As a young girl, it looks like Selina Peake (Barbara Stawnyck) has got the life. Her father is well off and he sends her to one of the best finishing schools in Chicago. That all changes when her father suddenly dies and leaves her with no money to support herself. With some help from her friends’ father, she gets a job as a school teacher in a small farming community outside of Chicago. She moves in with the Pooles, a family of farmers. Their son Roelf Pool (Dick Winslow as a child, George Brent as an adult) is too busy working on the farm to attend school, so Selina tutors him when he has time. Roelf develops a bit of a crush on Selina and becomes very jealous when she falls in love with Pervus De Jong, another farmer, and marries him.
Selina and Pervus soon have a son, Dirk (Dickie Moore as a child, George Brent as an adult). Selina wants Dirk to grow up to be able to do all the things she wasn’t able to. When her husband dies, she continues to work hard on the farm to make that happen and she does it all alone. Death also pays a visit to the Pool family and Roelf’s mother also dies, prompting him to leave home. The years fly by and Roelf has become the talk of the art world as a sculptor in Europe and Dirk has recently graduated from college with a degree in architecture. But Dirk isn’t especially fond of being an architect, and when he begins seeing a married woman who offers to get him a job as a bond salesman for her husband’s company, he takes her up on the offer.
Even though Dirk quickly works his way up to assistant manager and is making much more money than he was as an architect, Selina can’t help but be a little disappointed that her son doesn’t have the job she always dreamed he would have. One day, he meets artist Dallas O’Mara (Bette Davis) and instantly falls in love with her. Although Dallas also likes Dirk, but she won’t marry him because she prefers people who look rugged, like they’ve really lived and worked and suffered. Eventually, Roelf makes a triumphant return to America and to Dirk’s surprise, finds out that Roelf and Dallas know each other and that she is planning to bring him to see his mother. A big reason Roelf wanted to come home was to thank Selina for helping him become the person he now is.
So Big! isn’t one of my favorites. A lot of the shifts in time were pretty abrupt and jarring, but I liked it well enough and it’s quite interesting in some respects. Considering that Stella Dallas went on to become one of Barbara Stanwyck’s most definitive movies, it’s interesting to look at this as something of an early precursor to Stella Dallas. Only it’s kind of like Stella Dallas in reverse. Instead of a lower class girl aspiring to be part of the upper class and sacrifices everything for her child, it’s an upper class girl who becomes a farmer’s wife and works hard to give her child everything. It’s also interesting to see a young Barbara Stanwyck crossing paths with a young Bette Davis. Unfortunately, their characters don’t actually interact with each other, which is too bad, but it’s exciting just to get to see the two of them in the same movie together.