This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, being hosted by Garbo Laughs in honor of June being LGBTQ Pride Month. The full list of participants can be found here.
Nineteen-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is going to be a guest in the Grey Bar Hotel for about one to fifteen years because she happened to be in the company of her husband while he was relieving a gas station of forty bucks through rather unlawful means. (To add insult to injury, Mr. Allen was croaked by the attendant and because forty dollars was the amount involved in the robbery and not five dollars less the crime falls under the category of a felony.) Concerned warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) wants to do all she can to help the new inmate, but she’s merely a figurehead in the women’s penitentiary because the real power behind the throne is sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), whose corruption is pervasive throughout and who’s only kept her position due to political patronage.
Marie makes fast friends in the joint, notably Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), the de facto leader of the female inmates, and June Roberts (Olive Deering)—a young woman who unfortunately commits suicide (hanging) after being turned down for parole. Marie is hoping to make parole, too, after serving nine months of her sentence but it won’t be easy—she was two months pregnant at the moment of her incarceration and after giving birth inside (her premature labor brought on by June’s suicide) has to give the baby up for adoption because her mother can’t take the infant in under strict orders from her husband (Marie’s stepdad). Kitty keeps insisting that Marie will never be paroled unless she agrees to become a “booster” (shoplifter) because the people who will employ her in that occupation have enough pull to con the parole board into thinking that she has the means to subsist outside of prison. Marie is determined to keep her nose clean but her resolve is tested when another felon, Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), is introduced into the cell block—Powell is an old nemesis of Kitty’s, and the opportunistic Harper shifts her allegiance to “Elvy” when the woman promises her large financial benefits in exchange for creature comforts.
On Powell’s orders, Harper arranges for Kitty to be placed into solitary confinement…but only after giving her a beatdown. Marie ends up in solitary as well after an infraction of the rules (she’s harboring a pet kitten in the block) but the vindictive Harper shaves Marie’s head before throwing her in the cooler. Out of solitary, Kitty is but a shell of her former self…and an apology from Powell can’t help matron Harper, who is stabbed with a fork and killed in the prison cafeteria shortly afterward. Marie is now convinced that walking the straight and narrow is not going to be her ticket out of the joint and so she agrees to become one of Powell’s “girls” in order to accelerate her parole. Her conversion from wide-eyed innocent to hardened recidivist complete, Warden Benton sadly tells her assistant to keep Marie’s file active because “she’ll be back.”
The “women in prison” genre (also known as “chicks in chains”) has been packing audiences into theatres and drive-ins ever since the 1920s, when the first pictures of their type were released, notably Prisoners (1929) and The Godless Girl (1929)—the latter film having been helmed by the greatest exploitation director of them all, Cecil B. DeMille. Titles include classics like Ladies of the Big House (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933) and The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) up to more modern fare like The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Caged Heat (1974)—but Caged (1950) is considered by many to be the best of them all (the DVD cover for the film trumpets it as a “cult camp classic,” but I think they have it confused with 1955’s Women’s Prison), largely due to its attention on portraying prison life for women in realistic fashion…well, as realistic as the Production Code would allow at the time, anyway. Screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, who had previously been nominated for an Academy Award for her story contribution to White Heat (1949), was inspired to do a women’s prison picture and conducted research by posing as an inmate at a correctional facility. (She and co-writer Bernard C. Schoenfeld would garner a second Oscar nom for their Caged screenplay.)
But even when one’s intentions are noble (I’ve always been impressed at how Caged doesn’t pull any punches when it addresses how crappily prisons are run due to under funding and political posturing) it’s not easy excising the elements of exploitation out of films like this…the first heads-up usually occurs just about the time you see the first sequence of women in the showers. In addition, there’s a fascinating gay subtext that runs rampant throughout Caged’s proceedings, and is unmistakably present in the dialogue spoken by many of its characters. We get an inkling of this right off the bat when Marie, asking for a comb before her photo is taken during her prison indoctrination, is told snappishly by a matron: “What’s the difference—there’s no men in here.” (The title of Kellogg’s original story, oddly enough, is Women Without Men.) Superintendent Moorehead—a sympathetic character, to be sure (she’s a dedicated public servant who fervently believes that the inmates in her care should be treated with dignity and respect)—nevertheless assures new inmate Marie that “I want you to believe that I'd like to be your friend...if you let me...” Despondent over the fact that she’s going to have to give her newborn up for adoption, Kitty tells Marie: “Think it over, sweetie…but get this through your head—if you stay in here too long, you don't think of guys at all…you just get out of the habit…”
The subtext really gets ramped up with the introduction of Caged’s nastiest piece of work—the enchantingly wicked Evelyn Harper, who stands head and shoulders above all movie villains and would make cartoon mincemeat out of any baddie in any Disney film you’d care to name. Completely without morals and mean because she wants to be, she establishes her presence by inviting Marie into her den (she remarks to the trustee who delivers Marie “Since you went fancy working upstairs for Benton I kind of missed you”) and showing off the trinkets and treasures bestowed upon her by “her girls”: “Let's you and me get acquainted, honey,” she purrs to the innocent Marie, “you may be a number to the others but not to me.”
