Girls in Chains
Cast & Crew
Edgar G. Ulmer
Racketeer and political boss Johnny Moon cold-bloodedly kills one of his lackeys and is later found innocent of the crime. Johnny's sister-in-law, schoolteacher and trained psychologist Helen Martin, is then dismissed from her job because the school board fears that she will be a bad influence on the children. Although Helen's sympathetic supervisor, Dalvers, recommends her for a job teaching at the women's County Corrections School, Helen decides to leave town and urges her sister Jean to accompany her. Jean, however, is committed to unfaithful Johnny, and refuses to leave. Helen reconsiders her departure and applies for the reformatory position, after which she is questioned by policeman Frank Donovan, an inspector for the county board. Although the conservative women who head the board oppose Helen's employment because of her connection to Johnny, Frank wholeheartedly recommends her, and convinces the other board members, Reverend Greene and Lionel Cleeter, to vote in her favor. One of the inmates dies due to neglect on the same day that Helen reports for duty, and Helen is appalled by the poor conditions at the reformatory. However, Marcus, her supervisor, keeps a tight rein on her activities. Helen tries to be a positive and encouraging force for the jaded women who populate the reformatory, but Marcus and his helper, Mrs. Peters, thwart her attempts at every opportunity. Johnny's most recent girl friend, Rita, a waitress, is installed in the facility, but Johnny ensures that she gets special treatment. One day, the women riot and are put in solitary confinement. Helen confronts Johnny and vows to report the wretched conditions to the governor if Johnny does not make improvements. Johnny then reprimands Marcus for chiseling money from the reformatory and advises him to lay off of Helen. Helen, in the meantime, has combined her efforts with Frank to get proof that Mayor McCarthy is corrupt and takes orders from Johnny. As part of their plan, Frank and Helen bring Rita's former boyfriend, Tom Havershield, to visit her. Touched by Tom's concern, Rita undergoes a reformation and promises to testify against Johnny. Johnny forestalls this by releasing Rita from prison and murdering her, and he has Helen suspended from her job. Frank relentlessly pursues the murder investigation, but comes up with nothing. Cleeter, who has become a hapless drunk and witnessed Rita's murder, confronts Johnny, who throws him off the edge of a newly constructed dam. Cleeter clings to life and calls Frank to his hospital bed to tell him he is a witness. Helen warns her sister that Johnny is about to be arrested, but Jean refuses to leave, and the apartment is surrounded by police. Frank follows Johnny onto a rooftop and is forced to kill him in self-defense. Later, with Helen and Frank's evidence, the governor dismisses McCarthy after revealing his corruption, and appoints Helen as the new corrections facility superintendent.
Edgar G. Ulmer
Mrs. Gardener Green
Charles Henkel Jr.
Edgar G. Ulmer
Peter R. Van Duinen
Girls in Chains
Well, at least until Helen Martin comes along. As Moon's sister-in-law, she has already watched her sister Jean slip away under Johnny's corrupting influence. And skittish moms, fearing the same thing will happen to their kids if left too close to Moon's orbit, have seen to it Helen loses her teaching job. She's lost enough to Johnny.
With the aid of reformer Frank Donovan, she gets assigned to the reformatory. It's no cushy gig-the warden's one of Moon's stooges, the ice-bitch guards are corset-wearing terrors, and they only allow her a measly hour a day to teach the abused, frightened inmates-but that's beside the point. From her vantage point on the inside, she can blow the racket wide open, and rally the prisoners to finally stand up for themselves.
Made in just 5 days for the pocket change budget of $20 grand, this trim little B picture didn't need to do much business to turn a profit. But with the lurid come-on title of Girls in Chains (1943), and the value-added direction of B-movie maestro Edgar G. Ulmer, this low-budget wonder was the Poverty Row version of a hit. "The little Girls in Chains was such a gigantic money success, that we could have bought the PRC studio," said Ulmer.
Not that buying the studio was what he wanted. Ulmer had gotten his training from the best-apprenticing under the likes of Fritz Lang and William Wyler, learning the avant-garde cinematic excesses of German Expressionism and the git-er-done mentality of Hollywood B-pictures alike. The world of low-budget independents and Poverty Row studios was populated almost exclusively by washouts and has-beens-for a man of Ulmer's artistic caliber to have chosen to leave behind the world of Big Hollywood in favor of the artistic freedom of independent filmmaking made him a rare and valuable commodity indeed.
Seymour Nebenzal of PRC (Producer's Releasing Corporation) knew Ulmer from the old days back in Germany, and hired him on a 12-month contract to take charge of PRC's productions. First on the menu was deciding on a slate of films; PRC honcho Leon Fromkess called in Ulmer for a pitch session. It was up to Ulmer to come up with 48 titles-not story ideas, just titles-that would form the studio's output for the year. Tomorrow We Live, The Isle of Forgotten Sins, Single Indemnity-the titles flowed off Ulmer's tongue. "We didn't have stories yet, they had to be written to fit the cock-eyed titles," explained Ulmer.
