So Big (1953) On Screen

“Always to her, red and green cabbages, were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”~Edna Ferber in the novel, So Big

Please note: Some plot points of various movies are discussed in detail below

Hollywood has made over twenty films from Edna Ferber‘s stories, novels and plays. When TCM aired the third feature film version of Ferber’s  Pulitzer Prize winning 1924 novel, So Big (1953-Robert Wise) last month on Mother’s Day, I wondered if anyone read this author’s works anymore.  Once upon a time, Ferber, was a 5′ 2″ titan of publishing, with novels, short stories, and plays pouring from her pen and selling like today’s iPhones. The world seems to have passed her work by, without the respect accorded the work of other female American novelists, such as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, while her contemporaries, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, are still read and appreciated, thanks to the universality of their themes and their incisive voice.

By contrast, Ferber’s prose, once likened by one of today’s more droll critics, John Lahr, to that of “a teenager on diet pills,” may have dated a bit, but her engaging stories, often dealing with thorny issues such as feminism, economic hardship and individual, racially diverse characters, gave classic movies the raw material for several memorable films. Though Ferber later dismissed her earlier efforts, I suspect that many people, even the gifted Mr. Lahr, might enjoy some of Ferber’s lively short stories, some of which are online here).  Along with the critically neglected Fannie Hurst and Zane Grey, a pair of other writers whose mass market appeal and lack of literary pedigrees never seem to garner them much respect, Ferber‘s snapshots of a time and place in American life may have been among the most ubiquitously adapted tales during the studio era.

Edna Ferber (1885-1968), a Jewish girl born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, became a living example of a “New Woman,” and even wended her way into the select group at the famed Algonquin Round Table. Her presence among the wits at the table may have been earned the day that she encountered her friend (and favorite theater companion) Noel Coward.  When Coward ran into Ferber and both were wearing nearly identical suits, he reportedly said, “Edna, you look just like a man.” Her reply, according to several sources, was a simple, “So do you.”

Never marrying and never apparently involved with anyone romantically, the fiercely independent Ferber created her life work in popular fiction and Broadway plays, (especially those written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman).  Despite a certain literary celebrity, it was her earnest and honest way of facing life, reflecting her Mid-West past as well as her empathy for outsiders at the American feast. She may be an obscure figure to most of us, but chances are, you have seen her work. In the process, she created some fairly iconic roles that generations of hungry actresses might still long for.

Ferber‘s own attitude toward Hollywood apparently veered between fascination, respect and revulsion. She was, according to film historian J.E. Smyth in her interesting new book, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History (Univ. of Texas Press), an admirer of “Thalberg, Goldwyn, [George] Stevens, screenwriter Howard Estabrook, and actor James Dean for their drive, ambition, self-invention, and commitment to their work. It was a commitment she shared. Yet she was repelled by Hollywood’s ‘ghostlike’ persona—where the flowers had no scent and the people were overplayed personalities rather than individuals.”

After selling one of her earlier efforts to the movies, the highly industrious and disciplined Ferber lingered in the film capital for some time in 1920 while writing the novel So Big, but she found little of what she characterized as “the lusty native quality of the old gold-rush camp days. Offended by [Hollywood excess], and bored, too, after the first glance or two needed for complete comprehension, [she] retreated gratefully into the work-walk-read routine of escape.” She soon left for the East, but would offer her share of advice and negotiate cannily for money and credit with Hollywood for decades, as filmmakers created movies such as Cimarron (1931) and (1960), Show Boat (1929), (1936) and (1951), and Giant (1956) from her novels, each of which brought the prestige of America’s historical pageant on-screen with a strong appeal for women, as well as men in the audience.

Curiously, while Hollywood bought a certain built-in audience when purchasing the rights to her best-selling books, the studios often softened her plots and the fates of her characters when translating them to film in order to avoid offending strongly held values and prejudices. In Ferber’s original story for Show Boat, arguably her most resonant story and brilliantly remade as the landmark 1927 musical adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern that has been made into a movie three times, that sweet rascal Cap’n Andy is drowned in the Mississippi during a storm, Julie sinks into prostitution and the irresponsible Ravenal and Magnolia are never truly reunited. The racism and sexism in Giant was softened considerably by director George Stevens and his collaborators (who included Ferber herself) when they adapted the story into the blockbuster movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in the ’50s. The latter movie made the star Rock Hudson’s Brick Benedict a redemptive figure, capable of fighting against as well as tacitly acknowledging his own responsibility in perpetuating racist beliefs of Anglos vs. Mexican-Americans. Recently, I finally read So Big, (which is among the books by Ferber that is still in print), and, though neither of the film versions I’ve seen was as entirely satisfying as the novel, both have their strengths as well as shared weaknesses.

