So Big! (1932)

Barbara Stanwyck in So Big!

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.

Barbara Stanwyck and Earle Foxe sharing sandwiches

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.

Bette Davis and Hardie Albright

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.

18 thoughts on “So Big! (1932)

  1. “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.”

    It’s observations like this that really mdemonstrate you’ve done your homework with Mr. Wellmann, and have found his central visual metaphor.

    In any case, while I am of course most familiar with Edna Ferber’s work (she allowed her “serious” SHOWBOAT to be turned into a musical by Kern and Hammerstein and she also wrote the Academy Award winning CIMMERON) I never knew that SO BIG! brought her the Pultitzer Prize) It appears that after reading your review you are dismayed over the brevity of the film, and it’s lamentable attempts at filling in narrative gaps. That’s unfortunate, especially as you do point to a number of positive attributes, including the presence of Stanwyck, who energizes any film she is cast in. You’ve seen four films already where the perky actress worked with Wellmann, and I say kudos to you, as even the most tireless movie watchers won’t admit to seeing as much.
    I have never had opportunity to see this film, but am hoping that (as you suggest in your final paragraph) Warner Archives does this, and in fact it would seem this is an ideal candidate.
    Again, you’ve penned a fascinating and beautifully-written essay in your fabulous Wellmann series. I look forward to the next!


    • Thanks very much for the encouragement, Sam – must admit though that I have a lot of Wellman homework still to do! It sounds from your comments as if maybe I come across as being a bit harder on the film than I wanted to be – I do think it is well worth watching and I enjoyed it, even watching online, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the narrative jumps are rather awkward.


    • PLEAS TELL ME AT WHAT WEBSITE YOU WATCHED THIS AT! I have been looking for this movie for almost a year now, and it would just make my day to finally be able to see this!


    • Hi Kay, I’m afraid I saw this at Youtube a long while back and it was taken down soon afterwards. I know it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US. If I do come across it I will let you know.


  2. Judy, I have not seen this but with Stanwyck in it, I will have to add it to the ever growing list. Stanwyck was such an amazing actress who seemed to be able to do it all.
    She would work with Wellman two more times in THE GREAT MAN”S LADY which I have not seen and in LADY OF BURLESQUE, a decent murder mystery. A fascinating review.


    • Thanks very much, John – I agree Stanwyck was an amazing actress. ‘The Great Man’s Lady’ is quite good, though I was slightly unnerved by a few scenes of Stanwyck caked in make-up playing a centenarian – the film actually has quite a bit in common with ‘So Big!’ I haven’t seen ‘Lady of Burlesque’ yet but intend to do so soon.


  3. I see our heroine ends up rich and in furs :). I wonder to myself if we shall eventually get movies of this type here in the US (unemployment is reaching depression levels in some parts of the US). I have to remind myself that this sort of film was not that common in the 1930s before I begin to lament art was truer then.



    • Thanks, Ellen. I see there is a picture of Stanwyck in furs, but I don’t remember her wearing them in the movie, so am not sure if this is a misleading poster!:) She is definitely richer by the end of the film because of selling her asparagus, but there wasn’t all that much about her business success. I do agree it would be interesting to see movies like this being made again today.


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  5. In 1956, when Assoiated Artists purchased the pre-1949 Warner Bros. library, I had the job along with an attorney named Sidney Levin, of clearing up any impediment to the licensing of films to television. When we came to SO BIG we were amazed to find that Edna Ferber had a “no television” clause in the 1931 Warner production contract. She had also included the clause in the contract for GIANT.

    Hard as we tried, she wouldn’t agree to release SO BIG to TV. Thus the catalogs for films available for television in 1956 did not include the 1932 version of SO BIG.


    • Thanks very much for commenting, Frederick, and sharing this fascinating story – it seems amazing that Ferber had a clause about TV put in a film contract in 1931, and also that she got away with including the same clause in the contract for ‘Giant’! I’m glad that at least it is possible for the film to be shown on television now, after all these years – though it isn’t ever shown in the UK, sadly for me.


  6. Actually Selina relocates to High Prairie it’s near Chicago not Penn. I love this nice, quiet little movie, I sure wish it were longer, it has so much going for it. Barbara Stanwyck is wonderful, so young and pretty, and I love the little dips she makes as a greeting. Also look out for a very young Anne Shirley as the young Selina Peake, she would also appear in The Purchase Price and of course Stella Dallas. “Cabbages are beautiful”.


  7. They just showed it on TCM this week and I DVR’d it. I agree that it is WAY too short. I remember the book and the relationsip between Selina and Rolf is so much more than this movie has the time to show. They spend too much time on Selina’s early life and not enough on her life after her husband dies. I would love to see this made again.


    • Clare, there was a remake in 1953, directed by Robert Wise, with Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden. I haven’t seen that version and looks as if it isn’t available on DVD either, but have just checked and the good news is that it is being shown on TCM on March 26, at 9.30am ET, so you should be able to get to see it. It is quite a bit longer than the 1932 version at 104 minutes.


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  9. Barbara Stanwyck convinces in the difficult trajectory of good daughter, teacher and finally in the skin of mother courage. She can thrill when she touches the farm alone after her husband’s death and exposes herself, frail and aging, to concerns about her son’s future. The title of the film, So Big !, is a reference to the faith that she places in him. Her curious, pre-code scene with the good-natured prostitute reminded me of that Charles Laughton sequel to Marilyn Monroe, filmed in 1952. Bette Davis, with blond hair inspired by Jean Harlow, is another highlight of the plot, even on a smaller paper, both for the beauty and determination to become the new protagonist.


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