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A bus stops at a women's prison, and the new arrivals get out, as a voice growls, "Pile out, you tramps, it's the end of the line." That bleak opening of Caged (1950) sets the tone for a look at life inside a women's prison that is surprisingly gritty for the era. Eleanor Parker plays Marie, who's 19, pregnant, and newly widowed as result of a botched robbery that left her husband dead. Because she was in the car with her husband during the robbery, Marie is considered an accomplice, and is sent to prison. Agnes Moorehead plays the one compassionate character in the film, the prison warden who fights a losing battle to improve conditions. Hope Emerson, six feet two inches tall and massive, portrays a brutal matron who terrorizes the prisoners and gets perverse pleasure from seeing them suffer. The film follows Marie as she goes from frightened innocent to hardened, embittered woman, willing to do whatever it takes to survive inside, and to get out.
Warner Bros. pioneered social consciousness dramas in the 1930s, and made one of the decade's best prison movies, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). That film was such an indictment of the prison system that it had led to prison reform in six states. In 1949, Warners producer Jerry Wald wanted to do the same for women's prisons, and sent former newspaper reporter and "idea person" Virginia Kellogg to do research. Kellogg had written a novel that became a Kay Francis film, Mary Stevens M.D. (1933), about a doctor who bears a child out of wedlock. She had also written well-researched original stories that were the basis for T-Men (1947), about treasury agents, and White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney as a psychotic gangster. Kellogg spent months doing research for Caged at prisons around the country, and was even briefly incarcerated in one of them. She not only came up with the story and co-authored the screenplay for Caged, she also wrote a magazine article about her findings, detailing the inhumane conditions that created hardened criminals and encouraged recidivism. Kellogg's extensive research is evident in the script, which is peppered with authentic prison slang of the era, and attention to the details of prison life, such as the caste system, and the tedium of daily life. Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld received an Oscar® nomination for Caged's story and screenplay. After Caged, Kellogg wrote stories for two films that were never made, one about the first female vice cop in Los Angeles, and the other about women veterans in a mental hospital.
Veteran director John Cromwell had proved his versatility with such recent films as the romantic fantasy The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and the film noir Dead Reckoning (1947). He had also made a much earlier women-in-prison film, Ann Vickers (1933), with Irene Dunne playing a social worker and prison reformer. In Caged, his skill with actors is evident, as he draws excellent performances from the large, almost all-female ensemble. Both Parker and Emerson were nominated for Oscars®, and Parker won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her stunning, multifaceted portrayal of Marie.
Parker recalled that Emerson was "just the opposite of the woman she played in Caged. She was a sweet, gentle lady who played the piano for us between scenes and was very worried about her sick mother." Because of her size, Emerson was often typecast as a villain, but her size was also used for comic effect, as when she played a circus strongwoman in Adam's Rib (1949).
Given the censorship restrictions of the era, there is no overt lesbianism in Caged, but it's certainly implied. Although the vicious, hulking prison matron is shown primping for a date with a man, Hope Emerson plays her as a prototypical "bull dyke," with a taste for S & M. And the "vice queen" (i.e., madam), played by Hope Patrick, casts a more than professional eye on the inmates, referring to Parker's character as a "cute trick." Again typical of the era, even these coded references to homosexuality are of the "deviate" variety. As Vito Russo noted in his study of gay images in film, The Celluloid Closet (1980), "lesbianism appears here as a product of an outlaw social structure."
Critics were turned off by the film's sensationalism, but were impressed by the direction and performances. The Newsweek critic wrote, "Caged has a tendency to spell out all the emotions - especially sentiment - in large, block capital letters. But John Cromwell's direction has some unblinkingly realistic moments." And the New York Times reviewer added, "John Cromwell manages now and again to bring individual scenes to throbbing life....Miss Parker gives a creditable and expressive performance."
Director: John Cromwell
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Virginia Kellogg, Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Editor: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Charles H. Clarke
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Eleanor Parker (Marie Allen), Agnes Moorehead (Ruth Benton), Ellen Corby (Emma), Hope Emerson (Evelyn Harper), Betty Garde (Kitty Stark), Jan Sterling (Smoochie), Lee Patrick (Elvira Powell), Olive Deering (June).
by Margarita Landazuri