Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Big House (1930)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Big House (1930)

In George Hill's and MGM's early prison flick was one of the most realistic of Hollywood's melodramatic prison pictures, and became the model for many subsequent dramatic prison films; it was noted for its imaginative staging (with mobile crane and dolly shots, and an early zoom shot into a gun, and its long stationary shot of the solitary confinement prison corridor (with only dialogue)). The film's script by Frances Marion (the director's wife) received the Academy Award for Best Writing Achievement, and a second Award was given for Best Sound Recording. A French-language version of the film, released in 1931, was made with Charles Boyer in Chester Morris' role:

  • the grim prison setting was introduced when 24 year-old rich kid Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) was sent to the prison for a ten-year sentence on vehicular manslaughter charges related to drunk driving

Warden (Lewis Stone)

Butch (Wallace Beery) Meeting Kent in Their Cell

Cellmate John Morgan (Chester Morris)
  • he was placed in a cell with two notorious and veteran hardened prisoners - the first was brutish, violent, dim-witted, condemned bald-headed (shaven) prison inmate "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt (Wallace Beery) - a murderous cell-block leader, who enjoyed racing cockroaches, cruel pranks and boasting, and cheating. The second cellmate was the more decent petty crook John Morgan (Chester Morris), convicted of forgery and robbery who had reformed, decided to go straight, and was expecting a quick parole
  • Butch instigated a major mess hall food riot after mumbling under his breath: "I'd like to ram it down their throat...I can't eat that stuff!...I want some food. I don't want any more of this swill" - and tossed his plate of mush onto the floor; the other inmates joined in the protest by clanging and banging their metal cups on the long tables; when the guards reacted, he stood up: "I ain't afraid of guns, I ain't afraid of nobody!"; as Butch was about to be apprehended and taken to solitary confinement, he passed his contraband knife under the table, and it ended up with Kent (who hid it in his coat)
  • to avoid being caught with the knife, Kent then placed it in Morgan's bunk bed, and when found, Morgan's next-day parole was denied; he was placed in solitary confinement - and in the film's praised lengthy static shot, only Morgan's and Butch's voices were heard in the corridor
  • soon after, the desperate Morgan was released from solitary confinement by feigning sickness and then substituted himself for a body in the mortician's morgue wagon to escape. While on the outside, Morgan fell in love with Kent's pretty sister Anne (Leila Hyams), before being recaptured and returned to the prison
  • the film's highlight (the last 15 minutes) included a Thanksgiving-time jailbreak by angry prisoners - instigated by Butch - to escape from sadistic guards and overcrowded, inhumane conditions. He plotted: "Thanksgiving day. Noon. Most of the screws go to turkey dinner. We'll give 'em a belly full." "Stoolie" Kent knew of the attempt (but without details) and informed the Warden (Lewis Stone) in return for a promise of freedom. When questioned, Morgan refused to rat out the attempt, and declined to participate in the violent and foolish plan
The Violent Jailbreak Sequence Led by Butch (Who Died in the Riot's Climax)
  • the revolt and riot spread throughout the prison, and ended with a bloody massacre when the prisoners were unable to force their way out - due to the officials being tipped off in advance. As Army tanks approached, Butch threatened to cold-bloodedly shoot the officers-guards, one-by-one with their machine-guns, in order to force the opening of the prison's outer gates: ("Open those gates and let us go through, or we'll send the rest of these screws straight to Hell!")
  • during the chaos of the riot, Kent tried to escape (after he hysterically confessed in fear to Morgan that he had squealed) and was hit and killed by crossfire. Butch was misinformed and thought that Morgan had tipped off the Warden, especially when Morgan made heroic efforts to help save the lives of some of the prison's officers who had been taken as hostages
  • the two both engaged in a deadly shootout - Morgan was wounded, but Butch was lethally hit (and died just after learning that it wasn't Morgan but Kent who had snitched): (Morgan: "You know I wouldn't double-cross you, Butch!")
  • in the film's artificially-happy ending, Morgan was given a full and complete pardon by the Governor for his actions (in the major jailbreak resulting in the deaths of more than 50 guards and convicts) and personally redeemed by being freed and reunited with Anne outside the prison's gates

Marching Prisoners' Feet Behind Opening Title Credits

New Prisoner Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) Inducted Into Prison

Cramped and Inhumane Prison Yard Conditions

Machine Gun Butch in Mess Hall Before Instigating a Food Riot

The Static Shot of the Solitary Confinement Corridor (with only dialogue)

Escaped Morgan on the Outside with Kent's Sister Anne (Leila Hyams)

Governor's Pardon for Morgan

Last Image: Wounded Morgan Reunited with Anne Outside the Prison


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