I registered as a participant in the Code Classics Blogathon, brought to you by Tiffany Brannan and the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. The blogathon pertains to the Code versions of classic literary works. So Big, a 1924 novel written by Edna Ferber, was adapted into a motion picture by producer-director Robert Wise (1914-2005). The novel and film are mentioned in my recently published book, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition). I am grateful to Tiffany and the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society for allowing me to participate.
In the Netherlands during the mid-nineteenth century, Antje Paarlberg, a mother of eight, sought a better life for her family. Living conditions were deplorable, tragically resulting in the death of one of her children. Paarlberg and her husband, Klaas, therefore set sail for America, but he died of a severe lung infection en route. The ship’s captain offered to return the family to the Netherlands. However, a determined Paarlberg refused. Upon arrival in the United States, her youngest child, less than a year old, perished from disease. Paarlberg and her remaining six eventually settled in a Dutch community outside of Chicago. She started a farm, which grew significantly over time, and additional farms of the family were subsequently established through the years.
At the time of Paarlberg’s death in 1885, the legacy bequeathed by her was of priceless value. Her life story became the basis for Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel, So Big, which was ultimately awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Paarlberg’s courage and determination inspired the development of the narrative’s main character, Selina Peake DeJong. A silent film adaptation, produced by First National Pictures, Inc., was released several months after the novel’s publication. Then, in 1932, William A. Wellman directed a Warner Bros. remake starring Barbara Stanwyck. Twenty years later, however, the studio opted to revisit Ferber’s novel with plans for yet another adaptation, and on February 16, 1953, Robert Wise, no longer under contract to Twentieth Century Fox, began production of his first film for Warner Bros.
Selina Peake (Jane Wyman), the student of an all-girls boarding school in Chicago, begins a new life upon learning of her father’s death. She travels to New Holland, a rural community on the outskirts of town. Klaas Pool (Roland Winters), a truck farmer, offers Selina room and board. She is to be the teacher of his younger children at the local school. Roelf (Richard Beymer), a teenage son of Pool’s, becomes enamored with Selina. The two share similar interests such as reading and music, but when Selina develops a relationship with Pervus DeJong (Sterling Hayden), a local widower, jealousy stirs. She explains to Roelf that they both share a special love for beauty, whereas her love for DeJong is “just of the Earth.” Selina and DeJong eventually wed. Shortly thereafter, she gives birth to a boy. He is named Dirk but given the nickname of “So Big” in hopes that he will figuratively grow tall enough to one day touch the stars. Roelf leaves New Holland to pursue new endeavors following the death of his mother, Maartje (Ruth Swanson). A few years later, DeJong succumbs to fever. Selina inherits the many responsibilities of running a farm, becoming more independent in the process.
As he comes of age, So Big (Steve Forrest) pursues a degree in architecture. He eventually finds work in the city as a draftsman, but much to Selina’s dismay, So Big loses interest in designing, opting instead for a career in sales and promotion. He later encounters Dallas O’Mara (Nancy Olson), an artist commissioned by his firm to design some murals. So Big falls in love with her, but she is not attracted to his wealth and power. He discovers Dallas to be friends with a middle-aged Roelf (Walter Coy), who has become a noted composer. Together, the three go to New Holland to visit Selina. Upon their arrival, a joyous reunion of sorts transpires, but Dallas announces that she will be traveling to Paris indefinitely. So Big comes to the realization that he “deserted beauty.” Selina assures him that beauty is never lost. In the future, anything can happen.
As the film begins, Wise presents the arrival of So Big and Roelf, both grown, at the DeJong farm. Dallas accompanies the two as they all eagerly anticipate their reunion with Selina, but it is not long before Wise transports his audience back in time to a Chicago of the 1890s. The setting is Miss Fister’s Select School for Young Ladies. A youthful Selina, clearly jubilant, plays a piano while chatting with her fellow classmates. The topic of conversation is Selena’s father, a prominent businessman and stockbroker. One girl refers to Mr. Peake as “the smartest man in the Chicago wheat pit.” As the discussion progresses, everybody appears cheerful and lively, but such harmony is suddenly disrupted when Mr. Bainbridge (Grandon Rhodes), the business associate of Mr. Peake, arrives with terrible news, declaring, “To the very last, [your father] stood there in the pit with a fortune slipping through his hands, bidding, maneuvering, dying on his feet of fighting to save what he could for you. He couldn’t. He tried, but he couldn’t.” It immediately becomes clear that Selina has undergone the most drastic of transformations. In the blink of an eye, she is suddenly without a father and has also become penniless. Despite his untimely passing, however, Mr. Peake posthumously instills in his daughter a will to persevere not only with a sense of adventure and independence, but also by virtue of a notable analogy.
