Buster’s Last Gleaming
1929 would see Buster Keaton’s last silent hurrah in the form of Spite Marriage, bringing to an end a decade of astonishing creativity for the great stone face – creativity that one would never be seen again.
Spite Marriage sees Keaton playing a character who is less naïve and more dumb. While this doesn’t hurt the movie in any way you can see how Keaton’s creative control was being watered down at the hands of MGM. Near the end of the film an insert shot of a newspaper article reveals the full name of Buster’s character in Spite Marriage to be Elmer Gantry – why he shares the same name at the titular character from the famous Sinclair Lewis novel is unclear. The object of affection for Elmer in Spite Marriage is the mean and manipulative Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian,) who has a role which is less passive than Keaton’s other girls as she uses the dim-witted Elmer to her advantage. Keaton and Sebastian were reportedly having an affair at the time thus to question how genuine their on-screen interaction is.
The playhouse at the centre of the film’s first half is putting on a Civil War lost cause melodrama, humorously complete with courageous, noble Confederate soldiers and overtly evil yanks. According to the DVD commentary, the play presented may be inspired by the 1895 play The Heart of Maryland by David Belasco. This assertion is also backed up by backdrops in the playhouse being printed with the words “Bosco Stock Company”.
Spite Marriage is more Chaplinesque than Keaton during the film’s first half from Elmer’s poor attempt to apply makeup to the mayhem he causes on stage during the stage play. The film’s most celebrated sequence is that of Elmer attempting to put knocked out Trilby to bed (good enough to inspire the film Roman Holiday some 24 years later). The sexy scene takes as much physical work on Dorothy Sebastian as it does Keaton, handling it like a pro as Keaton carries her like a ragdoll – I can only imagine how rehearsals for such a scene must have gone. Likewise, I feel the film’s synchronized sound effects do enhance the comedy from the cartoonish sound of Keaton walking to the squeak when Keaton is about to cut his ear with scissors when attempting to apply the fake facial hair.
The film’s second half is more familiar Keaton territory in a section which harkens back to The Navigator. Sadly Spite Marriage is disappointingly light on stunt work. It’s clear MGM did not want to take risks on their contract star and the film commits the sin of having a stunt man take the place of Keaton. As a result Spite Marriage misses out on being top tier Keaton but the film is still a very pleasurable slice of comedy to bring film’s silent era to a close.
You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!
I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming off as worn out clichés.
The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30’s and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However, I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn’t have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, let alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film, you can tell he’s completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide-eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it’s a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.
Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However, I feel these technical limitations are one of the film’s greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.
The film’s screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personnel when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don’t look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison’s warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don’t care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.