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The women's prison film has always been open to lesbian interpretation. Even in the days of the Production Code it was easy to find coded images of gay female characters, whether in the stereotypical mannishness of prison matrons or the sexual overtones of the convicts' relationships. In 1950's Caged, Warner Bros. added a new wrinkle to the genre with the sado-masochistic relationship between prison matron Hope Emerson and the various females in her cellblock. That same year, the independent So Young, So Bad was accused by many critics of borrowing ideas from Caged. Whether the charges are true or not (the films were released a day apart), the independent picture, set in a girls' reformatory, had one thing Caged didn't -- a portrait of a young tom girl (Anne Jackson) who adopts masculine behavior and dress as a sign of rebellion and sexual confusion.
The idea for So Young, So Bad came from director Bernard Vorhaus after he read a newspaper account of abuses at a girl's reformatory. Working with writer Jean Rouverol, he visited several institutions for story ideas. There was some studio interest in the film, but the director and writer's questionable political leanings (both would be blacklisted before the film's release) eventually scotched that. Instead, they sought independent financing. Sources are unclear as to who optioned his script first, actor Paul Henreid or entrepreneurs Harry and Edward Danziger, but a deal was struck for Henreid to star and assist in the production in return for 50 percent of the profits and an assurance that his role as a crusading prison psychiatrist would be expanded.
Henreid had only recently finished his starring contract at Warner Bros. and was still in demand in Hollywood when he signed with the Danziger brothers. His agent tried to talk him out of it, warning him that "you take a chance with these fly-by-night outfits." (quoted in Henreid, Ladies Man, 1984). He was right about one thing - the Danzigers had no track record as filmmakers. They had inherited an amusement park and sold it to get into film production. Their only previous credit was Jigsaw (1949), a low-budget mystery starring Franchot Tone and distinguished primarily by the presence of Marlene Dietrich, Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Burgess Meredith and Everett Sloane in cameo appearances.
As one of his producing duties, Henreid helped audition 300 young hopefuls for roles as reformatory inmates. He clearly had an eye for talent, as the film gives "introducing" credit to Jackson, Rita Moreno (billed as Rosita although she had already appeared on Broadway as Rita), Enid Pulver and Anne Francis, who had already played bit roles, most notably as one of the school girls viewing Joseph Cotten's painting of Jennifer Jones at the end of Portrait of Jennie (1948). Although such credits have come to be considered a jinx in Hollywood folklore, in this case three of the young women would go on to stardom, Jackson on stage, Francis in films and on television and Moreno in just about every medium she's tackled (she was the first performer to win an Oscar®, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy).
The young actress' roles added a socially progressive slant to what might have emerged as stereotyped characters in a Hollywood production. Francis' blonde sexpot is revealed to be a child of abuse who has learned to trade on her sexuality as a survival mechanism. Moreno, as the prison innocent, is also a victim of racism. The film takes the implied lesbianism of Jackson and Pulver's prison pals to a new level, with Jackson clearly assuming the masculine role in what appears to be more than just friendship. Unlike more traditional narratives in which the "butch" character ends up either dead or branded as evil or both, Jackson actually risks her own freedom by returning to jail after a successful escape to help save Henreid's career.
So Young, So Bad was shot for very little money on locations in Yonkers, Manhattan, Long Island and Connecticut. A Jewish home for the blind and the elderly in upstate New York stood in for the fictional Elmview Corrections School for Girls. In many ways the low budget and location shooting proved to be assets. Even in its more contrived moments, the film has a realistic look. Cinematographer Don Malkames captured images that often outshone the dialogue. When the matrons punish the young inmates by turning a fire hose on them, the camerawork takes on a documentary feel that makes the sequence particularly harrowing, an effect you wouldn't find in Warner's more expensive Caged.
Critical reaction to the film was tepid. It suffered from comparison to Caged at a time when independent productions were rare and their virtues less appreciated. In addition, the title So Young, So Bad was ripe for abuse at the hands of wisecracking reviewers. With its sensational subject matter, however, the film made money domestically and even scored a lucrative international distribution agreement. Contrary to his agent's warnings, Henreid would report that his 50 percent stake in the picture made him more money than any of his other films.
Producer: Edward J. Danziger, Harry Lee Danziger
Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Screenplay: Jean Rouverol, Bernard Vorhaus
Cinematography: Don Malkames
Music: Robert W. Stringer
Cast: Paul Henreid (Dr. Jason), Catherine McLeod (Ruth Levering), Anne Jackson (Jackie), Enid Pulver (Jane), Anne Francis (Loretta), Rita Moreno (Dolores).
by Frank Miller