Caged (1950) John Cromwell
Warner Archive DVD (1:37)
“Pile out, you tramps, end of the line!”
“Women in prison” movies became a huge subgenre of crime films in the 1970s, but many people forget that they’d been around for several years. Directed by John Cromwell (sometimes called the “Master of Melodrama”), Caged served as a template of sorts for future entries of the subgenre. In this picture written by Virginia Kellogg (based on her story “Women Without Men” with Bernard C. Schoenfeld), 19-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is sent to prison for her part in an armed robbery attempt which left her husband dead. Marie has no idea how to handle living with hardened criminals and navigating a prison culture she can’t understand, but things soon get even worse: she finds out she’s pregnant and won’t be able to gain parole to have the baby.
Prison warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is sympathetic to Marie’s plight and wants to improve living conditions for all her inmates but is stymied by a corrupt system. On a more immediate level, all the inmates are treated to frequent abuse by the prison’s sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a political appointee who has more control over what goes on in the prison than does the warden. Unfortunately Marie doesn’t have enough money to buy Harper’s protection and has no intention of gaining an early parole by joining rival shoplifting gangs run by inmate Kitty Stark (Betty Garde) and especially “vice queen” Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), who has underworld connections on the outside.
Caged is filled stunning performances from an amazing cast including Parker, Moorehead, Emerson, Garde, and Patrick as well as Jane Darwell, Jan Sterling, Ellen Corby, and Gertrude W. Hoffman, whose Millie may be the wisest woman in the entire prison. Parker, who does fine work here, was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar but the performance everyone remembers is Hope Emerson (who was nominated as Best Supporting Actress). Her Evelyn Harper is not only sadistic, but physically imposing. Emerson was 6’ 2” weighing 190 pounds and every time she appears onscreen, you feel as if she could send you to the infirmary with just one backhand. Besides her physicality, Harper taunts the inmates in a multitude of ways, such as walking by their collective cell one evening dressed for a date, sporting an outfit that seems both stunning and oddly shocking, designed to belittle and denigrate the other women. Without giving away spoilers, I can tell you that Caged does not contain a soft ending. It is also one of my favorite films so far in Noirvember 2017. Please check it out.
Next time: Marie Windsor and William Tallman as lovers? That can’t end well…
Photos: Retired in Delaware, Sinaphile