SPOTLIGHT: Sizzling Pre-Code Stanwyck (VII)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932) and Shopworn (1932). Today…

 

So Big! (1932)

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A farmer’s widow takes on the land and her late husband’s tempestuous son. Staring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Dickie Moore, and Bette Davis. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Adaptation by J. Grubb Alexander and Robert Lord. Direction by William A. Wellman.

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“After her mother dies, Selina Peake’s father takes her to Chicago, where she attends a finishing school. When her father is killed, leaving her penniless, Selina’s friends learn that he was a gambler and drop her. Only Julie Hemple helps her, persuading her father, August Hemple, to get Selina a job as a schoolteacher in a small Dutch community near Chicago. There, Selina lives with a farm family, helping their adoring son Roelf with his lessons. Eventually, she marries farmer Pervus De Jong and gives birth to a son, Dirk, who becomes the center of all her hopes and dreams. As he grows, she measures him daily and nicknames him “So Big.” Pervus dies, leaving Selina the struggling farm. Determined, she makes the farm pay, which enables Dirk to go away to school and eventually establish himself as an architect.

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“Over the years, everyone comes to love the hardworking, idealistic Selina. Dirk, however, does not have his mother’s strength. He falls in love with a married woman who persuades her husband to give him a job as a bond salesman in his office. He is embarrassed by his mother’s farm, even though her excellent asparagus paid for his education. When he falls in love with Dallas O’Mara, a talented artist, she refuses to marry him because he is unwilling to work at something worth while. Meanwhile, Roelf has become a great sculptor. He meets Dirk, and learning that he is Selina’s son, asks to see her again. At the meeting, Selina compares Roelf and Dirk, acknowledging her son’s faults, while at the same time, rejoicing in Roelf’s talent and good character.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The fundamental problem with this adaptation — the second of three big screen efforts — is that the industry had not yet developed the means to handle full sound epics. Unfortunately, that means that this big sweeping Edna Ferber narrative that, like most Ferber works, spans multi-generations, lacks an essential balance between grandiose storytelling and believable characterizations. A decade later, the filmmaking would have been better able to support and enhance the story through its cinematography. What we have here in 1932 is an attempt to use small character-driven scenes to progress the premise as it develops over time; but this doesn’t quite work as well as it should, because the film has a lot of mileage to cover, creating a choppy trajectory that yearns for some semblance of fluidity. So, right from the first frame, the film sets itself up for a difficult time in faithfully telling the story.

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Perhaps the film’s only real asset is its generally strong cast, all of whom imbue their scenes with a consistent humanity that helps smooth out a continuity that isn’t naturally present within the script. Despite some rapid aging and hokum physical techniques to try and sell the passage of time, Stanwyck gives ones of the most measured and effective performances that we’ve seen from her career thus far. We follow her journey from early years to golden years. And, for the most part, she’s given a lot of fine actors off of which to play — all of whom, at least, are believable in the roles in which they have been cast. Also, this film is notable for the appearance of Bette Davis as the woman for whom Stanwyck’s son falls. Unfortunately, she only appears in the last 20 minutes, and although one desires to see what might happen when both powerful actresses share the screen, as with Garbo and Crawford in Grand Hotel, the picture never gives us the satisfaction.

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But Davis, as the young modern bohemian artist (making the picture a true Pre-Code) turns in a fine performance, a breath of fresh air — especially as Stanwyck’s character grows infirm and pitiable. One almost wishes that the last 20 minutes were expanded to form the crux of most of the film, with, naturally, some interaction between Davis and Stanwyck. But alas, we can only wish; So Big! is an adequate film with many flaws, but if you like the stars, I wouldn’t discourage you from watching.

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