He did have one story already in mind, though. The newspapers recently had been full of coverage on the reform-school scandal. Widespread political graft in women's prisons had been uncovered, careers were ruined, moral outrage was stoked. It could make a good basis for a movie, thought Ulmer. Crime dramas had long focused on Big Social Issues, using film noir tropes as a way of illustrating important policy debates-think I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Or, more to the point, Lambert Hillyer's 1938 Women in Prison. It didn't take much to recast "Women in Prison" as Girls in Chains, a title that had Fromkess fairly salivating.
It took Ulmer three weeks to write the script-almost four times as long as he would spend to film it. But don't think he cut corners on the stuff that makes a movie interesting.
Later generations of grindhouse filmmakers who followed in Ulmer's low-budget footsteps would push the "women in prison" format into its own subgenre-with its own acronym, WIP. In the decades that followed, the likes of Jess Franco's 99 Women (1969), Jack Hill's The Big Doll House (1971), and Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974) would establish a formula: nudity, lesbianism, sadistic violence. Working in 1943 under the restrictive Production Code, Ulmer had to consider nudity out of bounds, but he hit the other notes that would later be common to the form. Dorothy Burgess as the Nazi-like butch guard "Mrs. Peters" would not be out of place alongside Dyanne Thorne in Jess Franco's 1977 Ilsa the Wicked Warden.
It's a common problem for Ulmer in his PRC days-he generally wrought more colorful performances from his bit players than his leads. Ulmer himself notwithstanding, Poverty Row was a place celebrities went to die. In the leading role of Helen Martin, Ulmer cast the washed-up wreckage of Arline Judge, whose best days were in the 1930s and they weren't that great even back then. Roger Clark plays her love interest Frank Donovan, Addison Randall (under the stage name Allen Byron) plays her nemesis Johnny Moon-but the sparkle in the cast is all in the margins. Think of Dorothy Burgess, whose bullet-pointed bra could put someone's eye out, or the prim-yet-corrupt Mrs. McCarthy played by Mrs. Gardner Crane, or best of all, Emmett Lynn as the equal-parts hero+drunk Lionel Cleeter. One thing you can say for Arline Judge and Roger Clark is that their total lack of movie star charisma and beauty lends their characters an added degree of realism.
The weakest link of the film, though, isn't Arline Judge's exhausted performance, but the goody-two-shoes nature of her character. The underlying contest of the film is between her attitude of honesty, decency, and her determination to reintegrate all transgressors back into mainline society on the one hand; and Johnny Moon's not-very-seductive promises of more of the same. Moon controls the political machinery of the city, but apparently he does so purely out of bullying and not because any of his cohorts share in the bounty. When Helen Martin happens along and offers them anything-even as Spartan as paying their dues to society and working hard for a living, it comes as a welcome contrast to Moon's everyone-for-Moon philosophy. It's no wonder that she racks up supporters and turncoats so easily-and the drama would be sharper if she had a tougher fight against Moon's world of crime.
In the finale, Ulmer goes out of his way to demonstrate that what is right with this flick is all to be chalked up to him-unexpectedly, the talky B-noir suddenly shifts into action movie mode, for a stylish and atmospheric chase scene and shootout so classy it almost seems like it was borrowed from a different movie altogether. If Ulmer could pull off stuff like this in a matter of days, just imagine what he could have done with real resources.
Then again, talk like that sounds like apologies. And Girls in Chains was a profit-making turn by an iconoclastic filmmaker that helped found a genre, allow its maker to write his own ticket at the studio where it was made, and entertain viewers more than a half-century after its competitors sank into the tar pits of history. Cheap and sleazy it may be, but Girls in Chains is a movie that needs no apologies.
Producer: Leon Fromkess, Peter R. Van Duinen
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Albert Beich, Edgar G. Ulmer (story)
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Film Editing: Charles Henkel Jr.
Art Direction: Fred Preble
Music: Leo Erdody
Cast: Arline Judge (Helen Martin), Roger Clark (Frank Donovan), Robin Raymond (Rita), Barbara Pepper (Ruth), Dorothy Burgess (Mrs. Peters), Clancy Cooper (Marcus).
by David Kalat
Bogdanovich, Peter, "Who the Devil Made It," Ballantine Books, New York.
Grissemann, Stefan, "Mann Im Schatten: Der Filmemacher Edgar G. Ulmer," Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Germany.
Girls in Chains
Information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals that the PCA's primary concern with the film was that there be "no suggestion of a sex affair between Johnny and Rita" and that "restraint should be used in the scenes of the girls rioting." Hollywood Reporter news items reported the following: Sylvia Sidney was sought for the lead role, but was unavailable due to prior commitments; Bryant Washburn and Lloyd Ingraham were slated to appear, but their appearances in the final film have not been confirmed. In a modern interview, director Edgar G. Ulmer noted that his idea for the story came from a newspaper report about political corruption in a women's jail, and that the film was shot in five days.