So Big provided the source material for a first version starring “The Perfect Flapper,”  Colleen Moore, who was critically hailed for displaying her versatility in the story of Selina Peake De Jong, (sadly, this silent version was directed by Charles Brabin in 1924 and is now believed lost). A second retelling in 1932, directed by that vigorous and talented craftsman, William Wellman, featured a blossoming 25-year-old Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. As the film industry and the world reeled from the worst year of the Depression, Wellman made a hectically paced, stringently budgeted Warner Brothers version of the story with Stanwyck, which allowed the emerging leading lady to show some of her fire in a brilliantly flinty performance as a de-glamorized character, impressing audiences and critics with her range early in her career. Perhaps Stanwyck might be thought of as too rooted in her real life urban background to play this role, but as she proved in Wellman’s similar rural story, The Purchase Price, earlier in ’32, she brought a ferocious commitment to the part of a woman who finds herself transplanted to a life on the farm, where her greatest solace may be her pride in her work. Her character’s other love is for her son, called “Sobig,” a rather cloying nickname given him by his doting mother when she would ask her offspring, “how big is my Dirk?” This version of So Big was further enhanced by the presence of a very young Bette Davis in her second part at Warner Brothers, as a young artist called Dallas O’Mara, (yes, one of the most amusing aspects of Ferber’s books are the slightly loopy names she gives her characters). Davis, who brings a warmth and intelligence to her part as a grown up Dirk’s artistic muse and conscience, may just have been taking notes on Stanwyck‘s radiant intensity as she witnessed her brave portrayal of a woman who was not afraid to appear overwhelmed, exhausted, old, and yet ultimately triumphant in her depiction of this character.

The power of the scenes in which Stanwyck‘s Selina fights against being crushed by circumstance, nature and the longed for release of giving up nearly approaches the beauty of Willa Cather, making me think of My Antonia‘s portrait of another woman pioneer. Stanwyck’s simplicity and desire to make something more out of life than money as she develops her farm, raising asparagus and dreaming of the possibility of fostering something beautiful in the lives of her own son as well a young and talented farm boy, Roelf are realized, but she cannot shape their lives entirely, as one becomes something truly big as an artist and the other pursues Mammon. What robs the 1932 version of its full dramatic impact was the extreme brevity of the film. I’m not a big fan of today’s bum and mind-numbing 3 hour flicks, but the jarring continuity of the story as we see the child Dirk (Dickie Moore) transition to an adult (Hardie Albright) flies by a bit too quickly to be effective. This extremely economical manner of storytelling appears to be sometimes common in movies of the thirties, (see Henry Hathaway’s transition from boyhood Dickie Moore–again, that poor kid never had a day off–to adulthood as Gary Cooper in 1935′s Peter Ibbetson, as one example). At only 81 minutes, the decades-long story seemed rushed and only briefly touched on the underlying critique of materialistic values that Ferber conveyed so well in her novel.

In the film’s rush to pack as much into the short time allotted, it seemed as though the energetic Wellman and his star only had time for a brief nod to the maternal urge that drives Selina De Jong (Stanwyck) as she raises her son alone after her stultifying if well-meaning hubby dies. Tenderness is present in the very brief scenes with Dickie Moore as her young son, Dirk, but when Hardy Albright (as an adult version of the character) appears, the relationship between the character of Selina and Dirk seems stiff and judgmental on her part. A more consistent, fully realized portrayal of a Stanwyck mother may be found in the still powerful melodrama, Stella Dallas, made in 1937, though perhaps My Reputation in 1946 allowed the actress to create a more nuanced, realistic and somewhat modern mother on-screen.

Despite the limitations imposed by the sketchiness of the movie, Stanwyck invested her character with a resolute courage and dignity that raised the quality of the film. Unfortunately, Earle Foxe, who played the role of Selina’s dull but hardworking farmer husband, Pervus De Jong, only succeeded in conveying his bland acceptance of his brutal fate and made very little impression on me. The fact that the movie shows how prosperous Selina’s hard work eventually makes her farm may have reflected the hopes of Depression era audiences, while they could readily identify with the hardships depicted on-screen. The movie also appears to suggest that individuals, such as Stanwyck‘s farmer and Davis‘ inspired artist, whose characters pursued excellence while chasing their dreams, were more likely to find material comfort at the end of their rainbow, without dwelling on the physical and spiritual cost of the sacrifice involved.


