Selina (Barbara Stanwyck) is living an unconventional and somewhat lonely life with her father, Simeon (Robert Warwick), who is a gambler. The two hop around to different hotels rather than living in a stable home, staying in luxurious places when Simeon is winning big and living in less favorable conditions when he’s not.
When Simeon dies, Selina is alone and has no way to support herself. Eventually she decides to move to a rural town and become a teacher.
The film then follows Selina’s life in the small farming community, and her struggles as a farmer’s wife after she marries Dutch farmer Purvis De Jong (Earle Foxe).
William Wellman directs So Big!, which in addition to Stanwyck, Warwick and Foxe stars George Brent, Dickie Moore, Bette Davis, Mae Madison, Hardie Albright, Alan Hale, Dorothy Peterson, Noel Francis and Dick Winslow. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Furber (a fellow Michigander, born in Kalamazoo!), who also wrote the source works for Show Boat, Cimarron and Giant, among others.
Though this is a Stanwyck film and Stanwyck films are never a waste of time, I went into this film with a bit of skepticism. I’d heard very little praise for it, and I’d even seen it be referred to as one of the worst films in her filmography.
It’s difficult not to compare this film with The Purchase Price which was also directed by Wellman, starred George Brent and Stanwyck (even in a similar role as a farmer’s wife!), and was released in the very same year. I will admit, I find The Purchase Price to be the superior effort. The transformation of Stanwyck’s character in that film from torch singer to farm girl, and the progression of her relationship with Brent’s character, is fascinating to watch thanks in large part to the fantastic lead performances.
So Big! is not quite as entertaining as The Purchase Price. It’s got a pretty slow pace and too many time-period jumps, making it very clear that it is an incredibly condensed version of what was a more fleshed-out story in Furber’s novel. I haven’t yet read the novel, but I can only assume that it includes a greater depth of detail than this adaptation, and reviews from those who have read the source novel seem to confirm this. The story covers such a long period of time in the characters’ lives that it couldn’t possibly all be packed into only 81 minutes with a sufficient level of detail.
That being said, So Big! is by no means a terrible film and I have to disagree with those who name it as one of Stanwyck’s worst.
I really enjoy Stanwyck’s character here. She has an incredible sense of determination and an ability to remain hopeful even in the worst of times, which is completely admirable. This character is a whole lot less brassy than many of her other early ’30s dames. She’s a hard-working and strong-willed lady, but she’s also incredibly sweet. Stanwyck’s performance becomes very emotional in the second half of the film, reminiscent of her fantastic performance in Stella Dallas, though this film as a whole isn’t as effective as Stella Dallas in terms of impact on the viewer.
Bette Davis is a standout from the supporting cast. With a platinum blonde ‘do and her trademark wide eyes, Davis captivates the audience as love interest to Dirk De Jong (Hardie Albright), son of Stanwyck’s character.
Another positive for the film is that it doesn’t try to make light of Selina’s situation or focus too greatly on sappy romance. There is romantic complication throughout the film but it isn’t overly melodramatic, and often the film opts to focus on the hardships of farm life instead, doing so quite successfully.
So Big! could have been an absolutely beautiful film had story detail not been sacrificed in favor of a shorter running time. As it stands, So Big! is a decent but slowly paced portrayal of struggle, optimism and finding the beauty in everyday life. The score: 3.5/5