Star: Eleanor Parker
'Pile out, you tramps!' says the guard. 'It's the end of the line.' A whole bunch of new fish are being delivered to the women's state prison in this precursor to the whole women in prison genre from Warner Brothers. Warners made prison films back in the thirties, plenty of them, but this was the first to be completely set behind bars. This one, along with So Young So Bad, which was set in a reform school, set the pace, and Women's Prison five years later nailed the point home with a vengeance. Both the prison films have a powerful presence in the form of the actresses playing the wardens but they're utterly opposite characters. Women's Prison had a half insane Ida Lupino, this one has a crusading Agnes Moorehead. Both were dominant and blistering actresses and these films benefit no end from their inclusion.
Moorehead is Ruth Benton and she's a decent soul, hoping to make a difference in this prison by bringing in teachers, a full time psychiatrist and better medical conditions. She doesn't quite have the power that she'd like though, so none of that comes to pass, regardless of the experience she seems to have. Unfortunately she doesn't have a huge amount of screen time either because she's effectively there to balance the tone whenever it gets a little too chaotic and exploitative. The real focus is the nervous new fish, who is the last one out of the prison van as the film opens. She's Marie Allen, played by Eleanor Parker, and she's doing one to fifteen for armed robbery, without a chance at parole for nine months.
Apparently she didn't really do much, unlike some of the other women who arrive with her. One was convicted of murdering her husband, but she half jokingly blames the judge for letting her off the first three times when she was merely practicing. Marie was just a naive nineteen year old girl who happened to be there when her husband did something stupid and got himself killed. The judge called her an accessory to armed robbery and sent her away. If she'd ended up with five bucks less than the forty she got, then it wouldn't have been a felony, but that's the way the cookie crumbles and now it's crumbling on the inside, where the entire film unfolds. The other side of the bars is called freeside and it's just a tantalising dream.
This is no WIP exploitation movie, as after all it's 1950, but the beginnings for all the standard elements are there, right down to the shower scenes, which like much of the rest of the picture are photographed and lit in a much more effective manner than any of the film's descendants. We get a couple of shower scenes, though there are no lesbian makeout sessions and no fire hoses. They do talk about such things, at least in the sort of language Virginia Kellogg could get away with, basing her screenplay on a story she wrote with Bernard C Schoenfeld. 'You don't think about guys at all,' a tough old timer called Kitty Stark tells Marie. 'You just get out of the habit.' Actress Betty Garde even looks like a stereotypical bull dyke.
Fire hoses are regarded as the good old days by Evelyn Harper, who is as twisted and sadistic a matron as any of the subsequent characters she inspired down the decades. If in some alternate universe a 1950 Hollywood studio film was allowed to show the sort of things Dyanne Thorne would later have so much fun with, you can be sure Harper would be setting up a checklist. She dreams of rubber hoses and shaved heads because to her the inmates are just 'a bunch of animals in a cage,' and you can be sure she's not planning to wander around feeding them peanuts. Hope Emerson, who plays Matron Harper, has a field day with the role, swaggering like John Wayne and enjoying her power so much it's palpable. Subtle it sure ain't but it's more than a little effective.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First Marie has to run through the routine checks, things that we don't even blink about nowadays but which must have been tough viewing in 1950. First she has to hand over all her valuables, including her wedding ring. There's a quick interrogation, then a physical that turns out to be half drug search. Here's where it's first suggested that Marie is pregnant, though she didn't know it. 'You know who the father is?' asks the infirmary nurse. 'My husband,' says Marie defiantly. 'Well, ain’t we gettin' respectable!' comes the reply. When the nurse finds out her husband is dead, she just spits, 'Another bill for the state!' The compassion just drips off the screen here, in acid form, but then that's the point.