The 1953 version of So Big was directed by Robert Wise between screen assignments that led him to film the North African war story, The Desert Rats (1953) for 20th Century Fox, and the corporate cautionary tale, Executive Suite (1954), made at M-G-M. So Big appears to be one of the least known movies by the filmmaker, in part because it has not been seen much in many years. It also could be affected by the fact that Wise’s many disparate films seem generally undervalued and are hard to pigeonhole.  In addition to this, the obscurity of the movie may also stem from such rural subject matter having fallen out of fashion in our post-modern world. Jarring transitions between parts of the story that are present in the novel and the films may also have affected the shelf life of So Big. This fifties’ version of So Big has a scale similar to the novel, with considerable thought and craftsmanship applied to the sweeping story, set largely in the fictionalized version of the rural community of New Holland south of Chicago in the years between 1895 and 1924. To some, it is the tale of “an unknown woman in a cutthroat economic capitalist economy,” but it is also one of the times that the leading lady, Jane Wyman, displayed her considerable strengths as an actor. 

Wyman labored for years as a second lead in a series of frothy musicals and comedies distinguishable only by their inane, (and occasionally entertaining) dialogue and the woman’s ever-changing hair color. By the time she found her dramatic footing by the mid-forties, beginning with her work in The Lost Weekend, The Yearling, and her Academy Award winning role as Johnny Belinda, she made the most of it. Never a conventional beauty by Hollywood standards, her ability to convey characters with a quiet mien and a spirited internal life made her an ideal choice to play Selina. Wyman, after working so long to become a star, tried to balance her meeker roles with those that allowed her to show her glam and savvy side as well, (see Frank Capra‘s Here Comes the Groom and her glamour-puss part in Lucy Gallant for examples of this aspect of her career, not to mention the fascinating if somewhat subversive charms of her work with Douglas Sirk in the ’50s).

Given the postwar shift of American films toward women characters whose essence seemed (superficially) to find fulfillment in traditional roles, perhaps the domestic air of So Big made it a more marketable drama by the ’50s, though the idea of starring Wyman in a remake of So Big had been championed at Warners by producer Jerry Wald and others since the mid-1940s. It may also have been inspired by the renewed interest in Ferber following the success of M-G-M’s lavish Show Boat (1951-George Sidney), the publication of the writer’s somewhat controversial look at Texas with the publication of another best seller, Giant (1952), and the reissue of her earlier successful books, Cimarron, Come and Get It and So Big around this time. The version of Selina’s story that eventually emerged on-screen emphasized the humanity of the characters and the indomitable more than serving as an economic critique of American agriculture, or materialism, nor is it simply a mindless paean to maternal and wifely role-playing. Instead, it has some deeply felt emotional moments from most of the cast that almost makes this a top flight movie.

At the beginning of the film, three characters, played by a sullen, lumpen Steve Forrest as an adult Dirk, Nancy Olson as Dallas O’Mara, and Walter Coy as Rolf Pool arrive at the idyllic looking farmhouse of Dirk’s absent mother. Rummaging through a trunk in the living room, they come across a photo of Selina as girl showing Jane Wyman, complete with middy blouse and ringlets, enchanting Roelf and Dallas. Setting the story solidly in the past, the film dissolves into a flashback, as we fade into a girlish Wyman at the piano, surrounded by her schoolmates. She plays a somewhat overage but wide-eyed schoolgirl, understandable since the actress was about 36 at the time. (Actresses who were also a bit long in the tooth for finishing school were sagely chosen to play her peers in these brief scenes, making it more possible to suspend belief…well, almost).

At this stage, Selina is a cultured, wealthy Chicago girl whose life consists of friends, music, art and refinement in a gilded atmosphere. She finds herself having to make her way in the world after her commodity speculator father’s off-screen death, a suicide, leaving her penniless and an orphan, since her own mother is also dead. Thanks to the kindness of a school friend (Elizabeth Fraser), a position is found for the destitute girl as a school teacher in a truck farming community just south of Chicago. Riding to her new post on a wagon with the stolid farmer Klaas Pool (Roland Winters), whose house she will board in, Selina’s eyes are full of the beauty of the sea of cabbages growing on either side of the road as far as the eye can see. Guilelessly, the girl’s first sight of the waves of red and green cabbages enchants her, as all of nature will throughout the movie. She tells her gruff companion that the planted fields “look like emeralds and burgundy”–an innocent remark that soon becomes an oft-repeated taunt among the more dour and unimaginative members of the smug Dutch community where she makes her new home. That home, which consists of a bare attic room, is in the Pool’s home.


