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Big Jack

Big Jack(1949)

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teaser Big Jack (1949)

Wallace Beery had played comedy roles, villains and blustering men of adventure in silent films, and when sound came in found perhaps his best co-star Marie Dressler in Min and Bill (1930). Almost as wild and wooly in real life as his famous screen characters Long John Silver and Pancho Villa, Beery reportedly lost two wives (one of them the legendary Gloria Swanson) due to excessive drinking. Yet Beery remained a popular MGM star until his death in April of 1949. Released two weeks later, Big Jack sees him playing to his strengths as a Maryland highwayman circa 1810, a 'roughneck with a heart of gold'. Jack is harassed and hugged by his wife (Marjorie Main), broad antics that serve as comedy relief within historian James Thomas Flexner's fairly serious story about the development of medical science. Frequently in need of a doctor's assistance, robber Jack becomes involved in the murky doings of Dr. Meade (Richard Conte), whose experiments require the illegal practice of exhuming corpses for study. The outlaw forms a partnership with the idealistic Dr. Meade, who decides to defy the rules of his profession by performing an experimental 'operation' on a sick little girl. As is the custom with sentimental Wallace Beery vehicles, Big Jack's big heart saves the day. Trade reviews couldn't decide whether Big Jack was a comedy or a drama, but all seemed to agree that its subject matter was revolting. Grave robbing might be acceptable activity for Boris Karloff in the horror hit The Body Snatcher (1945), but not in light entertainment for the whole family. Cue magazine summed up the consensus opinion: "...ghoulish business -- a cheap and tasteless mess about a medical grave robber, a low-comedy bandit and their joint vivisection troubles."

By Glenn Erickson

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