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Frank's Movie Log

My life at the movies.

So Big!

1932 | United States | 81 min | More...
A still from So Big! (1932)
D: 2 stars (out of 5)
on Sat Apr 08, 2023

Barbara Stanwyck plays a young woman who leaves her Chicago finishing school for a rural teaching job after her gambler father dies. There she marries and has a son who grows to manhood and leaves the farm for Chicago, where he turns gigolo to secure a lucrative job selling bonds, to Stanwyck’s disappointment.

This one left me with a lot of questions. An opening scene features Stanwyck’s character as a child dining with her father. He imparts in a solemn but loving tone, “This whole thing called life is just a grand adventure. The trick is to act in it and look out at the same time. And remember, as you go through life, no matter what happens, good or bad, its’ just so much velvet.”

When Stanwyck arrives for her teaching job, she boards with an immigrant family of farmers, the father played by Alan Hale. The film shows some panache here, with an early dinner scene illustrating how crude the farmers seem to Stanwyck by proffering POV shots of food going into Hale’s mouth.

Hale’s twelve-year-old son, Roelf, reads the dictionary at dinner and displays a talent for art. He develops a crush on Stanwyck and tries to thwart the efforts of her dim-witted suitor. The one-two punch of Stanwyck marrying and his mother’s death pushes Roelf to leave the farm. This comes a little past the halfway mark.

Given Stanwyck now has a son in diapers she‘s nicknamed “So Big,” we know several years have passed since she arrived on the farm. But Roelf still appears as his twelve-year-old self. The only sense of time passing comes via Stanwyck’s makeup. After marrying, the film removes it to age her.

More time passes. So Big is now a toddler and Stanwyck has gained some pancake wrinkles. Her husband dies, and she‘s left to manage the farm herself.

The “And remember, as you go through life, no matter what happens, good or bad, its’ just so much velvet,” quote from her father appears on a title card marking time’s passage.

Stanwyck disappears and the story shifts to her now adult son, played by Hardie Albright. Things stall for a bit, as Albright lacks Stanwyck’s charisma, but Bette Davis’s arrival provides the film’s biggest surprise.

Davis sparkles. Her opening smile charms us as well as Albright. Her confident, easy performance makes everyone else appear stiff by comparison. The script even perks up, with Albright, during a rare visit home, saying to Stanwyck after she chides him, “You talk like a mother in a melodrama whose son’s gone wrong.”

Albright falls for Davis, but she lets him know he’s not her type, saying, “You’re all smooth. And I like ‘em bumpy.”

Second-billed George Brent turns up for the last ten minutes as the adult Roelf. Davis seems keen on him, but he less so on her. Albright’s still holding a torch for Davis. The three journey to Stanwyck’s farm, where Brent scoops up Stanwyck and the two share a quiet moment while Davis and Albright watch. Then the film ends.

It’s an abrupt conclusion. Nothing’s resolved. The quiet moment between Brent and Stanwyck sees him saying, “It’s like your father always said..” leading us to believe he’ll quote the aforementioned bit about “all so much velvet” but no, he quotes another line we’ve never heard.

Was this line present in a longer version? And what of the dangling plot threads? Are we meant to think Brent and Stanwyck will get together? What about Albright and Davis? No answers, just dramatic music and a title card.

Was this intended as a Reader’s Digest version of Edna Ferber’s novel, or was the script whittled to incoherence? So many questions. It’s rare a film feels too short, but So Big’s effort to cram an epic story into eighty minutes feels insubstantial.

Viewing History

    Watched on
    Sat Apr 08, 2023 via Watch TCM