Selina is a fragile looking woman, yet she finds strength in this alien world by drawing on her memory of her father’s words, when he would encourage her to get to know as many different people as possible. He also told her that the world is divided between two types of people; the first are wheat, the second are emeralds. While this initially may seem simplistic, as the story evolves, this vision of “the wheat,” the hardworking people who make the world work bending over the earth to draw sustenance for all, and “the emeralds,” the creative people who make the world bearable, and perhaps more beautiful and harmonious, are eventually seen as interdependent, with neither able to exist without the other.

Eventually, Selina makes friends among the few others who respond to her vibrant spirit, despite the harsh, flat world surrounding them. The first friendship is forged with the wife of Roelf Pool, Maartje, played by Karen Swenson. Showing Selina the room where she will stay, the pallid farm wife shows a brief spark of life when she sees the beauty and delicacy of Selina’s clothes as she unpacks her trunk. In response, Maartje shows Selina her own best dress, a traditional wedding dress. Selina, realizing suddenly that she and the bedraggled, worn drudge are not that far apart in age, is taken aback when she really looks at the woman for the first time, and blurts out “you’re not so old” as she realizes that just beneath the lined face and diffident manner of Maartje’s face, she is still a young woman of 28.

While at 36, Jane Wyman may have seemed a bit long in the tooth in the first scene to be playing a schoolgirl, it amused me that the filmmakers’ carefully chose to surround her at the boarding school with actresses who were also overage. in the next scene, as the creditors dismantled her home after her ruined father’s death, including the John Singer Sargent portrait of him, she won me over. Her ability to convey quiet reflection as she remembered that her father had encouraged her to treasure life’s experiences, especially when you accomplish something on your own, was beautifully done. As she unpacks her fine clothes in the bare attic room where she will board,  Wyman is struck by the sudden spark of appreciation shown by with Ruth Swanson as Maartje Pool, the downtrodden farmer’s wife who has welcomed her to her home. when Wyman blurts out “Oh, you’re not old!” after she really sees her for the first time–were also exceptionally touching. Explaining that she was just a girl when she was betrothed to the older farmer, (the novel says she was a 14-year-old bride), Maartje confesses that she briefly ran away, but, with no where to go, she returned to her fate. Gradually, the gulf between the two different women was further closed in each scene they appeared opposite one another.

What other actor, I wonder, besides Sterling Hayden, who probably felt that this movie was one more trial he had to endure for a paycheck, could bring a poignancy and spiritual longing to an unimaginative and dumb character who bordered on loutishness? In the novel, Hayden whose character marries Selina, is far more prejudiced, stubborn and brusque. In this film version he gathers wildflowers for his wife while scoffing gently when Wyman suggests the more up-scale asparagus as a crop and scientific methods to their truck farm to improve the soil.

Both leads were utterly believable as the couple brought together out of mutual need and loneliness more than grand passion. I was particularly touched by the scene during a raucous town event when Hayden first puts his hand on Selina’s shoulder–when a frisson of unspoken recognition passes between the two characters. Almost as touching as the scenes between Wyman and Hayden were those depicting the relationship between Richard Beymer and Wyman. Director Robert Wise had a real gift for drawing good performances from children, as seen in the exceptional work of Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and Billy Gray in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and of course, the myriad children in The Sound of Music (1965). Beymer, who would go on to a long adult career, appearing in Wise’s West Side Story (1961) as well as David Lynch’s cult success, the tv series Twin Peaks, was exceptionally good as the young teenage son of the Pool family who has been removed from school at an early age because his father believes “he is too old” to “waste time” in school. Despite his circumstances, Roelf has such a thirst for knowledge that he has read the dictionary on his own. Finding that the boy longs to learn the piano, Selina mentors him in his few spare moments, allowing him to practice on the battered upright piano in her schoolroom. When she realizes that the boy has begun to make up his own music on the out of tune instrument, her encouragement leads him to pursue a career in music.

The earthy simplicity that he and Jane Wyman brought to their roles helped to give this movie a real spine and a rural reality that I’ve rarely seen in Hollywood movies of this type–even John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath failed to convey the amount of grit required, the bone crushing weariness of working the land and the often meager material rewards of farming. The world that this film depicted may seem long ago and far away I was reminded of the simple facts of my own potato farming paternal grandparents’ lives, less than a hundred years ago. Bad crops, prejudiced attitudes among neighbors, the death of children, chronic illnesses such as rheumatic fever depicted in this film that left the stricken with bad hearts, and endless labor were all part of it, but they were aware of the beauty of nature and derived considerable joy and satisfaction from that life, taking pride in developing their truck farm and educating their children and encouraging them. Perhaps the Mid-Western roots of the Indiana-born Robert Wise played a role in the attention to detail that the director brought to the earlier part of the film. While some scenes were clearly filmed on a sound stage, the actors brought a keen sense of palpable reality to each of their scenes, lifting any cliched aspects of the tale to a higher plane than expected.

