards in to save their lives. When Kent tries to open the front doors, he is killed in the crossfire. Butch is told that Morgan was the "stoolie" who tipped off the warden and learns he has put the guards out of danger. He sets out to kill his former friend. In the ensuing gunfight, both are wounded, Butch fatally. Before he dies, he learns that Kent was actually the informer, and he and Morgan reconcile. For his efforts, Morgan is given a full pardon. When he exits the prison, Anne rushes to embrace him.
In the early days of sound films, it was common for Hollywood studios to produce "Foreign Language Versions" of their films using the same sets, costumes and so on. While many of these versions no longer exist, the French, Spanish and German-language versions of The Big House survive, which are entitled Révolte dans la prison and Menschen hinter Gittern. The French and Spanish versions are available with the original in a triple feature set from the Warner Archives.
Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times described it as "a film in which the direction, the photography, the microphone work and the magnificent acting take precedence over the negligible story."
Variety called it a "virile, realistic melodrama". John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote, "So expert are many of the scenes, so effective the photography, so direct and spare the dialogue, that certain obvious, silly, and dull moments may almost be overlooked."