Eleanor Parker, looking younger than her 27 years, is superb at portraying such a naive and innocent young lady as Marie Allen, caught up in something she doesn't even remotely understand. You can imagine her thinking about closing her eyes, just in case it's all a dream and it'll all be gone when she opens them again. When she sits for her mugshot she even asks for a comb, because it hasn't all sunk in yet. Most of it will by the time she gets out of isolation though. There's two weeks of that for all new arrivals until their blood tests come back. No mail, no visitors, nothing except new fish and a prisoner dying of TB, there because there isn't a spare bed in the infirmary. By the time ninety minutes is up, it's all sunk in and she's learned and devolved and become the hard as nails bitch that she would have abhorred before she ever found prison.
It's not surprising that Parker was nominated for an Oscar, in 1950 a serious accomplishment for an actress all on its own. In the company she found herself in she had about as much chance of winning as I would have had, especially as this could have been considered a genre film, but that's not to denigrate her performance which is excellent. Judy Holliday won that year for Born Yesterday, beating out Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard and a couple of nominations for All About Eve, Anne Baxter and Bette Davis probably cancelling each other out. The only downside to Parker's performance is that while she's the key focus, Caged tries to tell a number of stories and in doing so merely decreases the screen time that she could have used to more effectively shade her transition into the dark side. As it stands, she does a great job but you can tell that if the film had been two and a half hours long she'd have just continued to add to the depth.
Compared to Parker's shades of grey, Hope Emerson's performance as the matron is black and white but it's brutal and impactful nonetheless and she was also nominated for an Oscar, losing to Josephine Hull in Harvey. After the warden puts Marie into the laundry as a checker, on account of her being two months pregnant, the matron has her scrubbing the dorm floors instead because she won't play ball with her crooked little schemes. Harper is truly abhorrent, going to a number of lengths that I won't spoil but seem surprising for a 1950 drama. She prompts one suicide purely by torturing a girl who has been denied the parole she hoped for, not with whips or fire hoses but with mere words. After walking into the dorm dressed up to the nines for a night out with a boyfriend, she suggests, 'Pity they flopped you back. We could have double dated.'
She's arrogance on two legs, and as such gets many of the best scenes of the movie; even if she isn't the one dominating the scene she's there while someone else does. Millie Lewis, a tough old lifer with forty years of time behind her already, saves Marie from some early torment and invokes the ire of the matron in the process. 'Lay on a hand on me and I'll put your lights out,' she croaks with relish. 'I'm in for life. One more like you is just so much more velvet.' Uncredited actress Gertrude Hoffman doesn't get anywhere near the scenes she should, but then so many of these actresses deserved more screen time: Jan Sterling as Smoochie, a CP or common prostitute; Gertrude Michael as Georgia Harrison, whose time has sent her doolally; and Lee Patrick as a vice queen called Elvira Powell who promptly takes over everything.
The only respect the matron gets is from Kitty Stark who runs the dorm before her old nemesis Powell turns up. 'At least we have honest matrons in here,' she says. 'When I bribe one, she stays bribed.' That doesn't mean she likes her, of course, and neither does anyone else, even the warden, who wants to fire her but can't. She's already suspended her three times but never managed to make it stick because Harper has a friend in high places. It's hard not to watch Hope Emerson when she's on screen, because she's so blatant, but Parker's subtlety wins through in the end. Even Agnes Moorehead has to take a back seat to these two, though she gives a fine performance herself.
The other star of the show is the story, which in the main ties to the descent of Marie Allen into the depths that Warden Benton wants to keep her from. There's a lot of social comment here, very deliberately so, from someone who had the talent to phrase it. Virginia Kellogg was hardly prolific, with only nine credits to her name but they include two Oscar nominations, one for this screenplay and another for the story that became White Heat a year earlier. Somehow she avoids making this film seem overly crammed with incident, though there's a lot going on, but it does on occasion get a little preachy, mostly with the warden trying to convince the prison board of the necessity for change without any sympathy coming back at all. What happens at the end is precisely what she knew would come all along but fought to avoid nonetheless. The key line comes early in the film from one of the prisoners who arrives with Marie. 'Heads or tails you lose,' she says, and in doing so sums up the entirety of what these girls go through.