The death of Purvis De Jong (Hayden) from overwork, allows Selina to thrive as she undertakes going to market in the city with her wares, shocking her neighbors, the vendors in Chicago and finding unlikely sympathy among the prostitutes who gather there. At the same time, she enlists the aid of her son (now played by another future veteran of the Lassie series, Tommy Rettig), sleeping with him in their wagon the night before the market opens, and, when their produce is rejected, cajoling the small boy into selling the goods door to door in her old upper class neighborhood in Chicago. While pointing out to him the various stately homes, including the fortress-like pile where she once dwelled, the lad makes a comment about how much he’d like to build something better than these sometimes pretentious houses, (out of this casual remark, Selina starts to believe that her son might be “emerald” and creative enough to be an architect someday). Eventually out of the humiliation and rejection that the boy experiences trying to sell the rapidly aging fruit and vegetables to various households, the mother and son are reunited with some of Selina’s old family friends who act as deii ex machina for the harried, but plucky mother and son. Normally, pluckiness and resourceful characters can be quite appealing, but at this point, the film veered off from credibility, becoming more formulaic as each character seemed to take a turn extolling the nobility of Selina .

With the action shifting from rural struggles to board rooms and drawing rooms in Chicago in the second part of the film, the narrative drive and spark in the story was lost for me, especially when it dragged on about the grown up Dirk, (Steve Forrest), courting a pampered, well-connected and grasping Martha Hyer, who encourages Dirk to chuck his dream of becoming an architect for commercial real estate. This entire portion of the movie seems at odds with the earlier sequences, and the performances of the characters lacks dimension and impact. I also thought that the mother’s idea of how to live might have been questioned a bit more pointedly as well, but the movie seemed to paint the characters in broader terms as it went on, losing some of the issues between mother and son unexplored. I would have liked it more if Selina could have realized gradually that her own creativity on the farm was as important as her son’s pursuits away from it. As I was reminded recently when reading So Big, Ferber’s general view of men often seems to regard them as ineffectual dreamers or unimaginative drudges, impulsively and irresponsibly pursuing their own lives without paying heed to the effect of their actions on others.  The author has some limited sympathy for them, though she created more likable three dimensional women characters, (especially in Giant and Cimarron). Female characters often seem divided between the perceptive doers, blessed with a strong sense of mission, and those more passive-aggressive characters, such as the role that Martha Hyer was saddled with in So Big opposite Steve Forrest, who, frankly is incredibly wooden in his part. (Hyer seemed doomed to these roles as sophisticated, pretty demanding women in ’50s movies, spreading discontentment from the remake of My Man Godfrey (1957) with David Niven to Houseboat (1958) with Cary Grant. Even as the cultured love of Frank Sinatra in Minnelli’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel, Some Came Running (1958), which may be one of her few quasi-likable roles, she still seems fairly frosty). Nancy Olson as the artistic Dallas who tries to rouse Dirk from his materialistic reverie is also not able to project the pert intelligence that the part requires.  There is such a jarring difference between the earlier, truly enchanting performances earlier in the film and these later sequences, it seems like two movies. Robert Wise often mentioned in interviews with film scholars trying to apply the auteur label to his work that in many instances during his career, he was just a hired hand. As he mentions in this 2002 interview with Andrew J. Rausch found on Bright Lights Film Journal, he often did his job as best he could, even when that entailed doing as he was told by the studio. Perhaps this may explain the truncated denouement of the film. Returning the story to the present, there is a suggestion that the Steve Forrest character, who has left architecture for sales, might never have a chance to regain the affection of Dallas, who leaves for Paris with the now successful composer, Roelf (Walter Coy). His encounter with something like “true love” has, however opened his eyes to his folly.

The way that Warner Brothers marketed the movie at the time of its release in October, 1953 also seems to indicate that the studio may have lacked confidence in the film’s ability to attract audiences. This may have been due to an underlying suspicion that this material was beginning to look a bit old-fashioned in the same year that The Wild One (1953) roared into view and From Here to Eternity (1953) nudged the boundaries of the Production Code toward realism. Of course, if people were familiar with the book or even one of the earlier film versions, they would have been aware that So Big had a serious concern with a much earthier reality that included economic injustices, incompatibility, unwanted pregnancy, and sexual politics on a deeper level. Instead, large ads were produced with the bold tagline “UNASHAMED–She was ready to forget she’d ever been a lady!”, as though this movie was a hot date flick and not really about mother love, following an internal ideal, and reshaping your dreams to fit reality.

