SO BIG (William A. Wellman, 1932)

After years of separation, my recent reunion with The High and the Mighty (1954) proved a mighty big disappointment that left me feeling low. Despite his Oscar nomination for it, Wild Bill Wellman’s filmmaking never takes flight. But his So Big, based on the popular novel by Edna Ferber, is nearly as good as his A Star Is Born (1937), Roxie Hart (1942), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Yellow Sky (1948) and Track of the Cat (1954)—Wellman’s five best works. It also presents a unique opportunity to see perhaps the two greatest American-born film actresses together (Lillian Gish is also in the running), each in high gear. What brilliant artists they both are!

Barbara Stanwyck* is finely, deeply moving as Selina Peake, the country schoolteacher who becomes shy farmer Pervus De Jong’s wife and then, after his death, the hands-on-in-the-fields queen of De Jong asparagus, but remains profoundly humble, living in the same house. “How big is my little boy?” she asks of her little son, Dirk, who replies as she has prompted him, his arms outstretched to encompass the wide range of his potential: “So big!” Roelf Pool, an older boy infatuated with Selina, follows his heart and becomes that “big,” a world-renowned sculptor, while Dirk, in pursuit of wealth, turns his back on architecture, for which he was trained, and enters the sterile world of stocks and bonds trading. He falls in love with Dallas O’Mara—Bette Davis, whose stunning performance as a modern, outspoken, independent gal reflects some of Selina’s own values but also contrasts nicely with Stanwyck’s more conservative kind of acting. While Stanwyck is traditional and restrained, Davis as the young painter is electric, urgent—and, here, in a non-neurotic role. In Paris, Dallas and Roelf meet and fall in love.

The saga is episodic, encompassing a chunk of time—nearly the whole of Selina Peake’s life. She pursues self-expression and reaps the rewards, as do Roelf and Dallas, while Dirk pursues the bitch goddess Success. Selina’s love for her son remains constant, no matter the depth of her disappointment in his careless, playboy lifestyle and the superficiality that costs him Dallas; but her eyes come especially alive when Roelf visits. Among the gaps in the continuity of the narrative that account for the film’s episodic form is the long experience by which Selina herself becomes successful. Of course, showing us this would have been counterproductive; it would have detracted from the whole point: that Selina loves the earth and its bounty—“Cabbages are beautiful!” she exulted as a young woman, and, while everyone else mocked, Roelf agreed—and that she is doing what she loves to do: farming, and sharing its riches—De Jong asparagus—with the rest of the world as her simple way to connect and contribute. There is nothing fancy about Selina, and a rags-to-riches account would have upset the thematic apple cart, especially since her “riches” all go back into the business. The part of the plot that unfolds in Paris is similarly kept off-screen and thus becomes a metaphor for Dirk’s turning his back on life’s richest possibilities. We don’t see Dirk lose what he desires most, Dallas, and neither does he; but the off-screen unfolding of this loss releases potent irony when Dallas and Roelf return as a couple. The form of the film is exactly right, then, for what it wishes to convey, and indeed the narrative as it is presented, with these gaps (here the character is a child, and in the next shot he is a man), achieves a heartbreaking intimation of the passage of time. A contemporary reviewer called the film a “lumpy odyssey” because of its skips over time; but this must have been an individual incapable of analyzing form as expressive of feelings and ideas.

In the final scene, Dallas explains to Dirk why she would love to paint a portrait of his mother as the camera, on Selina as she speaks with Roelf, captures Selina’s “pioneer” nobility, simplicity, humility. Stanwyck and Davis are both tremendous, and Wellman creates a stirring, haunting moment in time.

Edna Ferber? Wild Bill Wellman’s So Big had me thinking “Willa Cather.” By contrast, Robert Wise’s inflated, sudsy 1953 remake casts out all thinking and almost all feeling, although Jane Wyman, in the earlier scenes at least, is enchanting—but no more Barbara Stanwyck than Nancy Olson is Bette Davis.

Wellman’s is the one to see.

* Stanwyck made five films with Wellman—as many as she made with mentor Frank Capra. Wellman’s A Star Is Born was largely based on Stanwyck’s marriage to Frank Fay and the rise of her career and the collapse of his.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.

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