Friday, September 11, 2015

So Big!

The William Wellman Blogathon celebrates the life and career of the director, hosted by Now Voyaging. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the website.

TCM viewing

I'm used to seeing Barbara Stanwyck playing urbane, brassy types in her pictures, so it was a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to see her playing a more demure, countrified woman in So Big! But that was part of her great gift - her ability to make a role hers, no matter where she was set or what kind of woman she portrayed.

Stany embodied the life of a young woman who comes to a small Midwestern town as a schoolteacher and lives her life there, marrying a farmer and becoming a farmer herself, raising a son and watching him become a success in the big city. The "old age" makeup they used on her was minimal, as far as I could tell, but it didn't matter, because I totally believed her as this woman, both young and old.

So Big! is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber. I was content simply following the life of Selina, the main character, but late in the movie, a theme tries to rear its head. Earlier, we see this teenage kid, a budding artist, with a crush on Selina. She likes him and his artwork. Selina's son Dirk, as an adult, aspires to be an architect at first, which totally excites her, but then he goes into selling bonds instead, and Selina gives him this cautionary speech about not turning his back on art and beauty or something like that, and it sounded kind of important at the time, but I couldn't really tell where it led to, or even if there was a payoff. Dirk gets an artist girlfriend, and at one point he asks her, "Do you want me to give up my job and go back to architecture?" and she says no, so I didn't really feel like his artistic soul was in jeopardy or anything like that, if that's what the screenplay was trying to go for.

To be honest, I wasn't paying as much attention to the story as I probably should have at this point because I was too preoccupied with OMG BETTE DAVIS IS IN A MOVIE WITH BARBARA STANWYCK ARE THEY GONNA SHARE A SCENE??? Bette was fourth-billed in the opening credits, so I can only assume this was made before she became BETTE DAVIS. I kept wondering when she'd pop up, and after she did - she plays the aforementioned artist girlfriend of grown-up Dirk - I wanted to see her and Stany in a scene together in the worst way. In the end, they do have a scene together - kind of. They're in the same room together, and Bette talks about her, but not to her. As scenes with acting legends go, it wasn't exactly De Niro and Pacino in Heat, but then again, Stany and Bette weren't quite legends yet. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity.

As I watched this, I was reminded, however indirectly, of another Stany movie, Stella Dallas - and not just because of Alan Hale Sr. They're both tales of motherhood; there are instances in both movies where the child is embarrassed by the mother for one reason or another (Dirk is reluctant to talk about Selina's asparagus-farm-raising ways in one scene); the mothers' sacrifices for their children are held up as virtuous and heroic (though Stella is the more extreme example); and both films follow their protagonists for huge chunks of their lives.

Dickie Moore plays young Dirk. According to his autobiographical book about child stars, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Stany was his favorite movie mom.

I could go on and on about Stany, but this post is for a blogathon about the director, William Wellman, so it's time to say a few things about him. So Big! was one of five films Wellman made with Stany; the other four being Night Nurse, Lady of Burlesque, The Great Man's Lady and The Purchase Price. A leap-year baby, born on a February 29th, Wellman was as known for his service as a World War 1 pilot as for his film career. He learned to fly with the French Foreign Legion and ultimately flew for France in the war until he got shot down in 1918.

He was an acquaintance of Douglas Fairbanks, whom he met in his native Boston when he was younger, and it was through him that Wellman broke into Hollywood, first as an actor, and then in a variety of production roles before becoming a director for several studios. Wings was his breakthrough hit, made at the studio now known as Paramount - a movie he was uniquely qualified for due to his aviation experience. It would go on to become the first Best Picture Oscar winner, and the rest was history.

Other films by William Wellman:
Night Nurse
A Star is Born
Nothing Sacred


  1. I enjoy all the films that Wellman and Stanwyck collaborated on. From 1931 to 1943 covers a lot of ground in their respective careers. I only wish they had had the opportunity to work together again in the 50s. I wonder what they would have come up with.

  2. One day I wanna see LADY OF BURLESQUE. That one's supposed to be good - and of course, any excuse to see her dance...

  3. If you check out my post on LADY OF BURLESQUE Rich you will see her boogie woogie! And I would be exactly the same if I saw that Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis were in the same film. Thank you for joining in the blogathon!

  4. Aha. I knew somebody was gonna write about that one...

  5. I've tried a few times to watch this film, but I just couldn't get into it. However, you make a very good point about Barbara Stanwyck being able to make any role her own, so perhaps I've been a bit unfair. You've persuaded me to give this film another go. :)

  6. I hope something clicks for you. I found it quite pleasant - but then, themes regarding artistic integrity usually interest me.

  7. I think the whole early part of the film is great, but it gets rather rushed towards the end - looks as if quite a bit was cut out so maybe that is why. I remember also being keen to see the scene with Stanwyck and Davis but feeling they didn't get much time together. Enjoyed your review.

  8. Hm. It did seem a little like they were compressing Dirk's adult life, but I can't say I found that a problem. If I see it again anytime soon perhaps I'll look out for that.


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