The Bette Davis Project: So Big! (1932)

So Big! (1932)


In the late 19th century, teenager Selina (Anne Shirley, The Devil and Daniel Webster, is Selina as a child, Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity, is the adult Selina) finds herself penniless after the sudden death of her beloved father (Robert Warwick, Sullivan’s Travels). She is forced to take up a job as a teacher to a family of poor farmers. Selina eventually agrees to marry a Dutch farmer (Earle Foxe, Four Sons) thus beginning a life filled with hardships and disappointments.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Solid attempt at two-generational saga, based upon Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer-winning book. Interestingly, Ferber was ashamed of her novel and begged her publisher to put it in the garbage. But the book became a runaway success, and the film was a hit too — the story of an earthy American woman, whose personal motto is “survival at any cost,” was perfect for depression era audiences.

If you love Stanwyck’s “tough-as-nails” movie persona, you’ll definitely enjoy So Big! — she’s terrific! Stanwyck convincingly plays the main character at various stages in her life; from naive teenager to world-weary old woman. Director William A. Wellman (Night Nurse and Lady of Burlesque), who made half-a-dozen movies with Stanwyck, didn’t have the resources of George Stevens’s 1956 adaptation of Ferber’s Giant, but he is able to show the scope of the human struggle.

Bette Davis has a small, but pivotal role as a free-spirited artist. She has precious little screen time, but Davis does utter the (great) last line. Despite its relative brevity, she claimed that it was one of her favorite roles. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any scenes with Stanwyck. They almost worked together again in Hush Hush … Sweet Charlotte (1964), but it was not meant to be.

George Brent (The Spiral Staircase), in his second of eleven films with Davis, plays her love interest. Interestingly, Stanwyck and Shirley played mother and daughter in the classic weepie Stella Dallas. Also starring Alan Hale (The Sea Hawk), Dickie Moore (Sergeant York), Hardie Albright (The Working Man).

The film is also notable as costume designer Orry-Kelly’s (Les Girls and Some Like it Hot) first Hollywood production. He soon became one of Warner’s key contract artists, and one of the industry’s most celebrated designers.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Stanwyck’s performance is fantastic, Wellman’s direction is flawless, and the story is poignant and credible. The film’s message about perseverance still resonates today. So Big! is a nice little film with a big heart. Remade in 1952, with Jane Wyman (The Yearling and Johnny Belinda) as Selina. B&W, 81 minutes, Not Rated.


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