So Big (1953): Robert Wise’s Family Melodrama, Starring Jane Wyman, Sterling Hayden and Steve Forrest

TCM showed this movie on Sep 9, 2020.

Robert Wise directed So Big, a modest if well acted b/w family drama, starring Jane Wyman, Sterling Hayden and Steve Forrest.

Sterling Hayden and Jane Wyman in So Big

Based on the 1924 novel by Edna Ferber, John Twists’s script was the third adaptation of the book, after a 1924 silent film with Colleen Moore and So Big! with Barbara Stanwyck, in 1932.

In the late 1890s, boarding school student Selina Peake loses her father, who has left her penniless as the result of bad business transactions. August Hempel, the father of her best friend Julie, secures her a teaching position in New Holland, a small Dutch farming community outside Chicago.  She rents a room in the home of Klaas Pool, who lives with his unhappy wife Maartje and intelligent but troubled adolescent son Roelf.

After discovering the boy has an ear for music, Selina gives Roelf piano lessons and encourages his artistic talents. She meets Pervus DeJong and eventually accepts his proposal of marriage, settling into the role of a farmer’s wife. Their newborn son is christened Dirk, but as he grows older he is nicknamed So Big.

Dirk, like Roelf, exhibits signs of artistic abilities. His mother encourages him, despite her husband’s disapproval. But when Pervus dies, Selina struggles to run the farm alone. She and Dirk travel to the Chicago Haymarket to sell their produce, but no one will deal with a woman.

Facing financial difficulties, Selina reunites with Julie, the divorced mother of two. Her father offers to invest in Selina’s plan to grow exotic vegetables. Her asparagus is such a success that she can afford sending Dirk to college to study architecture.

Upon graduation, he finds employment as a draughtsman and continues his relationship with Julie’s daughter Paula, a social climber who convinces him to forgo his career to achieve immediate financial success. When Dirk accepts a sales job, his mom is so disappointed that she stops calls=ing him So Big.

Dirk falls in love with artist Dallas O’Mara and proposes marriage, but she declines his offer–she wants a man roughened by physical labor. Roelf, now a famous composer, arrives in Chicago and reunites with Dallas, whom he had met in Paris. He, Dallas, and Dirk visit Selina, and the two women become friends.

Roelf and Dallas leave together, and when Dirk bemoans his life, his mother tells him it is not too late to pursue his creative dreams, calling him “So Big” again.

Warner promoted So Big provocatively by linking the movie’s title with Pervus’s manhood through a photo of Sterling Hayden grasping Wyman’s shoulders as she looks up at him, with the caption, “He stood there so big. Love had come come…Intense, unashamed…she was ready to forget she’d ever been a lady.”

True to its name, at the Hollywood premiere of So Big, 23 of the fanciest horse-drawn carriages on the West Coast transported the stars to the theater along Hollywood Boulevard for publicity.

Jane Wyman as Selina DeJong
Sterling Hayden as Pervis DeJong
Steve Forrest as Dirk DeJong
Nancy Olson as Dallas O’Mara
Walter Coy as Roelf Pool
Elisabeth Fraser as Julie Hempel
Jacques Aubuchon as August Hempel
Martha Hyer as Paula Hempel
Roland Winters as Klaas Pool
Ruth Swanson as Maartje Pool
Lillian Kemble-Cooper as Mrs. Fister
Richard Beymer as Roelf, ages 12–16
Tommy Rettig as Dirk, age 8


Directed by Robert Wise
Produced by Henry Blanke
Written by John Twist, based on So Big, the 1924 novel by Edna Ferber
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Ellsworth Fredericks
Edited by Thomas Reilly
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: October 21, 1953
Running time 101 minutes

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