Will She Come Out A Woman or A Wildcat?
Nineteen-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is a newlywed, two months pregnant, and the newest inmate in a women’s prison. She had little if anything to do with the felony robbery that left her husband dead, but someone had to pay the price for the crime and she was the only one still standing. She’ll be eligible for parole in just ten months, but that’s an awful long time for a lamb who has just been tossed into the lion’s den.
This predecessor to the Women-in-Prison subgenre is startlingly bleak and confrontational, beautifully shot and occasionally heartbreaking. It’s a fabulously cast noir behind bars that offers serious social commentary and solid storytelling, but is too frequently viewed as a camp outing today.
Considering director John Cromwell made CAGED for Warner Brothers way back in 1950, it’s pretty dark and racy. It’s not nearly as in-your-face as more modern fare, but it doesn’t exactly pull any punches, either. We see the corpse of a suicide swinging from the ceiling; we hear the beating that the matron administers to one of the inmates just off-camera; and I’ll be damned if you can’t feel the claustrophobic pressure emanating right off the screen. This may have been the pre-history of Women-in-Prison films as we know them, but even back then, more than two decades before Jack Hill would turn it into a genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971), many of the same elements were already in play.
We have the (relatively) innocent newcomer—Marie—who acts as the audience’s avatar; the uncomfortable and/or humiliating examination upon her arrival; the sadistic guard (Matron Harper, played by Hope Emerson); the group shower scene (shot tastefully here, but still suggestive); dialogue that is both man-hating and tough-girl; the cat fight (Marie vs. Harper); the would-be uprising (protests and riots and an admittedly half-hearted escape attempt); the stabbing (a brutal sequence making great use of a fork); scenes of torture and humiliation (the off-camera beating, and an on-camera buzzcut); and, of course, lesbianism.
The lesbianism here is never shown or explicitly stated, but it’s certainly there on a subtextual level. Beyond the fact that certain of these women inmates are what one might call “butch”, there is the perfectly subtle line of dialogue delivered by Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), the prison’s resident Queen Bee: “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think of guys at all. You just get out of the habit.”
It is these elements that provide the skeleton of the Women-in-Prison subgenre upon which future directors would add the meat—much of said meat ending up on the chest, as it turns out. Once the WiP cycle actually took off in the 1970s, and each film tried to outdo the last in terms of shock and awe, story became a secondary concern. It is these very elements, dialed up to eleven, that make those films, while not good, at least fun, on a lizard-brain level. They’re exploitation, but they’re also campy and ridiculous, and it’s so difficult to judge them seriously.
Looking back now, it’s too easy to see CAGED as nothing but an early foray into the sleazy cells that we’ve grown accustomed to visiting. It’s become camp by association, but that’s not a fair assessment of the film. Whereas Jack Hill and those that followed in his wake would craft WiP movies that were fun but not good, CAGED is the reverse. It is good, but not fun. Watched objectively, this is a serious film tackling serious subject matter and should be judged accordingly. It’s gritty and raw, well shot and full of dark shadows, populated by quirky and colorful characters (my favorite being the prostitute known as Smooch, played by Jan Sterling) that follow a powerful story arc. It’s a movie that one needs to see in order to fully understand the rash of prison films in the 1970s; but beyond that, it’s simply a movie that one needs to see, period.
Many contemporary critics tended to agree. Eleanor Parker was nominated for Best Actress in a Lead Role at the 1951 Academy Awards, as were Hope Emerson for Best Supporting Actress, and Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld for Best Writing. None of them won the Oscar, but Parker did win in the same category at the Venice Film Festival.
CAGED (alternately referred to as The Deep End and Locked In during production) was a realistic portrayal of an experience that most never have the misfortune to endure. Beyond the strong performances, the credit for this must go to Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the screenplay (along with Bernard C. Schoenfeld) based on their original scenario, “Women Without Men”. Some sources claim that “Women Without Men” was a short story, others claim it was a novel, while others still insist that it was a newspaper article. I have turned up no evidence that the team of Kellogg and Schoenfeld ever produced a piece of fiction under that or any other title, at any length. Nor could I find proof of any newspaper article under that name—though I did find a magazine article (referenced below) which was published after the fact, meaning it’s unlikely that she had published a similar story prior to the film. Kellogg was much more of a scenarist for Hollywood than she was an actual screenwriter, and of the ten writing credits to her name, this is the only one where she got actual scriptwriting credits—the rest are all “Story by” credits. This leads me to believe that “Women Without Men” was merely the original working title of the project when she first pitched the scenario to the studio.
In order to get that authentic feeling that permeates the film, Kellogg, who had once been a news correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, went undercover in order to gain the firsthand experience needed to properly convey the living situations behind bars. According to “Inside Women’s Prison”, the article detailing the experience that she had published in the June 3, 1950 issue of Collier’s, Kellogg stated that she spoke to the governor of an unnamed Eastern state about posing as an inmate for research. The governor had recently lost his re-election campaign and was on his way out, and was happy to oblige any request that might humiliate his replacement. He put her in contact with a few honest officials that wanted to assist in prison reform, and the wheels were set in motion.
Under the assumed name of Virginia Laurel, sentenced to three years for embezzlement, she entered the state penitentiary and encountered every one of the character tropes that can be found in the film. Nearly all of the occurrences in the movie, including the shoplifting seminars, were based on things that she had personally experienced while inside. One thing that didn’t make it into the film, though—it may have been considered too racy for the stringent Production Code—was the fact that brassieres were a luxury item not supplied to the prisoners. They had to be brought in from the outside, and were such a desired possession that the inmates were known to engage in extreme acts of violence, or offer themselves in trade, just to attain one.
It’s a fascinating article even well over half a century later, and worth seeking out by anyone who enjoyed the film.
Despite its successes, CAGED wasn’t without its critics. Many cited what they perceived to be overt sensationalism, yet simultaneously praised the direction and performances. William H. Mooring, in the April 29, 1950 edition of The Manitoba Ensign, found a different aspect to take offense to, and he raised an interesting point when he wrote: “One wonders whether in the development of a ‘semi-documentary’ story the Warner people, by straying from factual and reportorial into some kind of editorialization, have not given us a composite of all the bad and none of the good observed by Miss Kellogg in a few particular prisons…If this were so then the ‘semi-documentary’ would become synonymous with the ‘half-truth’ often found to be more deceiving than the downright lie.”
Of course, the good points that he managed to make were quickly erased by declaring that, by undermining the public’s belief in the penal system, the movie was doing the work of the Communist party.
But this was the 1950s. Hollywood was full of Commies back then.