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The Big House (1930)

MGM may be best known as the House of Glamour, but that didn’t stop the studio from getting down and dirty when they virtually created the prison picture. Inspired by recent jailhouse riots, director George W. Hill wrote a story about three men doing time: a drunk driver (Robert Montgomery) with no other criminal past, a petty thief (Chester Morris) and the childlike, vicious Butch (Wallace Beery). Hill’s wife, Frances Marion, turned it into an Oscar-winning screenplay after visiting San Quentin to learn how prisoners actually spoke. Hill then filmed it with impressive use of light and shadow, some innovative crane shots and a startling sound design that brought Douglas Shearer the first of his seven Oscars for sound recording and special effects.

d. George W. Hill, 87m, 35mm