Big House, The (1930): Oscar-Winning Prison Drama, Starring Wallace Beery and Chester Morris

George Hill’s early prison drama, The Big House, boasts a good cast of tough inmates, played by Wallace Beery, who was nominated for an Oscar as the murderer Butch, and Chester Morris, who was not.

Frances Marion, who was then married to Hill, won the Writing Achievement Oscar, as the Screenplay Award was called then, thus becoming the first female to achieve such a distinction, and for a decidedly “male genre.”

While the story and dialogue were written by Marion, with additional dialogue by Joe Farnham and Martin Flavin. The scenario was inspired by journalistic coverage of prison riots and federal investigation in 1929.  Producer-director George Hill wrote a story treatment, ” The Reign of Terror: A Story of Crime and Punishment,” which MGM head of production Irving Thalberg then assigned to Marion.

“Big House” offered a good role for Wallace Beery that helped to define his screen image as a tough but lovable slob. Beery, whose role was originally cast with the great silent actor Lon Chaney who died suddenly, lost out the Best Actor to British thespian George Arliss in “Disraeli.”  He would win the Best Actor Oscar for playing the boxer-father in the melodrama, “The Champ” (1932).

By standards of the time, the film’s climax, a violent jailbreak, was scary as well as impressive.

The film was a huge commercial hit:  Made on a budget of about $400,000, it earned $1.7 million in rentals (over $3 million in box-office receipts).

The Big House was also shot simultaneously (using the same sets) in other languages, such as French and Spanish.

Afterwards, MGM cast Wallace Beery as the romantic interest of one of studio’s biggest stars, Marie Dressler, in the upcoming Min and Bill.

Oscar nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Irving Thalberg
Writing Achievement: Frances Marion
Actor: Wallace Beery
Sound Recording: Douglas Shearer

Oscar awards: 2

Writing Achievement
Sound Recording

Oscar Context

For the  1929-1930 achievements, “The big House” competed with four other films for the Best Picture Oscar: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which won, the biopic “Disraeli,” the Norma Shearer romantic vehicle “The Divorcee,” and the operetta “The Love Parade.”


Running time: 87 minutes

Release date: June 24, 1930.