Wednesday, February 8, 2017

old black kettle

CAGED (1950; d: John Cromwell)

I think most of us have contemplated prison, or at least daydreamed how we might fare in such a bind.  From an early age, the concept of restriction and confinement for wrongdoing is ingrained in us, and for many, whether born into desperation or given to bad influence, temptation comes easier.  In a sense, we're really all just but a jagged misstep or two removed from the grim milieu of state-sanctioned, soul-stifling incarceration. 

In 1949, Warner Brothers set out to turn the prison genre on its ear, commissioning a script for a realistic, socially progressive movie about life in a women's penitentiary. Written by Virginia Kellogg (from the story, "Women Without Men", by Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld) and originally intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (which Davis purportedly nixed for its lesbian undertones), CAGED is an absolutely dire film noir set behind bars, full of stunning performances and wonderful, meaty dialogue, with philosophy (and tragedy) to spare.

Although we've made much social and political headway since its 1950 release (the recent election notwithstanding), the women-in-prison genre seems to have gone in the opposite direction.

Most examples of this type have been pure exploitation, bordering on pornography, and finding sincere efforts in the genre is exceedingly uncommon. The hit Netflix-produced comedy/drama, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, represents a notable recent exception, but throughout the years the women-in-prison genre has been a staple mined almost exclusively by smut merchants and purveyors of the grindhouse ethos (and I'm not knocking those filmsseen too many to do that).

With CAGED, Warner Brothers had loftier goals, even if they were, perhaps, economically emboldened by the lurid material seemingly inherent in this type of story. While there had previously been more than a few representations of female prisons in the movies, never before had an entire movie been set inside one.  Completely occupied by women, from the warden all the way down, CAGED offered its audience a rare chance to see women in virtually every kind of role, from sad, lost souls, to shrewd repeat cons, to the jaded, corrupt officials oiling the machinery. 

From the start, CAGED wastes no time making its objectives known: we're here to serve time with the rest of them. Hard time. As the opening credits finish rolling, a paddy wagon grinds to a halt, the dark interior gradually revealing anxious female silhouettes in two rows. 

“Pile out, you tramps. It's the end of the line.” 

As they reluctantly file out, perhaps mulling over the callous, casual finality of those words, the viewer is immediately immersed in their plight.

In the starring role, Eleanor Parker plays Marie Allen, a very young and distraught new inmate whose first day in prison begins the story. Only 19, Marie was snagged as an accomplice in a gas station robbery staged by her husband, who was killed in its commission. Stepping out of the police bus, she nervously appraises the massive, forbidding structure before her, then turns back for one last look at the world she'll leave behind.

"Grab your last look at free side, kid."

Once inside, Marie is processed and then quarantined for two weeks (to await the results of her blood work), but not before learning that she's more than likely pregnant.

"I hope this batch is cleaner than the last lot.  Had to scrub them with brooms."

"I don't know."

"Another pregnant one.  Get up.  You know who the father is?"

"My husband."

"Well, ain't we getting respectable...can he help with the expenses?"

"He's dead."

"Another bill for the state.  Get dressed."

While in quarantine, Marie is locked in with a very sick inmate who warns her not to tread too closely. Writers Kellogg and Schoenfeld spared no expense with details such as these, and it doesn't take long to realize that they've done their homework on the subject of day-to-day life in the big house.

Also stuck in quarantine is fellow inmate, Emma Barber (Ellen Corby of "The Waltons"), who provides a bit of amusement as they bide their time.

"I was just thinking..."

"Quit bragging."

"Do they arrest me?  No!"

"Well, it's that judge.  If he had nabbed me the first three times while I was practicing, I wouldn't be here now for murder."

And this theme, however humorous here, is one that is repeated all throughout CAGED: If it weren't for the men in their lives, most of these women wouldn't be here.  It's one of the first of many instances where feminism takes center stage, another rarity for 1950.

When their time in quarantine is up, a nurse informs Marie that along with her blood work coming back normal, she's also two months pregnant.  

From quarantine, she's led by a stone-faced convicted murderer to the warden's office for her entrance interview.

The warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead of "Bewitched" fame), is a stern but fair woman, and her progressive bent lends to the impression that perhaps Marie's time here won't be as difficult as one might expect.  Of course, the warden is but one woman.

When Marie breaks down about having her baby in prison, Ruth tells her that any blood relative can look after the child until she gets out, then assures her she'll get an easy job in the laundry until after the pregnancy.

From there she's taken to meet her cell block matron, the looming, ineffable Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who after letting Marie know she controls the influx (and sales) of all contraband, quickly determines the new inmate has no way of getting money from any outside source. From that moment on, Marie is just a pretty face with nothing to offer, and as such becomes an easy mark for the sadistic matron.

Escorted by Evelyn to her new cell block, Marie is then ordered to scrub the floor on hands and knees (despite the warden's order she be given light work).

"Ms. Benton said I was going to work in the laundry."

As she toils away, some of the block's more notable luminaries make themselves known.

Betty Garde, Jan Sterling and Joan Miller, looking heavy.

Moments later, one of matron Harper's rats is dealt with for treading too closely.  

"Maybe you need bifocals!"

"I'll tell Evelyn!"  "You're kidding me!  Harper's first name is Filth!"
Betty Garde is unforgettable as career criminal, Kitty Stark
And then, as if that nasty slap had never occurred, the entire block becomes transfixed by a closely passing train, a strange and haunting ritual they'll repeat.

There's no shortage of likewise surprising and captivating moments throughout CAGED, and I'll try not to ruin them by dragging this on too long.  

Like any prison, mental illness ripples throughout, but never more memorably than in the case of the sad, sweet, helpless visage of one-time well-to-do daddy's girl, Georgia Harrison (Gertrude Michael).  Yet another hapless victim of bad taste in men, Georgia doesn't quite understand what got her here.

"I'm Georgia Harrison.  I'm not supposed to be here.  I didn't forge those checks.  It was all a mistake."

"My father's waiting for me, and he knows I'm not guilty."

Another theme repeated throughout CAGED, quite bold for its time, is the false notion of prison reform.  Of what little is offered in the way of reform here, corruption and brutality is what resonates. Few who run the gamut of hard time come out rehabilitated. More often than not, prisoners simply adapt to the violence and treachery and hopelessness of life behind bars, among criminals (and their often equally deviant guards).  With little to look forward to in the way of career prospects beyond prison walls, a pervasive cynicism settles in, making a successful transition to normal life less and less likely.

And so poor, frightened, unsullied Marie, seemingly innocent and in over her head, doesn't manage to stay so for very long.  

Eleanor Parker and Hope Emerson earned Oscar nominations for their performances, as did writer Virginia Kellogg.

When the final curtain descends, what we're left with is no beaming brilliance at the tunnel's end, no obligatory lessons learned or rebirth of the spirit, but rather a deep and abiding dread of clanging metal, stale bread, passing trains, and crooked matrons the size of water buffalo.