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  Caged Dare Behind Bars
Year: 1950
Director: John Cromwell
Stars: Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Ellen Corby, Hope Emerson, Betty Garde, Jan Sterling, Lee Patrick, Olive Deering, Jane Darwell, Gertrude Michael, Sheila MacRae
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: It's a daunting, even terrifying sight for nineteen-year-old widow Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker): the prison where she will be spending a lot of time over the next few months, maybe years if she is particularly unfortunate. She was arrested for her part in her husband's armed robbery, where she was more of an unwilling victim than a partner, only the court did not see it that way and she has been harshly sentenced as an accessory, fifteen years unless she gets time off for good behaviour: the parole hearing will be in ten months. To make matters worse, Marie is two months pregnant with her late husband's child, and jail is no place for a baby...

It's no place for Eleanor Parker either, judging by what happened to her in Caged, a powerful film in its day which would be better known for what it started, essentially the whole women in prison genre. There had been such subjects in movies before, but this was one which established the conventions from which practically every future variation on that story took its cue from. It was all here: the as good as innocent new inmate, the sadistic warden, the old lags, the shower scenes, the riots, the lesbianism, as if writer Virginia Kellogg, who had penned the basis for cult classic gangster flick White Heat, had set the rules of what had to be included in these works in stone tablets.

Those plot points were drawn from a real life experience of Kellogg's, no, she hadn't been convicted, but she had gone undercover in a women's prison as a fact finding mission, so you could say much of what she related here had a strong foundation in what the establishments were actually like. Not that Caged wasn't melodramatic, and some have described it as camp in recent years with its influence reaching beyond the hardhitting exposé and towards bad taste comedy such as John Waters' Female Trouble or eighties spoof Reform School Girls. A lot of what made this such a benchmark was not only the scripting, but what the cast did with it, in particular the heady overtones of lesbianism.

We never saw anything anywhere near as explicit as such imagery would get in the trashier end of the spectrum, and the censors would not even allow the love that dare not speak its name to be, er, spoken, but when career criminal Lee Patrick is introduced, the way in which she devours Marie with her eyes leaves us in no doubt as to her intentions, no matter that the girl will resist. The versatile Parker was nominated for an Oscar for her role, and it's true she renders the character the very picture of anguish, all the better to convey the theme that for some inmates, prison is the very worst place they could be as it merely turns them from misguided and unlucky to hardened villains, though Marie's transformation occurs somewhat improbably over the course of a single scene.

Special mention should be made of the actress who played the wicked warden Harper, Hope Emerson, who could not have been better cast with her bulky, six foot two frame, hatchet face and general demeanour of a bruiser you would be deeply unwise to mess with. Nevertheless, Marie grows so desperate that she does indeed mess with Harper and pays the price, starting a riot over a kitten she found and wanted to keep against Harper's rules and winding up with the animal dead in her hands and her stuck in solitary confinement, with a shaven head to boot. It's all about the heroine's humiliation, that's what fuels the drama and is intended to have us fired up with moral outrage, much in the same way the governor Agnes Moorehead is in her liberal attitudes to reforming the system, though she finds it an uphill struggle when both staff and inmates can be as much a problem as each other, and that's without mentioning the clueless men who hold sway over the whole shebang. With a last line to make the message hit home, Caged leans on overemphasis, but is effective. Music by Max Steiner.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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