“I want you to realize that 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: no matter what happens, good or bad, it’s just so much velvet”, is the title key phrase in the movie. A quote that is referenced more than once, and a saying that should be paid more attention to today.
During the annals of cinema history, there has been several important periods for film. One of the most fascinating and intriguing is that bygone era known as Pre-Code Hollywood, which took place after the introduction of sound in the late 1920’s, and ended when the Hays Code was rigorously enforced in July 1934. Once the Hays Code came in all the immoral subjects that were showcased in Pre-Code films, which include, sexual innuendo, prostitution, abortion, babies born out of wedlock and promiscuity among other topics were forbidden.
For a film that spotlights an impressive cast you would think that it would be readily available in the public domain, but sadly “So Big” is one of those rarely seen treasures that has never faced a DVD release. When you do finally see it however, you start to question why it has been absent for so many years. It’s a movie that is guaranteed to capture the viewers attention from the moment it first starts.
“So Big” marks an ounce of distinction in the career of Bette Davis. Not only was it her second film for Warner Brothers, it was the first vehicle in which she appeared in with George Brent, who would go on to make eleven more films with her. At the time, Davis was still only a novice at the craft with only seven credits to her resume. Two years and fifteen films later, Bette Davis would make her breakthrough role in “Of Human Bondage”, a production that garnered her an Academy Award nomination, as well as transforming her into a prominent star.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edna Ferber, the film has taken on many formats, including three remakes since the books release. It was superbly directed by William Wellman, who was known for his prolific efforts in the crime, adventure and action genre, and stars Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, George Brent and Alan Hale among other notable names.
The story chronicles the life of Selina Peake ( Barbara Stanwyck ) and focuses on the troubles she faced after her fathers tragic death. Young and impecunious with no family left for support, Selina is forced to take a job as a school teacher for the Poole family, who reside in a small Dutch community.
Fast forward a few years, Selina is married to the immigrant farmer Pervus De Jong, and has just given birth to Dirk, who she nicknames ‘So Big’. Shortly after the baby is born, Pervus dies, and Selina is left to raise the child alone while struggling to keep the farm afloat.
After years of financial pressure, Dirk is grown up, and has broken his mothers heart by abandoning his job as an architecture to become a bond salesmen. Altercations ensue when he falls in love with the unconventional artist, Dallas O’Mara ( Bette Davis ) who refuses to marry him because of his lack of ambition.
“So Big” is an extremely well crafted and well thought out film, but it could have been better. The major flaw is that it only has a short duration length for a production that delves into the many different aspects of Selina’s life. The film starts off great, and every detail seems to be perfectly blended into the movie, but about half way through the film, the main fault becomes largely evident. First we see Selina and young Dirk having to resort to sleeping the night on the back of the wagon, because of their indigent status, then a few minutes later it automatically skips over a long time span, and Dirk, who was just a young child minutes ago is now grown up and working as a notable bond salesmen, while Selina next appears onscreen as an old exhausted woman with white hair. This fault is bound to attract the attention of many viewers who could easily be put off by the last part of the film, which is raced through at a breathless pace. The sudden jump in time is so evident that it makes you wonder if some scenes have been cut.
Despite the short running time, “So Big” is still an exceptional movie. Barbara Stanwyck with her masterful projections of a larger than life figure is the films main highlight. All the way through Stanywck displays a luminous and indomitable quality that is apparent in the other vehicles she made with William Wellman, most notably, “The Great Man’s Lady”. Wellman had a knack for casting Stanwyck as a woman in a rather exigent situation but no matter how many times life gets her down, she can’t be defeated and continues working tirelessly against hope.
Bette Davis, who was still at the inception of her career is commendable, and even though her screen time is diminished in quantity, she still delivers a powerful performance that would make for her monumental star status that was still on the horizon.
Sadly for George Brent, he is only present in the films finale in the role as Roelf all grown up as a renowned sculptor, but when he finally does appear, he does the best he can with the brief but memorable scenes he’s in.
Eighty three years since it’s release, “So Big” will continue to impress audiences with it’s taste of real life Americana. A world that is gone forever.
Barbara Stanwyck always quoted “So Big” to be among her favorites of her films.
Bernhard Kaun composed original music for the trailer.
Simeon Peake: [Giving advice to his daughter Selina, when she was young] “I want you to realize that 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: no matter what happens – good or bad – it’s just so much velvet.” ( This quote is referenced in two other sections of the movie )
Julie Hempel: “Ha-ha-ha… Selina, aren’t we funny looking?”
Selina: “I know I am. And, Julie Hempel, the size of your bustle!”
Dirk De Jong: “You’re just about the most attractive girl I’ve ever met.”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “Very good. Kinda sterotyped, but still effective. Time out while I work up a maidenly blush.”
Dirk De Jong: “Now this is your last chance. I’m not going to ask you this question any more. How about having dinner with me some night?”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “Love to.”
Dirk De Jong: “When?”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “Oh, sometime in the distant future… say, um, tonight.”
Dirk De Jong: “Perfect. Where would you like to go, the Casino?”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “Oh, let’s not and say we did. Those upper-crust places make me jitter.”
Dirk De Jong: “Well, how about Thompson’s Lunch?”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “Oh, I’m still hunchbacked from sitting in those one-armed chairs. Let’s go to a hotel–full of all sorts of people: actors, gamblers, thieves, bootleggers, ladies and…and women. That’s my dish.”
Dirk De Jong: “Must a man be an artist to interst you?”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “Good Lord, no! I’ll probably marry some horny-handed son of toil, and if I do, the horny hands’ll win me. I like them with their scars on them. There’s something about a man who has fought for it: the look in his eye, the feel of his hands. You haven’t a mark on you, Dirk, not a mark. You gave up being an architect because it was an uphill, disheartening job at the time. I don’t say you should have kept on. For all I know, you were a terrible architect. But if you had kept on, if you’d loved it enough to keep on fighting and struggling, why that fight would show in your face today–in your eyes, in your whole being.”
Dirk De Jong: “In the name of Heaven, Dallas, I have…”
Miss Dallas O’Mara: “I’m not criticizing you, but…but you’re all smooth. And I like ’em bumpy.”
Roelf, age 12: “Fields of cabbages just like you said, they are beautiful”
Barbara Stanwyck: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: January 20th, 1990 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 82.
Bette Davis: Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Died: October 6th, 1989 in Neuilly, Sur Seine, France. Aged 81.
George Brent: Born George Brendan Nolan on March 15th, 1899 in Raharabeg County, Roscommon, Ireland. Died: May 26th, 1979 in Solana Beach, San Diego, California. Aged 80.