Through the memory of Selina’s father, a reference to the special quality of life is made, thus awakening her adventurous character in the aftermath of his death. In a quest for self-fulfillment, she ultimately comes full circle. Upon the narrative’s beginning, as select goods and valuables are removed from the Peake estate, Selina pauses to acknowledge the most important item of the lot. An oil painting of her late father hangs above the empty, lifeless fireplace. “It’s all adventure, Selina, finding a new treasure,” his voice commands. “It’s all adventure, the whole thing you call life. Watch closely. You’ll see all the wonders of Baghdad.”
Following an extended period of time, Selina grows accustomed to New Holland. Selina’s marriage, however, becomes relatively ambivalent upon her husband’s declaration that “a DeJong woman does not go to Haymarket!” He refers to it as the “Chicago thieves’ market.” Following DeJong’s untimely death, Selina takes it upon herself to return to the city of her youth. As she and So Big depart New Holland en route to Haymarket, the locals take notice. Pool’s second wife, formerly known as the Widow Paarlenberg (Dorothy Christy), openly questions such a journey. Nevertheless, the quick-witted Selina reflects upon her father’s choice words of wisdom:
MRS. POOL: Where are you going this fine day, Mrs. DeJong?
SELINA: To Baghdad, Mrs. Pool.
MRS. POOL: Well, where’s that? What for?
SELINA: To sell my jewels, Mrs. Pool. And see Aladdin, Ali Baba, and the forty thieves.
Selina’s adventures at Haymarket, however, do not go as planned, as she and So Big are unable to sell their produce. Furthermore, a subsequent strategy of door-to-door sales along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, the location of Selina’s childhood home, initially results in trouble. A policeman, Officer Riley (David McMahon), threatens to arrest her for peddling without a license. Julie Hempel (Elisabeth Fraser), a childhood friend, then comes to the rescue. Her father, August Hempel (Jacques Aubuchon), is a successful wholesaler of hogs, and Selina is welcomed into his lavish home. As an overjoyed So Big is served a generous portion of ice cream in the finest of bowls, Selina encapsulates the experience in one word. “Baghdad,” she says, and nothing more. Later, Selina returns to New Holland in an automobile driven by the Hempel family chauffeur (Kenner G. Kemp). The locals, including Mrs. Pool and her husband, bear witness to Selina’s arrival and are dumbfounded:
MRS. POOL: Sell her jewels, she said!
POOL: Yeah, to some fellow in Haymarket I never heard of: Ali Baba.
A delighted Selina takes pride in becoming reacquainted with Julie and her family, as there is strength in numbers, but the voice of her late father suggests an alternative path to success.
As the opening minutes of the film transpire, Selina faces the aforementioned painting and is reminded of the benefits of independence. “Remember, Selina,” the voice of Mr. Peake proclaims, “Always remember that the more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, the richer you are; especially the things you achieve by yourself. That’s the hidden treasure…that knowing that what you’ve done, you’ve had the strength to do alone.” To her, a future without So Big later becomes inevitable as he consequently comes of age. Upon his graduation from college, he prepares for his new life as an architect. A celebration is held at a nearby fraternity house, and parents are invited. So Big desires for Selina to attend, but she remains committed to priorities on the home front. “It’s my busiest season at the farm,” she says. Shortly thereafter, Selina departs for New Holland to resume her life of solitude, and much transpires in So Big’s absence. She works diligently to harvest her choice produce, especially the DeJong asparagus, as it is continuously and “eagerly sought by the Chicago markets.”
