Rage in the Cage: CAGED (Warner Brothers 1950)

“In this cage, you get tough or you get killed” – Kitty Stark (played by Betty Garde) in CAGED

 

The Grandmother of all “Women in Prison” films, CAGED still packs a wallop, nearly seventy years after it’s release. This stark, brutal look at life inside a women’s penitentiary was pretty bold for its time, with its savage sadism and heavy lesbian overtones, and matches up well with BRUTE FORCE as an example of film noir prison flicks. Everything about this film clicks, from its taut direction by John Cromwell to the use of sound to create mood by Stanley Jones, plus a powerhouse mostly female cast led by Eleanor Parker .

The 28-year-old Parker convincingly plays 19-year-old Marie Allen, given a one-to-fifteen year sentence for accessory to an armed robbery during which her husband was killed. The mousey Marie is indoctrinated, given a number (Prisoner #93850), and poked and prodded by staff, who discover Marie’s two months pregnant. Marie is given light duty by the prison-reform minded superintendent Ruth Barton, but sadistic old-school ward matron Evelyn Harper has other plans.

Marie’s first night inside the walls is a frightening experience for the youngster. She’s befriended by three tough street chicks led by Kitty Stark, boss of a shoplifting gang who wants to recruit the kid when she gets out of stir. When fellow inmate June is denied parole, it’s Marie who finds her hanging during the night, causing her to go into shock and give birth  prematurely. Her mom refuses to take the baby, then she’s denied parole, and a switch flips inside Marie’s head, turning her as hard as the veteran cons.

Tensions flare when Marie finds a kitten outside the prison laundry and takes it in, and a catfight over the cat between Marie and Harper escalates into a full-scale riot! Marie is given three days in solitary by Barton, but before serving the cruel Harper shaves her head. Kitty, who’s spent a month in solitary enduring beatings from Harper, gains justice of her own in a swift and vicious stabbing of the matron in the cafeteria, as Marie cheers her on, yelling, “Kill her, kill her”. Prison life has changed Marie, but not for the better, and the final scene has Barton resigned to the fact that she’s failed, and Marie will be back.

Parker was justly nominated for an Oscar for her performance, as she transforms from young innocent into hardened criminal during the course of the film. Also nominated was Hope Emerson as the sadistic Harper. Emerson’s 6’2″, 200+ pound frame make her an imposing physical presence, and she’s about as mean as a prison screw can get. Neither actress won – Judy Holliday picked up the statuette that year for BORN YESTERDAY, while Josephine Hutchinson won for HARVEY – but a case could certainly be made for them.

Agnes Moorehead’s  part of reform warden Ruth Barton also deserved Oscar consideration. Her battles with bureaucrats and the disrespectful Harper (who treats the inmates like pond scum and constantly refers to them as “ya tramps”) highlight the differences between rehabilitation and punishment, battles that are still going on today (and as someone who once worked inside the prison system, trust me on that). The film gives an impressive cast of women the chance to shine: Betty Garde is the hard-bitten Kitty, Lee Patrick her rival “Vice Queen” Elvira Powell, Jan Sterling the CP (that’s Common Prostitute) Smoochie, Ellen Corby a nutty husband killer, Gertrude W. Hoffman the wise old lifer Millie, Olive Deering the doomed June, and the tragic former star Gertrude Michael as the haughty Georgia. Other Familiar Faces behind the walls include Don Beddoe (as the political hack prison commissioner), Jane Darwell , Marlo Dwyer, Sandra Gould, Esther Howard , Sheila MacRae (billed as Sheila Stevens), Queenie Smith (as Marie’s mom), Amzie Strickland, Nita Talbot, and Ann Tyrell.

CAGED’s tougher-than-the-soles-on-a-streetwalker’s-feet screenplay is by Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the story with Bernard Schoenfeld (both were Oscar nominated). Kellogg, who wrote the stories for the tough films noir T-MEN and WHITE HEAT , was a former reporter who used her contacts to go undercover as an inmate in four different prisons to do research on the subject. The result was this knockout of a movie, as realistic a look at prison life as was possible for the time. The bleakness of doing a bid behind bars, the corruption that still goes on, and the dehumanization of people contributes to the high recidivism rate experienced even today. The women of CAGED are no saints, not by a long shot, but their treatment here offers no hope for redemption, just a revolving door for those tagged as social outcasts. It’s a film that is still relevant today, and a film noir you don’t want to miss.


Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

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