My guess is that the screenwriters may have had a sixth sense that they were in danger of making Harper a little too butch because they later dress her up in feminine finery and have her brag to the other inmates about a date she’s got that evening. But Harper’s “femme” identity is undercut by a wisecrack from Gita “Smoochie” Kopsky (Jan Sterling): “If that’s what dames are wearing now I’m glad I’m in here.”
With the arrival of a character StinkyLulu once memorably described as “the delightfully dykey” Elvira Powell, the gay titillation in Caged is at full steam. As Powell is shown around the prison yard by a fawning Harper, “Elvy” takes a shine to young Marie:
POWELL: What’s your name? How did you hurt your hand?
MARIE: I’m a big girl…and this isn’t my first year away from home…my name is Marie Allen…if I said no to Kitty, I’m sure not going to say ‘yes’ to you…
POWELL (to Harper): She’s a cute trick…
In a later scene, Elvira has arranged for the inmates to receive gifts of lipstick—a major violation of prison policy—but Marie gets a special gift of a compact with her war paint. Strolling over to Powell, who’s surrounded by her “hive,” Marie returns the gift, telling her “Rhinestones are phony.” “You can have real ones anytime you change your type,” Powell assures her.
And change her type she does, with a little help from a vengeful Harper…
...but the “butch” look really doesn’t suit our heroine and besides—someone has to play the femme in this roundelay…
Marie even seals the deal by taking the wedding ring she left with the matron on her first day of incarceration and defiantly chucks it at the wastebasket. She’s taken a walk on the Sapphic side, friends and neighbors…and she’s not coming back.
Okay…maybe I’m reading a little too much into this. But on the off-chance you haven’t seen Caged, I’d urge you to do so—it made quite an impression on me when I saw it many, many moons ago on TBS (what a memory I have!) and in revisiting it for the blogathon it’s still a pretty potent picture, replete with fine acting and snappy dialogue. For a film that paints a bleak, unrelenting picture of life behind bars (not as bleak, say, as Brute Force  but it definitely fills a niche in the noir style) it’s actually amusing at times:
FIRST INMATE: So I go on this picnic, see? Skinny takes me out in a rowboat…begins criticizing my family, though, and to make it worse he slaps me…so I slap him back…
SECOND INMATE: You just slapped him?
FIRST INMATE: Well, I did have an oar in my hand…he kept on hitting me, so I kept on slapping him…
THIRD INMATE: Still with your oar in your hand? What did you keep on slapping him for?
FIRST INMATE: Well, he kept on coming up…
There are so many wonderful character actresses in this movie, including TDOY goddess Jan Sterling and longtime fave Ellen Corby (the scene where she decides that the judge is at fault for her incarceration for murder because he should have put her away for “practicin’” shooting her husband is hilarious)…but the one I wish had a little more to do in the picture is veteran thesp Gertrude Hoffman, who plays a “lifer” named Millie Lewis. (Hoffman is best known to legions of couch potatoes as irrepressible neighbor Mrs. Odetts on My Little Margie—so every time I watched Caged I sort of chortle at the idea of Mrs. O in the slammer.) On Marie’s first day in the joint Harper assigns her to scrub the floor of the cell despite the full knowledge that Marie is great with child—and Millie is able to get word to Warden Benton that Harper is being a bitch. When Evelyn confronts the septuagenarian Millie she spits out at her: “Lay a hand on me and I’ll put your lights out…I’m in for life—one more like you is just so much velvet.” Hoffman’s Millie attempts to talk Marie out of joining up with Powell towards the end of the film by urging her to keep a stiff upper lip and doing her time, but her words fall on deaf ears.
Hope Emerson’s portrayal of the vicious matron is one that will be permanently tattooed on your brain—she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn in Caged but lost out (more like robbed, really) to Josephine Hull’s performance in Harvey (1950). I’ve always thought of Emerson as a “rode-hard-put-up-wet” version of Marjorie Main but whenever they needed an Amazonian-type for films like Adam’s Rib (1949) and The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957) Hope was the go-to gal; she also emoted memorably as nightclub owner “Mother” on Peter Gunn (for which she received an Emmy nom) and as Amelia “Sarge” Sargent on the otherwise forgettable sitcom The Dennis O’Keefe Show.
But to me the individual who really received short shrift was star Eleanor Parker (who coincidentally celebrated birthday #89 yesterday!)—unfortunately nominated as Best Actress in the same year as Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (both for All About Eve), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard) and the eventual victor, Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday). I’ve made no secret of my love for Judy on the blog in the past but I think in many ways Parker’s work in Caged stands as the best of her career—particularly her amazing transformation from, as Alan K. Rode describes it, “nubile bobby-soxer to steely-eyed hard-case.” If they knew then what we know now, they’d have handed her a statuette in record time.