Thursday, September 29, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Caged (1950)

Directed by
John Cromwell

Written by
Virginia Kellogg

Eleanor Parker
Agnes Morehead
Ellen Corby
Hope Emerson|
Betty Garde

Emma (Ellen Corby) is what you would call prison savvy. A little nutty perhaps, but prison savvy just the same. Most of the females incarcerated in this particular prison have been there before. For some it’s their second time around and for others it is their third or fourth go round inside the state penitentiary. And then there are the lifers, the women who will never again know a world without concrete blocks and iron bars.

Most of these women incarcerated in Caged had a man on the outside. And none of them were upright outstanding citizens. As you listen to their stories about how they came to be incarcerated, the one constant thread running through all of them is that it was as much some man’s fault for their downfall as it is their own.  Men are such cruel dastardly evil bastards.

Such is the case with Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), a naïve nineteen year old girl who is serving her first term after being sentenced to one to ten years for being an accessory in an armed robbery. Her husband, unbeknownst to Marie, decided to hold up a gas station while Marie was waiting for him in the car. The husband got himself killed and Marie was sent to the state pen. By the end of Caged, you’ll swear the husband probably got the better end of the deal. And just to complicate things even more, Marie’s husband left her a little present. She’s two months pregnant.

The Prison is run by Ruth Benton (Agnes Morehead). She’s a reformer. She believes prisoners should be rehabilitated, not just punished. “Just being in here IS the punishment,” is her philosophy. But a very low budget and overcrowding limits what she can do, which just goes to show you that in 60 years, things have pretty much remained unchanged.  She hopes that Marie will be able to do her time without incident and start a new life when she is paroled, although the odds are not in Marie’s favor.  So Warden Ruth, with all her infinite wisdom, decides to put Marie in the worst cellblock in the prison to lead her on the road to rehabilitation.

The block that Marie is assigned to is looked after and ruled by prison employee Matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson). Those who can find a way to pay off Evelyn with money and  bribes will do easy time. Those who can’t or won’t are in for some rough weather ahead. Marie’s husband is dead and her mother is married to a guy who wants nothing to do with Marie so you can pretty much figure out which side of the coin Marie falls on. As one inmate says early in the movie, “Heads you lose, tails you lose.” And when it comes to losing, to be on the wrong side of Evelyn Harper is not something anyone would look forward to whether they are a woman, man, or beast.

Kitty Stark (Betty Garde) is another inmate who does what it takes to get by. She recruits first timers to become “boosters” for the syndicate. A booster is a shoplifter and if the inmate agrees to work for the syndicate (run by men of course, just like 90 per cent of everything else in the US) then they can help her get an early parole.  In the meantime, they’ll also see that she gets money to keep Evelyn Harper paid off. Likewise, the more girls Kitty can recruit, the more the syndicate is willing to help her keep Harper paid off and out of her hair.

It goes without saying that Kitty will be doing her best to recruit Marie. Making matters worse, parole is hard to come by in this prison. It is up to the parole officer to get the girl a job before she leaves prison so even if parole is approved, the inmate is left pulling what is called dead time until a job becomes available if one ever does. One inmate has been pulling dead time for over a year. And of course a job can become available more quickly if the inmate is willing to work for one crime syndicate or another. The corruption in this prison does not stop at the prison gates. It runs deep throughout the state from parole boards to the parole officers and possibly even further than that. So if you are wondering how someone like Evelyn Harper can even exist, the reasons why become readily apparent. 

Caged is a nitty gritty down and dirty grungy expose of  prison corruption. Author Virginia Kellogg had herself committed to a woman’s prison for several weeks before writing the screen treatment and the authenticity shows up in every line and in every uncompromising syllable. The film is filled with authentic slang which runs rampant through the script with words like “dead time”, “stir-bugs” “stir simple” and the aforementioned “boosters”. Freedom is known as “Free Side.” She pushes the envelope as much as one could in those days, and at times you have to really pay attention to understand what is lying beneath the surface. It is unflinching and uncompromising in many respects. For instance, there are several scenes hinting at prison lesbianism such as one in which Kitty tells Marie, “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think about guys at all.”