Most of the ads I’ve seen for So Big featured  Hayden and Wyman in clinches in pretty treacly lobby cards and posters.  This lack of confidence in the material that they were presenting extended to gimmicky contests that the studio used to promote the movie. In the New York area, the Paramount Theater announced free admission to the movie, (for the matinees), if customers presented a hard cover copy of the original book to the box office. (The books were reportedly slated for charitable donations to NY hospitals).  Edna Ferber, who did not publicly condemn any of the film versions of her novels, was upset to see this crass attempt to lure people away from their televisions and other diversions to the theaters. While her name, if not her style, was prominently featured on all advertisements, (a contractual obligation), this ploy and the fact that she did not receive any remuneration for her work in this third remake, prompted her to write a letter to the New York Times arguing against the crassness of this attempt to replace her words with Warner’s images. Sending letters to The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune stating that “I happen to think that books written with integrity are much more than merchandise. They are the one of the highest tangible evidences of civilization…No matter how worthy the theatre’s alleged charity” the author registered her dismay that a book–any book–should be used in this manner, reaching “a new low in motion picture publicity.” (Perhaps it’s a good thing that Ferber’s path never appears to have crossed that of  producer William Castle, not to mention today’s film publicists). While The Herald Tribune‘s Otis Guernsey was privately supportive of Ferber’s viewpoint, I could not find accurate information on the impact of this letter on the Paramount Theatre’s management or box office returns, though the movie was generally praised for Wyman‘s acting.   In one New York Times review by (the sometimes rather obtuse) Bosley Crowther, he praised “Miss Wyman, with her soft eyes and her ability to convey the idea that she truly believes cabbages can be beautiful, just like it says in the script, cuts through the sticky, hackneyed humbug and stands up as a symbol of faith and love. She enhances the art of cinema acting, which is essentially pictorial…”

Aside from the disappointing, by-the-numbers sequences of So Big with the adult Dirk, and the odd ad campaign the movie flacks developed, other elements of the film work very well. Max Steiner‘s score was lovely, though I did think it owed something to that other memorable Wyman picture, Johnny Belinda–but since that may be one of his best, that’s not a bad film score to echo. Ellsworth Fredericks, who also photographed Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Wild River (1960), captured the expressive rural exteriors and simple as well as lavish interiors in beautiful black and white. As for Ferber, her works seem to be appealing to readers again, helped in part by the movies made from her tales of American life. Several, including So Big and Giant, have recently been reissued and just last year, a brave pair of writers and composers, Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson, wrestled a doggie of a musical version from the sprawling pages of Giant in a world premiere at the Signature Theatre in Baltimore. Could a musical version of Selina Peake’s life be possible someday?

Neither of the versions of So Big discussed in this blog are available commercially on DVD as far as I have been able to discern, but since both have played on TCM within the last year, I am hoping they reappear again…and, if possible, might be issued by the Warner Archive someday soon.

Films based on Ferber works:

Cimarron (1931)
Cimarron (1960)
Classified (1925)
Come and Get It (1936)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1989)
The Expert (1932)
A Gay Old Dog (1919) Giant (1956)
Gigolo (1926)
Glamour (1934)
Hard to Get (1929)
Ice Palace (1960)
Mother Knows Best (1928)
Our Mrs. McChesney (1918)
The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)
Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Show Boat (1929)
Show Boat (1936)
Show Boat (1951)
So Big (1924)
So Big (1932)
So Big (1953)
Stage Door (1937)

An excellent overview by MovieDiva of Barbara Stanwyck in The Purchase Price (1932) and So Big (1932) can be found here.

Sources:

Crowther, Bosley, “Remember? Actors!”, The New York Times, Oct 25, 1953.

Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith, Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle, a Biography, Hal Leonard Corp., 1999.

Rausch, Andrew J., “Sure I’ll Do It” An Interview with Robert Wise, Bright Lights Film Journal, January, 2002, Issue 35.

Smith, J.E., Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History, University of Texas Press, 2009.

10 Responses So Big (1953) On Screen
Posted By Kingrat : June 11, 2010 8:19 pm

Moira, I also saw the Jane Wyman SO BIG recently, and agree wholeheartedly with your review. Wyman, Hayden, and Beymer are excellent, and the scenes with them work really well. The Wyman/Beymer scenes really tug at the heart. Robert Wise is an underrated director. I wouldn’t guess that SO BIG and THE SET-UP and THE HAUNTING and WEST SIDE STORY were all by the same director, but they’re all good films.

