After thoroughly enjoying William Wellman’s pre-Code comedy-drama The Purchase Price, I was delighted to get the chance to watch So Big!, another film he made the same year, just a couple of months earlier, also starring Barbara Stanwyck as a farmer’s wife. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence which makes the people living on farms old and exhausted before their time – although there is still a lot of humour mixed up with the melodramatic elements. This book was filmed three times, first as a silent with Colleen Moore and then again in the 1950s starring Jane Wyman, but this middle version is the only one I’ve seen.
I enjoyed this film, but, at just 81 minutes, it is very short for the large span of time it tries to cover, and there are some abrupt jumps. It looks from the list of characters at the imdb, which includes several who are not in the finished film, as if some of the story must have been deleted – I’d love to see the sections which were cut out before release and find out if they would have made the film flow any better.
Stanwyck has a luminous, indomitable quality in this film, just as she does in The Purchase Price and the other films she made with Wellman – he seemed to like casting her as someone who can’t be defeated, however dire her situation might seem, but carries on working tirelessly and hoping against hope. She also has another self-sacrificing role in this film, as in The Great Man’s Lady, a later film she made with Wellman, which I hope to write about here soon (I have a terrible backlog of films I’ve watched but haven’t written about!)
The opening of the film, set in the 1880s, shows the heroine, Selina Peake, as a child, leading a lonely life with her gambler father, who lodges in luxury hotels when he is winning, and dingy bed-and-breakfasts when he is losing. After a few minutes, Stanwyck takes over the role of Selina as a young woman, still clinging to her father and trying to make a home for him although by now she knows exactly what he is. They are living in a down-at-heel B&B when he is shot dead in a casino and his body is carried home on a board, in a dramatic scene full of dark shadows. As Selina stands by the window weeping, torrential rain pours down outside – a very characteristic Wellman touch. In film after film, the heavens open when his characters are finding the world against them.
Left on her own with no money, Selina has to go to work as a village teacher in the mountains, in an isolated Pennsylvania Dutch community. At first the film appears to be mocking the family putting her up, as there are close-ups of the father, Klass Poole (Alan Hale), eating messily and the farcical clumsiness of everything around the delicate Selina is comically stressed. It also doesn’t help things that all the characters speak to each other in English with heavy Dutch accents. However, within a few minutes, the real poignancy of the family’s life is coming across, as the worn-out mother, Maartje (Dorothy Peterson), who looks 50, confesses that she is “nearly 31” – while her oldest child, Roelf (Dick Winslow) is already working full time on the farm at the age of 12, and has to try to educate himself by reading the dictionary propped up in front of his plate as he eats his meals. As in The Purchase Price, Wellman’s film again stresses the coldness of life on a country farm, with scenes of Selina shivering in the mornings as Roelf lights the clumsy old-fashioned stove for her.
For me, one of the most successful sequences of the whole film is a church social where the men bid at auction for packed lunches in baskets prepared by the women of the congregation. It looks as if Selina is going to be publicly humiliated because her basket, of jelly sandwiches, is so small – but handsome farmer Pervus De Jong (Earle Foxe) impulsively bids a small fortune for it and then they share the sandwiches. When Selina offers to teach him better English at evening classes, it is inevitable that they will fall in love – much to the dismay of young Roelf, who has a crush on Selina. There is a scene where he sees the couple kissing as he lights the fire, and stands there outside the door trying not to cry -I realise this is probably in Ferber’s book, but the emotion here also reminds me of the scenes in two Wellman silents, Wings and The Boob, where the young hero sees the girl he loves sitting in a swing with an older, more glamorous man.
The honeymoon is very soon over for Selina, who is woken at 4am the day after her wedding by Pervus, who tells her “You’re a farmer’s wife now” – and asks her to get up and make his breakfast. The early years of their marriage are passed over very quickly, with just a couple of brief scenes sketching in the difficulty of their life – including one where a pregnant Selina is struggling to paint a dingy kitchen cupboard, but has to give up the struggle when her labour pains start. The cupboard will never be painted. As Selina’s baby is born, the scenes are intercut with the neighbouring Poole family learning that Maartje has died because of overwork – a truly bleak picture of a farm woman’s fate.
Selina nicknames her son, Dirk, “So big” because she is always asking him “How big is my son?” and he stretches out his baby arms to show her. When Pervus dies, off-screen, worn out by his life on the land, Selina carries on working the farm and takes Dirk (Dickie Moore) to a country fair to sell the produce.
However, at this point in the film there is an abrupt break and I can’t help wondering if some scenes have been cut. Suddenly Dirk is grown-up, played by Hardie Albright (another actor who also features in The Purchase Price), and Selina is an old woman with white hair, though still as beautiful as ever. The last part of the film is raced through at a breathless pace, as Dirk breaks his mother’s heart by turning his back on the values she tried to teach him, and rejecting his profession of architecture to become a bond salesman – in effect becoming a gambler like his grandfather. However, he is brought up short when he falls for an artist, Dallas O’Mara, played by Bette Davis in a brief but lively and bubbly performance – who says he isn’t the man for her because he prefers money to art. Instead, in a sublimely improbable plot twist, she falls for the adult Roelf, now a famous sculptor – who is played by Stanwyck’s co-star from The Purchase Price, George Brent.
The problem really with this part of the film is that it is just too short and so much is piled in. I really enjoyed the first half of the film but feel it loses its way later to some extent. However, Bette Davis and George Brent do the best they can with the brief scenes they are given, and Stanwyck is wonderful throughout. I’ve now watched four of the five films she made with Wellman, and hope to see the fifth, Lady of Burlesque, soon.
Sadly, So Big! is not available on DVD or even VHS, though I would suspect it might turn up in the Warner Archive series in future. I managed to see it online years ago now, and I believe it also sometimes turns up on TCM in the US.