Later, when Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick) arrives at the prison, she immediately replaces Kitty as the Queen Bee of the cell block and tries to recruit Marie for her own business. Although it is never directly mentioned, a newspaper headline about vice and the fact that Elvira has a lot of cash stashed somewhere, informs us that she is a Madam and that to work for her means becoming a prostitute. And with Elvira paying Evelyn off, Kitty no longer gets the same degree of protection from Harper that she once did.

I really like this movie. If you’ve read any reviews of it elsewhere one of the things they will tell you that this movie was mislabeled as a Camp Cult Classic by Warner Brothers to fit it into a three disc package. Cult Classic? You bet. Campy? There’s nothing campy or even remotely fun about this film although a couple of the lines in it will make you chuckle. Director John Cromwell is at his best when portraying his vision of endless, monotonous days and nights behind bars,

Early in the film, Cromwell shows us a close up of a bell ringing and afterwards we watch as Harper walks slowly between the girls for roll call. It is a scene that is repeated several times all throughout the movie, so not only that we know there is a passage of time, but that the time is filled day after day with the same routines, the same tedious existence hour after hour, day after day, month after month and so on. By the time you have heard that bell ring three or four times, you'll be wanting to tear it out of the wall yourself and slam it against a concrete block.

Cromwell’s direction is uncompromising. There is nothing here that gives us a sense of any kind of hope for any of these women. It often seems as if he is shooting Evelyn Harper from the ground up, as her presence towers over the other women, so that we not only can see her domination but can feel it as well.

It doesn’t hurt that the actress who plays Harper, Hope Emerson, clocks in at 6’2” and 235 pounds but it's more than just physical attributes that enable her to dominate every scene she is in. What makes her character so frightening is that she doesn’t overplay the role as many actresses would have been tempted to do. Emerson actually takes it in the opposite direction. She oozes cold calculating bitchy evil from every pore in her huge frame. Emerson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role but lost to Josephine Hull who won for being the ditzy sister in Harvey. I’ve seen both films, and while Hull is certainly enjoyable as Veta, it doesn’t even come close to comparing to what Emerson achieves in this film.

If that weren’t enough, Eleanor Parker as Marie Allen is every bit her equal and then some. She is required to begin the film as a naïve, shy and frightened girl who is unjustly sent to prison. (I’m assuming that Marie didn’t know her husband was going to rob the gas station. It's never made 100 percent clear) Then she has to subtly change throughout the film as she becomes more and more like the other female inmates who surround her. Parker also was nominated for an Academy award, but she lost to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday. And frankly, I love Judy Holiday but Judy Holiday played basically the same character in film after film. Parker was always underrated as an actress and in Caged she gives the performance of a lifetime. After you watch the film, go back and replay the first ten minutes and then rewatch the final ten minutes. You’ll never see a starker contrast.

Agnes Morehead is fine as the Prison Superintendent Benton who tries to implement her methods of reforms against all odds. But as I said before, no matter how crowded the prison is one would have thought at some point she would have moved Marie to a different cell block. But that’s a very minor quibble and of course if she had done that, there really wouldn’t have been a movie and there would have been no point to make. Benton more than makes up for this gaffe though when she stands her ground after the prison commissioners ask for her resignation. She shows (if you’ll pardon the expression) that she has some real balls.

And let’s not forget Ellen Corby as Emma who offers us the small amount of comedy relief that we get. She’s quite the goof ball and besides, I bet you didn’t know that Grandma Walton once did time in a state institution did you?  And here, she’s more colorful then she ever was in any of the over one hundred Walton episodes in which she appeared.

Betty Garde plays Kitty Starke. She does what she has to do for survival and nothing more or less. Without being able to pay off Harper, there is no way she would have survived the days in prison. Let’s face it, there is not a bad performance to be found among any of these ladies.

So if you’re into older films, you certainly could do a lot lot worse than Caged. Even if for some odd reason you don’t like visiting the classics, try giving the DVD a spin anyway. I think you’ll be surprised at what a really terrific film it is. And at a quick running time of 96 minutes, you won’t have a whole lot of time invested in it. As for me, it is my favorite prison movie. And when you are my favorite film in that genre, I have no choice but to give you my grade which is an A.

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