The problem with SO BIG, as with most of the adaptations of Ferber novels, is that Ferber loves two-generation stories, and these are hard to manage on film. The good-looking man dies or goes roaming. What usually happens is that the first half is more interesting than the second half, although SHOW BOAT is an exception here. Frances Farmer is great in the first half of COME AND GET IT, even if Edward Arnold and Walter Brennan both seem like appalling choices for a beautiful young woman, but the daughter she plays in the second half is so much less interesting. The first half of the Maria Schell CIMARRON is pretty good, but not the second half.

I’m not sure we can find stronger female role models in 1950s American films than in SO BIG, WESTWARD THE WOMEN, and THE NUN’S STORY.

Posted By Kingrat : June 11, 2010 8:19 pm

Moira, I also saw the Jane Wyman SO BIG recently, and agree wholeheartedly with your review. Wyman, Hayden, and Beymer are excellent, and the scenes with them work really well. The Wyman/Beymer scenes really tug at the heart. Robert Wise is an underrated director. I wouldn’t guess that SO BIG and THE SET-UP and THE HAUNTING and WEST SIDE STORY were all by the same director, but they’re all good films.

The problem with SO BIG, as with most of the adaptations of Ferber novels, is that Ferber loves two-generation stories, and these are hard to manage on film. The good-looking man dies or goes roaming. What usually happens is that the first half is more interesting than the second half, although SHOW BOAT is an exception here. Frances Farmer is great in the first half of COME AND GET IT, even if Edward Arnold and Walter Brennan both seem like appalling choices for a beautiful young woman, but the daughter she plays in the second half is so much less interesting. The first half of the Maria Schell CIMARRON is pretty good, but not the second half.

I’m not sure we can find stronger female role models in 1950s American films than in SO BIG, WESTWARD THE WOMEN, and THE NUN’S STORY.

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : June 12, 2010 7:46 am

Great post. I’ve only seen the earlier Stanwyck version of “So Big”, but I’ll be on the lookout for the later one. It’s a book I like, and especially for passages as the one you quote at the top about the cabbages. I also like the reference to Willa Cather (you mentioned “My Antonia”), whose “O Pioneers!”, though undergoing at least a couple TV movies that I can think of and a stage play in the 1990s, surprisingly never was made into a Hollywood film back in the day. I wonder if there was some contractural reason for this, or if the studios, in their pursuit of film fodder, just overlooked this story which has similarities to “So Big.” Either Stanwyck or Wyman would have done well in it.

Kingrat has a good point about these being generational stories, and how they can be difficult to manage on film.

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : June 12, 2010 7:46 am

Great post. I’ve only seen the earlier Stanwyck version of “So Big”, but I’ll be on the lookout for the later one. It’s a book I like, and especially for passages as the one you quote at the top about the cabbages. I also like the reference to Willa Cather (you mentioned “My Antonia”), whose “O Pioneers!”, though undergoing at least a couple TV movies that I can think of and a stage play in the 1990s, surprisingly never was made into a Hollywood film back in the day. I wonder if there was some contractural reason for this, or if the studios, in their pursuit of film fodder, just overlooked this story which has similarities to “So Big.” Either Stanwyck or Wyman would have done well in it.

Kingrat has a good point about these being generational stories, and how they can be difficult to manage on film.

Posted By medusamorlock : June 13, 2010 12:59 pm

Looking forward to seeing any and all of these adaptations you’ve written about. Nothing like a big 1950s style melodrama, is there? Great bio info on Edna Ferber, whose name is probably more famous than her works these days.

Wonderful post, Moira!

Posted By medusamorlock : June 13, 2010 12:59 pm

Looking forward to seeing any and all of these adaptations you’ve written about. Nothing like a big 1950s style melodrama, is there? Great bio info on Edna Ferber, whose name is probably more famous than her works these days.

Wonderful post, Moira!

Posted By moirafinnie : June 14, 2010 12:39 pm

Kingrat,
I suspect that most of the time the generational arc in Ferber’s stories might have been better presented in a television mini-series format, but that seems to have gone the way of the true variety show these days.

I agree about Robert Wise’s under-appreciated status. His work had a consistently high quality, but the ability to submerge his talent to serve a story and his “leave no fingerprints” style worked against him, as did his ability to make a movie in just about any genre. (I’d probably add The Curse of the Cat People, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Odds Against Tomorrow to your list of his best movies).

