Pulitzer Prize winning novels don’t always produce award-worthy movies. Case in point: the 1932 version of So Big. One can see why writers, directors and actors are attracted to award-winning books, but too often something happens between the first reading of the source material and the final editing that results in a lackluster final product.
So Big is the story of a young school teacher who marries and then must fight to save the family farm to secure the future of she and her son. Barbara Stanwyck plays the young woman in this William Wellmandirected version. She is propelled into the school teacher role in a one-room school house farming town after her gambler father is killed in the big city.
This Selena immediately wins the affections of the adolescent boy belonging to the family that has offered her lodging. Roelf (Dick Winslow) is forced to work on his father’s cabbage farm and cannot attend school, but Selena shares books that feed his desire for greater knowledge. Although other family members laughed at Selena’s first comment of the cabbage fields as “beautiful”, Roelf agrees and draws her a picture indicating so.
Roelf is upset when Selena attracts the attention of the most handsome man in town, Pervus, played by the not-so-handsome Earle Fox. The two eventually marry and have a 10-pound son, Dirk. Around this time, Roelf leaves home to find himself a better life. Not so much later Pervus gets sick and dies, leaving the farm work to Selena.
The years pass and Dirk (Hardie Albright) is now a young adult, living in the city, working as an architect’s assistant. His mother made the most of the farm by planting the newly popular asparagus vegetable. Her country home is large, and she was able to send her boy to college where he earned his architecture degree. But Dirk is dissatisfied with his $35 per week salary. He dreams of a fancier life and attempts to fulfill that dream by going around with a wealthy married woman. The dame offers to persuade her husband to hire Dirk as a bond salesman, thus giving Dirk the glamorous life he hoped for.
Selena is naturally disappointed in her son’s desires and personality. Somewhat mirroring her own feelings is the young painter Dallas, played by Bette Davis. Dirk meets her in his office where she is hired to draw an advertisement for the firm. He falls heavily for her, but she is less impressed by him, saying she instead prefers men with rough hands, who have fought for their livelihood.
Dallas leaves for Europe only to return in time to celebrate the return of Roelf (George Brent), now a famous sculptor. She accompanies both Roelf and Dirk to visit Selena, who is overjoyed at seeing Roelf again. As those two stand beside the window, Dallas tells Dirk that his mother is beautiful. End of movie.
Although So Big starts as a movie about the struggles of a young woman to make a place for herself, having lost a comfortable city existence afforded by her father’s unsavory mode of employment. She recalls her father’s advice and makes the most of life, never complaining. When we jump ahead in time, however, the movie switches gears to focus on Dirk, who has become a greedy, lazy man deserving of little respect. We see the movie almost become a romantic tale of Dirk and Dallas, but the picture offers no resolution. We expect to see Dallas choose between the two young men –and we naturally expect her to prefer Roelf– but the movie closes with no conclusion of the romance or of Dirk’s shitty approach to life. Roelf’s presence should drive home to both Selena and Dirk what a disappointment the latter is, but we never get to that point.
Besides being unromantic and uninspiring, So Big is incredibly slow and boring. One finds it hard to find much life in any of the characters. Bette Davis and her platinum hair jump off the screen for the short time she appears there, and George Brent at least doesn’t play his usual self, but Barbara Stanwyck disappoints. Despite her unending optimism, Selena is a depressing character to watch. Either her life circumstances are unappealing or she is pathetically old looking, making us pity her.
- So Big is set for 11 a.m. ET May 12 on TCM.