I have to be honest and admit that my entry point for the Women In Prison film genre was at the sleazy end of the spectrum. I caught the grubby little Linda Blair movie Chained Heat (1983) on cable in my long ago youth and was suitably appalled – appalled enough to watch it in stunned horror at least three more times. So as I grew older and saw more of these types of movies my idea of what a WIP film would or could be became solidified around the 1970's and 80's version of the genre. I'm sure you'll forgive me if I thought that they were little more than delivery mechanisms for visions of various forms of lesbian sexual activity, shower room violence, petty torture acts and other harsh bits of business. Yeah, yeah- the occasional film might make noises about reforming the horrible conditions on display but mostly the filmmakers were just wallowing in gratuitous exploitative excess in the name of making a buck. Not that there is anything wrong with that, in my opinion. But imagine my surprise when I first encountered older WIP movies that couldn't fall back on showing a shower roomful of naked, large-breasted ladies. What would be the draw? Wouldn't the lack of such graphic elements cripple the film? What the hell is this? A film about women locked up in a prison that actually has a good script? How did this happen?
Caged! (1950) tells the sad story of 19 year old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker). She has been sentenced to a stretch in prison because of a bungled armed robbery committed by her husband who was killed during the act. She insists that she had nothing to do with crime but she was convicted as an accessory nevertheless. To make matters for her worse, her prison entrance physical determines that she is two months pregnant meaning she will give birth while incarcerated. Marie has trouble adjusting to the harsh world of the women's prison and struggles to find people she can trust. She meets professional shoplifter Kitty Stark (Betty Garde) who says once Marie gets out, Kitty will get her a job is her line of work. Kitty recruits for organized crime on the outside and promises the young girl an easy life if she learns this criminal trade. Marie does not want to get involved in crime, but Kitty explains the realities of prison life clearly and events prove the 'booster' right. It is explained to her that she can be paroled after nine months, but over time Marie sees prisoner after prisoner being granted parole but then not released from jail because no job has been arranged by their parole officers. After one such prisoner kills herself the reality of her situation begins to become apparent. Adding to her despair is the sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson) who decides to single Marie out for attention when she refuses to play along with her money making schemes. By the time Marie gives birth to a healthy baby and is forced by the state to grant full custody to her mother she has a small bit of hope that she will be granted a parole to be with her child. But when her mother gives the baby up for adoption against Marie's will she snaps and makes a feeble try at escape.
Unlike many films of the genre, the prison in Caged has an authority figure that is actually sympathetic to the plight of the ladies under her care. The great Agnes Moorhead plays Ruth Benton, the reformist prison superintendent trying to get evidence against the cruel Harper while simultaneously attempting help the prisoners find a pathway out of their dead end lives.
Benton is as lenient with Marie as she can be
but soon she has to punish her when her actions become less justifiable and
more like her more hardened cellmates. When the now toughened Marie emerges
from a moth in solitary she finally takes violent action against Harper and
shows that she has given up hope of following the straight an narrow path to
parole. She's going to get out of prison no matter what she has to do on once
she is on the outside.
Although I might have expected the reformist slant taken by this film, I wasn't expecting a 1950 movie to be so daring in talking about the nastier aspects of prison life. All the mean spirited subjects that I have come to expect from later entries in the genre are here. Yes, they have to turn away from gratuitously showing the lesbian relationships and vicious violent acts but those events are in the story and not hidden behind the prudish restrictions I expected. This is a classic social commentary film and it firmly places the blame on the prison system for turning Marie into a career criminal but it still manages to show that she chooses the easiest way out of her predicament. I was surprised by the ending of this movie and pleased by its high quality across the board. Caged is a very good film regardless of what you might think of prison stories and this might be the film to introduce new viewers to Women In Prison movies. It gives a sense of the unforgiving nature of the genre while saving the harder stuff for later.