In The Big House, young Kent (Robert Montgomery) has just been sentenced to ten years in prison for manslaughter. The prison is already overcrowded and he is put in the same cell as the two toughest guys in the joint, Morgan (Chester Morris) and Machine Gun Butch (Wallace Beery). From them, Kent has to learn the ins and outs of prison life and right away Butch steals his cigarettes. The food is lousy and the men hold beetle races for fun and bet cigarettes.
The day before Morgan’s parole, Kent pulls a stunt that breaks the prison’s code of honor. He plants a knife on Morgan, causing Morgan to lose his parole, landing him in the hole and gaining Kent an enemy. More determined, Morgan breaks out and finds Kent’s sister, Anne (Leila Hyams) at the bookstore. Instead of turning Morgan in, Anne falls in love with him, but soon he’s back in the clink. Butch happily greets Morgan and tells him about a big break out he’s got planned, but will someone tip off the guards?
Wallace Beery earned his first acting nomination for his role as Machine Gun Butch. He’s great at being big and threatening like a wrestler, but when he smiles and laughs he can make the stone walls melt. We get a sense that his tough side is just a prison survival technique and inside he does have a good heart. One great example of this is when he receives a letter. In front of the guys, he pretends its a juicy letter from a girl so he doesn’t have to read it, but still has their respect. Sadly, the letter is really informing him that his mother has died.
Just like I expected from a thirties prison film, there are plenty of classic lines sprinkled throughout. There is the repeated dialog in various situations, “Who me? Yes, you.” It never seems to get old and has good charm. Then there’s more pivotal moments with lines like, “I’m warning ya, stay where you are.” And of course, a classic crime film wouldn’t be complete without, “You dirty double crossers, I’ll get you for this!”
In the end, The Big House feels like a good old cops and robbers film even though the majority is set within the prison walls. There is plenty of action, double-crossing and sneaking around especially after the big breakout happens.
“Prison doesn’t give a man a yellow streak, but if he had one it’ll bring it out of him.”