Jacqueline,
The dearth of Willa Cather adaptations to the big screen always seemed strange to me too. It seems that the author forbade any further film adaptations of her books after she sold A Lost Lady to Hollywood, which was made into a motion picture in 1924 and 1934. The silent version was made with Irene Rich, and there is little info about it, so it may be among the 80% of films from that era that are lost. I’ve seen the ’34 adaptation with Barbara Stanwyck, who did a decent job as the Cather heroine torn between Ricardo Cortez and Frank Morgan, (personally, I’d prefer Morgan’s company). That version was directed by Alfred E. Green, though it was streamlined a bit too much to capture the nuances of the original. After the silent version premiered Cather received hundreds of fan letters from people she regarded as sloppy and illiterate correspondents, giving her a low opinion of movie audiences. The ’34 production prompted Cather to write into her will a clause forbidding productions into perpetuity. (Yes, I am afraid Willa was a bit of a snob, or too naive to realize that the vast majority of movie-goers never write fan letters to anyone).

When I first read My Antonia I always pictured the role as one that, believe it or not, a young Sophia Loren might have been perfect for once upon a time–though you are probably right about Stanwyck and Wyman being capable of that role as well. Houghton Mifflin held the rights to that novel for a long time and it really worried Cather that they would sell the rights to the movies. She needn’t have worried. No other film adaptations seem to have been attempted until the 1980s and ’90s (for tv), when apparently some loophole was found by producers.

Medusa,
Your remark about ’50s melodrama is all too apt. Now I wonder what So Big might have been like if it had received the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment in that period! Woo-boy, would Sterling Hayden have been cranky on that set. Yikes!

Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post.

Posted By moirafinnie : June 14, 2010 12:39 pm

Kingrat,
I suspect that most of the time the generational arc in Ferber’s stories might have been better presented in a television mini-series format, but that seems to have gone the way of the true variety show these days.

I agree about Robert Wise’s under-appreciated status. His work had a consistently high quality, but the ability to submerge his talent to serve a story and his “leave no fingerprints” style worked against him, as did his ability to make a movie in just about any genre. (I’d probably add The Curse of the Cat People, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Odds Against Tomorrow to your list of his best movies).

Jacqueline,
The dearth of Willa Cather adaptations to the big screen always seemed strange to me too. It seems that the author forbade any further film adaptations of her books after she sold A Lost Lady to Hollywood, which was made into a motion picture in 1924 and 1934. The silent version was made with Irene Rich, and there is little info about it, so it may be among the 80% of films from that era that are lost. I’ve seen the ’34 adaptation with Barbara Stanwyck, who did a decent job as the Cather heroine torn between Ricardo Cortez and Frank Morgan, (personally, I’d prefer Morgan’s company). That version was directed by Alfred E. Green, though it was streamlined a bit too much to capture the nuances of the original. After the silent version premiered Cather received hundreds of fan letters from people she regarded as sloppy and illiterate correspondents, giving her a low opinion of movie audiences. The ’34 production prompted Cather to write into her will a clause forbidding productions into perpetuity. (Yes, I am afraid Willa was a bit of a snob, or too naive to realize that the vast majority of movie-goers never write fan letters to anyone).

When I first read My Antonia I always pictured the role as one that, believe it or not, a young Sophia Loren might have been perfect for once upon a time–though you are probably right about Stanwyck and Wyman being capable of that role as well. Houghton Mifflin held the rights to that novel for a long time and it really worried Cather that they would sell the rights to the movies. She needn’t have worried. No other film adaptations seem to have been attempted until the 1980s and ’90s (for tv), when apparently some loophole was found by producers.

Medusa,
Your remark about ’50s melodrama is all too apt. Now I wonder what So Big might have been like if it had received the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment in that period! Woo-boy, would Sterling Hayden have been cranky on that set. Yikes!

Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post.

Posted By Jenni : June 17, 2010 11:10 pm

I also watched So Big when it aired, having never seen it before. I liked the movie, especially Wyman,Hayden, and Beymer’s performances. I noticed that in the scenes around the farmhouse, when Tommy Rettig portrayed Dirk, there was a collie running around. Could that have been the future Lassie, portraying Selina and Dirk’s dog?? I also agree, that the first half of the movie was good, wished the courting of Selina and Purvis could have been dragged out a bit more, and that the second half with a grown-up Dirk wasn’t as compelling. I kept waiting for Dirk to tell his money chasing girlfriend off, but nothing too exciting happened.

Posted By Jenni : June 17, 2010 11:10 pm

I also watched So Big when it aired, having never seen it before. I liked the movie, especially Wyman,Hayden, and Beymer’s performances. I noticed that in the scenes around the farmhouse, when Tommy Rettig portrayed Dirk, there was a collie running around. Could that have been the future Lassie, portraying Selina and Dirk’s dog?? I also agree, that the first half of the movie was good, wished the courting of Selina and Purvis could have been dragged out a bit more, and that the second half with a grown-up Dirk wasn’t as compelling. I kept waiting for Dirk to tell his money chasing girlfriend off, but nothing too exciting happened.

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