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So Big

So Big(1953)

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teaser So Big (1953)

Edna Ferber's 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel So Big, about a self-sacrificing farm wife who raises a son and inspires another young man to greatness, has been filmed four times. First came a silent movie with Colleen Moore and Wallace Beery that was released the same year the novel was published and is now considered a "lost" film. Helen Jerome Eddy was featured in a sound short developed from excerpts of the story and released in 1930. Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent starred in a 1932 version, directed by William A. Wellman, that added an exclamation point to the title: So Big!.

In the final remake to date, Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden starred under the direction of Robert Wise, later to win Oscars for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). The screenplay for the 1953 version is by John Twist, with first-rate technical contributions by cinematographer Ellsworth Fredricks (shooting in black and white), composer Max Steiner and makeup artist Gordon Bau (who takes Wyman from youth to old age).

The sprawling story of So Big covers three decades. Wyman is cast as Selina Peake, one of those Ferber heroines who seemed ahead of their time in their awareness of feminism causes and willingness to challenge their roles in life and relationships with men. The story begins in the 1890s, when Selina is a boarding-school student cast adrift by the death of her father, whose lack of business skills leaves her impoverished. A friend of the father finds her a job as a teacher in New Holland, a somewhat backward Dutch farming community outside of Chicago. She rents a room from Klaas Pool (Roland Winters) and his longsuffering wife Maartje (Ruth Swanson), and befriends their young son Roelf, who shows promise as a student of music.

Selina soon marries stoic but well-meaning farmer Pervus DeJong (Hayden) and they have a son named Dirk, whose boyhood nickname is "So Big." In Selena's view of things, people are either "emeralds," those with refined sensibilities who create beauty in life; or "wheat," the ones who work to provide the necessities. She considers both Roelf and Dirk to be potential emeralds, while she and Pervus are wheat. When Dirk is eight, Pervus dies as a result of his hard life on the farm, leaving Selena to struggle along as best she can. Despite the local prejudice against a female farmer, she eventually triumphs, making a specialty of her exotic "DeJong" asparagus and earning enough to send her son to college.

As Selina ages, the grown-up Dirk (Steve Forrest) proves a disappointment, devoting himself to a social-climbing girlfriend (Martha Hyer) and immediate prosperity instead of following his dream to become an architect. Selina is so disappointed that she stops calling him "So Big." But she succeeds with Roelf (played as an adult by Walter Coy), turning him away from delinquency and toward a career as a successful composer. Dirk falls in love with free-thinking artist Dallas O'Mara (Nancy Olson), but she rejects him in favor of Roelf because she prefers a man who works hard with his hands yet sticks to his artistic principles. Dirk learns his lesson, determining to once again earn his aging mother's nickname of "So Big."

Throughout his career Wise was noted for spotting and developing young talent. For So Big he cast Jon Provost and Tommy Rettig as Dirk at ages two and eight, respectively. (Interestingly, both later played "Timmy," the young owner of the collie in the Lassie TV series.) Richard Beymer, cast as the teenage Roelf in So Big, would play the lead in Wise's West Side Story nine years later. Some critics, in retrospect, thought he was better in So Big.

Warner Bros., in typical fashion for the time, tried to add a provocative - even salacious - element to the movie's advertising, suggesting that Sterling Hayden's physical attributes had something to do with the title. Alongside an illustration of a strapping Hayden grasping Wyman's shoulders as she looks soulfully up at him is the legend, "He stood there So Big...she was ready to forget she'd ever been a lady!"

Wyman won the major share of critical praise, although most reviews of the film also mentioned Hayden in a favorable light. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that Wyman, "whose acting of drudges has become a virtual standard on the screen, is remarkably strong and effective in every forthright little bit she does." Helen Bower of The Detroit Free Press felt that Wyman "retains for Selina the undying spark of dreams that sustain her through the years of rugged farm toil." Crowther noted that the "solemn, stupid farmer husband" is played by Hayden "with skill." The reviewer for Variety wrote that "Hayden scores as the unlearned, rugged yet gentle farmer."

On September 21, 1954, Lux Radio Theater broadcast an adaptation of the 1953 film of So Big with Ida Lupino as Selina and Robert Stack doubling in supporting roles.

By Roger Fristoe

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