“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.”
In the early 1930s the studios put out what they called “women’s pictures.” These pictures were geared towards women because they were the ones who were going to the movies while they were home alone during the day. Think of today’s women’s pictures being Romantic Comedies (is it just me or have Rom Coms gone downhill in a major way the past few years?) like 27 Dresses or dramas like The Help. So many of Hollywood’s great leading ladies started out in women’s pictures in the early 1930s including Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck stuck out among her counterparts during this time because there was nothing phony about her acting. She gives one of her best performances in a women’s picture called So Big!.
The story starts off in the late 1800s in Chicago. Selina (Stanwyck) is a young girl living with her wealthy father. They travel all over the country and enjoys the best that money has to offer. Selina loves her father very much and is beyond devastated when he is shot and killed over a gambling debt. When the news if why her father dies, her friend Julia’s mother will not allow her daughter to be seen with Selina. Julia’s father still likes Selina and helps set her up with a teaching position. The position is out in the prairies teaching farm children.
Selina is staying with a farm family. They are a little too rough for her liking. The son Roelf (later played by George Brent) is a little more sophisticated than the rest of his family. Every night he sits at the table and reads his dictionary. He is not as rough as the rest of the family and does not speak as much when she first arrives. In church Selina sees a man named Purvis DeYoung. An old widow likes him and the whole town knows it. At a church auction Purvis talks to her. The auction is bids on a lunch basket made by the ladies of the parish. Roelf tries to bid for Selina’s basket but Purvis outbids him. Poor Roelf is forced to eat with a girl that annoys him. Purvis begins to come to the house for lessons. Roelf gets jealous and does all he can to interrupt them. He comes down the stairs and opens the door to see Selina and Purvis kissing. Selina and Purvis get married and live on a farm. After some time Selina begins to look ten years older than she is from all the hard farm work. Their life becomes happier when they have a son they name Dirk.
Roelf’s mother dies from all the years of hard work. Roelf is terribly upset and decides to leave home. He stops to see Selina before he leaves so he can give her back two books. Selina tells him to keep the books she does not want them. As Selina is in the house getting money for him Roelf puts the books down on the ground and walks away. Selina is upset that Roelf has gone away. She turns to her small son and asks how big he is. He spreads his small arms to show her how big he is. Years later Purvis dies from a bad cold. Now Selina works the farm and goes to the market herself to sell the food. From this time on Selina works hard to provide and care for Dirk.
Dirk has graduated from college with a degree in architecture. He wants to make a lot of money and become successful. Selina shows him Roelf’s drawing of a field of cabbage he made for her when they first met. Now Roelf is a famous artist in Europe he has become successful but had to work for it. Dirk leaves his mother saying he has to get back to the office. He goes out to dinner with a married woman. On the menu is De Young asparagus. Selina has become a success through her hard work. The woman Dirk meets tells him to forget about architecture and become a bond salesman so he can make money. He becomes a successful and wealthy bonds salesman. He was so focused on becoming a success that he hates it when his mother mentions working on a farm.
Selina is worried about her son’s obsessed focus with being a bondsman and not having a woman he wants to marry. One day in his office Dirk meets Dallas O’Mera (Bette Davis). Dallas is an artist for an advertising firm that has been sent to work for the company. Dirk takes Dallas out to dinner. He tells her he wanted to be an architect. She tells him that she would rather create a backdoor than work behind a desk.
Dallas goes to Paris. While there she meets Roelf. When they both return to New York City Dallas introduces Dirk to Roelf. Selina now lives in a big house surrounded by large fields. Dirk, Dallas, and Roelf go out to see Selina. When they arrive at the house she is working out in the fields. Selina is beyond happy to see her old friend after so many years. Dallas admires Selina for her ruggedness and strength.
Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely amazing. You were not watching Barbara Stanwyck you were watching this woman who was once privileged go through the rest of her life struggling and working hard and always coming out alright. I could not get over the fact that Stanwyck was twenty-four years old when she played this part. She had the acting ability of someone much older and had over thirty films under their belt (she had only made eleven before this film). I give Stanwyck a ton of credit for putting on the old makeup. Not many actresses back then would make themselves really age, they aged gracefully and unconvincingly. Stanwyck went all the way and knocked it out. She was amazing from beginning to end. She fit the role perfectly because she was a tough broad herself. Bette Davis was fourth billed! This was one of her early films so no leading role yet. I thought it was funny how she was fourth billed with George Brent being billed before her because a few years later she would be the leading lady billed above him and bossing him around like there was no tomorrow in those films. Davis was good in her small scenes. She did not have a diva attitude yet. George Brent is just fabulous not matter how long he is in a film.
So Big! was definitely a women’s picture. It is based off a story written by Edna Farber. The studios ate Edna Farber’s novels for breakfast. I have seen so many films that were based off her stories or Edith Wharton’s, both of them had the perfect stories for those old weepy pictures. The reason So Big! stands out among the other films is because of Barbara Stanwyck and her amazing acting. She gave the character just enough sympathy and never let you feel bad for her for very long and I think that comes down to her being such a woman in real life. So Big! is not available on DVD or on Youtube. I recorded it from TCM some time ago. If the channel airs it again definitely watch it