Eventually, Selina travels to the city to visit So Big. He casually suggests that she leave New Holland to live with him, but such an idea is out of the question, as Selina would “lose touch with life.” Hence, the words of her late father ring true. She has accomplished much on her own, and as Selina’s reunion with So Big transpires in his office, the celebration of a major milestone is ultimately revealed, as DeJong asparagus is to be featured on the menus of The Drake, Chicago’s premier hotel. “I wanted to see it in print,” Selina says with pride. The narrative eventually culminates with the arrival of So Big, Roelf, and Dallas at the DeJong farm, as Wise reminds viewers of the initial setting of his narrative. Within the film’s opening minutes, the three wait for Selina, who toils alone in the field. In the home’s living room, Roelf opens a chest in eager anticipation of its contents and discovers a picture of a young Selina, subsequently remarking, “She should’ve been emerald.” Wise’s flashback appropriately begins shortly thereafter.
At Miss Fister’s Select School for Young Ladies, Selina makes reference to an analogy frequently cited by her father, claiming, “There are only two kinds of people in the world that really count: one kind is wheat, and the other kind is emerald. The kind with creative talent that makes the world prettier to live in, they’re emeralds. And the people who feed us and give us all the necessary things, they’re wheat.” In addition to other characters of the narrative, such as August Hempel, she is “wheat,” but the aspirations she harbors for So Big to one day become “emerald” are instead fulfilled by Roelf. Approximately forty-five minutes into the film, as Selina works in the field, she pauses to lift her infant son towards the sky, declaring “You’re going to be emerald, So Big.” Later, following DeJong’s death, the two cruise down Michigan Avenue in their horse-drawn carriage. So Big, a youthful eight years of age, comments in regard to the fancy homes. He makes his aspirations clear to one day design houses himself. “You are emerald,” a proud Selina replies. Yet, following So Big’s graduation from college, it is not long before Paula Hempel (Martha Hyer), his girlfriend, instills in him her own ideas of success.
As the daughter of Julie Hempel, in addition to being the granddaughter of August Hempel, Paula has grown accustomed to a life of luxury and wealth. Furthermore, much to Selina’s consternation, Paula steers So Big away from his creative aspirations. At the same time, Roelf establishes his presence in the world as a famed composer. Earlier, in adolescence, his “emerald” qualities are evident as he determines a dual use for potatoes. Aside from being consumed, the tasty vegetables “can make music.” Roelf essentially uses the potatoes to stretch his fingers and ultimately master the intricacies of the piano. In time, Selina’s impending marriage to DeJong has a devastating effect on the troubled teen, but Roelf departs New Holland to follow his dreams, which eventually come true. As the film concludes, So Big becomes disheartened upon learning of Dallas’s departure for France. Perhaps, he will learn from Roelf’s example and one day become “emerald” yet again.
The production of So Big transpired from February 16th to April 1, 1953. Wise’s film debuted later that year. His retelling of Antje Paarlberg’s tale, although considered by some to be relatively outdated, was well-received by the general public. The critics, too, were impressed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “For the better part of the picture, we are largely indebted to Jane Wyman . . . remarkably strong and effective in every forthright little bit she does.” In addition, a reviewer from England’s Radio Times cited the “nicely honed performances from big Sterling Hayden and lovely Nancy Olson.” Without question, Wise was surrounded by individuals of natural talent throughout the production of his film. Vera Miles, just twenty-three years of age, appears briefly as a schoolgirl, and Richard Beymer’s performance as the young Roelf Pool is especially noteworthy. Within years, he and Wise would reunite on the set of West Side Story (1961).
Yet, of the entire cast of So Big, Jane Wyman attracted the most praise from critics and theatergoers alike. She was thirty-six years old at the time of production. Both Gordon Bau and Edward Allen of the Makeup Department did an outstanding job in regard to the aging of Wyman’s character. It was indeed a most challenging role for her to fill. Edna Ferber, however, came under criticism for her portrayal of Antje Paarlberg as pushy and flirtatious. The latter’s family, in addition to the Dutch descendants of South Holland, Illinois, essentially cited an inaccurate depiction of the young widow (Edna Ferner centered the events of So Big on the real-life Dutch community of South Holland, Illinois. In the novel, however, it is known initially as New Holland and later as High Prairie). The ensuing adaptations nevertheless sought to paint a better picture, and due to the hard work and dedication of Wise’s cast and crew, his film became an instant crowd pleaser.