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Actress Ida Lupino who stars as the sadistic prison superintendent in Women's Prison (1955) had been in films since the early 1930's, having started her career in a string of fluffy comedies where she played a bleached blonde along the lines of Jean Harlow. Beginning in 1939 and continuing for most of her career, she found herself typecast in a different role, that of a hard-bitten woman who has a secret soft side. Her role in Women's Prison continued along those lines.
For a brief time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lupino had branched out into directing mainly low-budget independent films and in the 1950s was the only working female director in Hollywood. By 1955, as William Donati wrote in his book Ida Lupino: A biography , "[w]ith the demise of her company [The Filmmakers which financed her independent films], Ida was forced to find acting jobs. Producer Bryan Foy starred her as a sadistic warden [sic] in Women's Prison . [Howard] Duff [Lupino's real life husband] tagged along, sixth-billed as a prison doctor. Actress Audrey Totter played a pregnant inmate mistreated by the gorgeous but brutal warden. Totter observed that Ida enjoyed playing the vicious warden, cleverly insisting on stylish dresses, earrings and jewelry. "It was Ida's idea," says Totter. The prisoners were forbidden to dress like women; only the warden could look elegantly feminine. "This makes my character crueler," smiled Ida."
"Despite the somber atmosphere, [Totter] found Ida great fun. Ida was curious about who had delivered her child [Totter had recently given birth and Women's Prison was to be her last film before retiring to raise her family with her UCLA professor husband].
"The head of UCLA's medical department," answered Totter.
"Do you know him personally?" asked Ida.
"Yes", she said. "I'm friends with all the doctors over there."
"How odd,' remarked Ida, "one day, there you are at a cocktail party, with your arms up having a drink, and a little later on, you're meeting this obstetrician in an entirely different position." Ida acted out the scene, which Totter found wildly amusing."
For Lupino and her husband, things were less amusing. Having married in 1952, the Duffs were famous in Hollywood for their tumultuous marriage, seeming to break-up and get back together every other month. At one time, wrote Donati, "They planned a divorce. Ida engaged Greg Bautzer as her attorney and instructed him to go ahead with the property settlement. "What's there to argue about?" asked Duff. "About all I have is a cat and a car." Friends felt a divorce was inevitable, but the cycle continued. Duff returned to Lupino. "Their marriage would continue on and off until they finally divorced in 1983 following a long separation.
When it was released in February 1955, Women's Prison did not make much of a splash at the box office. As the New York Times reviewer wrote, "Producer Bryan Foy and scenarists apparently must have been in and out of enough movie prisons to qualify as Hollywood-style penologists. They also seem to have most of the plots of these somber little numbers down pat, too. And, Women's Prison which was unveiled at the Palace [Theater] yesterday, is hardly an exception to the rule. Any viewer who couldn't guess the basic story lines of this standard item in, say, ten seconds, is a hermit. Of course, there are vague variations on the normal, tidy gaol tale. In this case the women's prison of the title is a coeducational institution. The men are separated from the ladies but the ladies aren't particularly happy about it. Ida Lupino, obviously a tense, unloved type is the superintendent who is not beyond being sadistic in venting her hates on the inmates. There's also the recognizable gallery of "fish"-Phyllis Thaxter a high-strung matron who comes near to breaking down mentally under Miss Lupino's callous treatment; Jan Sterling, no newcomer to this "pen," who befriends Miss Thaxter and-this is a switch-Audrey Totter, whose husband, also a convict, sneaks in to see her with some explosive results....Oh, yes. There's the standard procedure riot when the girls take over the prison. The producers, it should be added, have given their production serious and professional treatment. It's scarcely a riot or a revelation, though."
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt, Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Henry Batista
Cast: Ida Lupino (Amelia van Zandt), Jan Sterling (Brenda Martin), Cleo Moore (Mae), Audrey Totter (Joan Burton), Phyllis Thaxter (Helene Jensen), Howard Duff (Dr. Crane), Warren Stevens (Glen Burton), Mae Clarke (Matron Saunders).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Ida Lupino: A biography by William Donati
The New York Times: Film Tells Familiar Tale; 'Women's Prison' in Bow at Palace Theater February 3, 1955
The Internet Movie Database