Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ladies of the Big House (1931)

Director: Marion Gering                                   Writer: Ernest Booth
Music: John Leipold                                       Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Gene Raymond, Wynne Gibson and Earle Foxe

This is another one of the great discoveries for me when I first began studying film history. The first was the incomparable Kay Francis. The second was the compelling screen persona of Sylvia Sidney. Even though she had a lengthy career first in films and then in television I had never really been conscious of her as an actress. Ladies of the Big House was the film that followed her two great performances in An American Tragedy directed by Josef von Sternberg and Street Scene by King Vidor. This Paramount feature is a decided step down from those two, with Russian born Marion Gering at the helm who worked for the studio for several years but couldn’t get any work after his contract expired. He did a few more films with Sidney but none of them were as good as her previous films. Sidney’s career, however, would pick up again when she worked with Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock a few years later.

The story begins as a standard thirties crime drama. A new district attorney, George Irving, has vowed to rid the town of organized crime and his first order of business is to bring in the known killer Earle Foxe. But Irving has a mole in his organization, Purnell Pratt, and he has warned Foxe to get out of town for a while, but the gangster, head over heels in love, won’t budge until he sees Sylvia Sidney first. The problem is that once Sidney knows who he is she won’t have anything to do with him. Soon she falls in love with Gene Raymond and the two get married. Packing to go with him the next day, she almost gets away with her husband when Foxe shows up and, out for revenge, shoots a police detective in their apartment and frames the couple for murder. The trial is almost perfunctory, being as she was briefly a known associate of Foxe, and since Pratt is doing the prosecuting it isn’t long before she gets sent to prison and he gets sentenced to death.

Though the title makes it seem like a picture about women in prison, the story is really about the couple. Louise Beavers takes Sidney under her wing to protect her from Wynne Gibson, who used to be Foxe’s girl but was framed as well to get her out of the way so he could see Sidney. On the surface, there really is little to the story that seems original, even down to the ending. But what sets this prison drama apart is the acting of the principals. Sylvia Sidney and Gene Raymond are completely convincing as the innocent couple being punished for someone else’s crime. And it’s a testament to the considerable skills of both actors that their relationship seems utterly genuine. The one other supporting actor who deserves mention is Jane Darwell as one of the prison matrons. Paulette Goddard apparently has a bit part as an extra in the prison crowd scene but making her out would be some feat. Essentially a filmed version of the play by Ernest Booth, Ladies of the Big House is pedestrian drama even by the standards of the day, but moving performances definitely make it something above the ordinary and well worth checking out.

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