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House of Women

House of Women(1962)

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teaser House of Women (1962)

Warner Brothers marketed the Bryan Foy women-in-prison picture House of Women (1962) as if it were a Depression era roadshow expos, with lurid copy ("Secrets of the cells! Shame of the inmates! Babies born in jail!") that evoked the exploitative rap of William O'Connor's Cocaine Fiends (1935), Louis Gasnier's Reefer Madness (1936) and Al Christie's Birth of a Baby (1938). A loose reworking of John Cromwell's Caged (1950), in which wrongly-convicted Eleanor Parker enters prison an innocent but walks out a hardened criminal, House of Women was the work of Crane Wilbur, a stage and silent film actor who transitioned to writing and directing Hollywood features. Remembered principally for writing House of Wax (1953), which made a proper horror star of Vincent Price, and the noir classics He Walked by Night (1948) and The Phenix City Story (1955), Wilbur subspecialized in prison films. His work in this idiom, as a writer and/or director, included Alcatraz Island (1937), Over the Wall (1938), Crime School (1938), Canon City (1948), Outside the Wall (1950), and Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), purportedly the inspiration for Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

Production on House of Women was announced in the March 16, 1961 edition of Variety under the title Ladies of the Mob. To helm the project, Foy selected Warners contract director Walter Doniger, who also had considerable experience with prison pictures, among them the fact-based Duffy of San Quentin (1954), the prison anthology The Steel Cage (1954) and The Steel Jungle (1956), as well as the thematically relevant Allied Artists release Unwed Mother (1958). By May 15th, Variety announced the title change to House of Women, with principal photography having begun only days earlier. Ten days into filming on the Warners lot, Doniger was fired by Foy. Though the reasons for his dismissal were left vague in the trades, the infamously combative and demanding Doniger, known for his love of long takes, forced perspective and deep focus photography, may have tested the nerves of the business-like Foy. Having enjoyed a professional relationship with Crane Wilbur that dated back to 1934, Foy retained his scenarist to finish the film. Though Wilbur brought the project to completion, he balked at sharing a director's credit with Doniger and had his name removed from the finished film.

The star of House of Women was Shirley Knight, already twice nominated for the Academy Award for her work in Delbert Mann's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) and Richard Brooks' Tennessee Williams adaptation, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). A hardworking contract player, Knight was used to being shuttled between big screens and small in her tenure on the Warners lot but hoped her Oscar® buzz would stand her better than as the lead in a women-in-prison picture. Knight enjoyed working with the prickly but ingenious Doniger but hated Bryan Foy and took her complaints to studio head Jack Warner. Informed that Warners didn't need another Bette Davis, Knight was returned to the set to finish out House of Women. After being plugged into the Robert Bloch-scripted The Couch (1962), Knight lobbied to be released from her contract. After studying with Herbert Berghoff in New York, Knight enjoyed better roles in such prestige pictures as Sidney Lumet's The Group (1966) and Richard Lester's Petulia (1968), and star turns in Anthony Harvey's Dutchman (1967), produced by first husband Eugene Persson, and Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969), opposite Robert Duvall and James Caan.

Rounding out the roster of House of Women's supporting players are a number of familiar faces. Cast as the prison warden who takes an unethical shine to Knight's incarcerated unwed mother is Andrew Duggan, a specialist in uptight white guy roles whose high forehead and lantern jaw suited him to play a wealth of doctors, ministers, sheriffs, and politicians. (Duggan also enjoyed a sideline as a voice artist, narrating the trailers for such films as Splendor in the Grass [1961] and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962]). Brassy Barbara Nichols (Sweet Smell of Success, 1957) steals the film from her costar as ebullient inmate Candy Kane while Constance Ford (a longtime regular on the daytime drama Another World) lends gravitas to House of Women as a prisoner whose child dies while in federal custody, sparking a riot in which Knight's character must join forces with kindly prison physician Jason Evers (The Brain That Wouldn't Die, 1962). In the role of parole board chairwoman Mrs. Hunter, who becomes a hostage during the climactic riot, is character actress Virginia Gregg. A familiar face from film and television, Gregg's claim to fame was as the disembodied voice of Mrs. Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and its sequels.

Producer: Bryan Foy
Directors: Walter Doniger, Crane Wilbur
Writer: Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Harold E. Stine
Music: Howard Jackson, Max Steiner (stock)
Editor: Leo H. Shreve
Cast: Shirley Knight (Erica Hayden), Andrew Duggan (Warden Frank Cole), Constance Ford (Sophie Brice), Barbara Nichols (Candy Kane), Margaret Hayes (Zoe), Jeanne Cooper (Helen), Virginia Gregg (Mrs. Hunter), Jason Evers (Dr. Conrad), Laurie Sheridan (Robin).

by Richard Harland Smith

Prison Pictures from Hollywood: Plots, Critiques, Casts and Credits for 293 Theatrical and Made-for-Television Releases by James Robert Parish (McFarland & Company, Ltd., 1991)
"Crane Wilbur: Pondering the Potentate of Prison Pictures, from The Perils of Pauline to Police Procedurals" by Brent Walker, Noir City, Spring 2011
Cinema Sequels and Remakes: 1903-1987 by Robert A. Nowlan and Gwendolyn Wright Nowlan (McFarland & Company, Ltd., 1989)
"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 by Eric Schaefer (Duke University Press, 1999)
Walter Doniger obituary by Stephen Bowie, The Classic TV History Blog,
Shirley Knight interview by Stephen Bowie, The Classic TV History Blog, Cash: The Biography by Michael Streissguth (Da Capo Press, 2007)

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