WOMEN’S PRISON, a 1955 melo from director Lewis Seiler, follows the same formula as BRUTE FORCE, only with women and more conventional 1950s attitudes. Thus, Ida Lupino plays the sadistic warden, a hissable hate figure, but the politics have been stripped away. Howard Duff, who played an ex-soldier con in BF, here plays a sympathetic prison doctor, devoid of any credible personality, whose role is to reinforce the patriarchy and make it clear that the film doesn’t criticise the powers that be, just uppity, loveless career women and the practice of imprisoning men and women in adjacent buildings.
While Jules Dassin’s 40s minor classic gives us Sir Lancelot singing most of his dialogue in calypso style, here we’re introduced to Juanita Moore scrubbing floors on her knees while singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The prison is obviously segregated, with all the black prisoners in their own cell, but no comment is made on this. The cigar-smoking diesel dykes stomping around in the pre-code Stanwyck WIP film LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT are long gone, of course, and even the frigid Lupino is judged straight by Duff, the voice of authority. (After introducing the lesbian quotient, that pre-coder even has the nerve to fade the scene out with “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” on the soundtrack…) Duff deduces that Lupino’s unloving, career-chasing personality repels all right-thinking men, and she’s now eaten up with jealousy for the women in her charge, “every one of whom has known love.” An inanely 50s approach to dollarbook Freud pop psychology.
Even without that sexist subtext, the continual provocation to despise Lupino and root for her to get killed would be a little disturbing. When she’s pursued by an avenging male prisoner at the end, the movie seems to realize it’s gone too far and starts backing away from its own bloodlust. I doubt a modern film would bother.
But entertainment value comes from Lupino’s frosty sadism, and the wealth of female talent in support. Phyllis Thaxter seems like the lead character at first, but goes to pieces under the strain of confinement and is forced to sit out most of the action in a padded cell. No clear decision has been made as to the lead character, but Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling dominate, with great back-up from Vivian Marshall, a stripper who wanted to be a professional mimic, couldn’t get the breaks, and shot her agent (Jennings Lang?).
Fiona enjoyed this big load of tosh, which I might have given up on. Yet, as a bad taste spectacle of melodramatic baloney, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. We don’t get to see Marshall do a striptease with impersonations thrown in, but she does a great Bette Davis, and later turns her talents to plot-advancement when, by way of dubbing, she puts on Lupino’s voice and bypasses security. A shame they had to cheat and loop her, but her body language is still impressive: the precision of Ida’s drama-queen gestures is amped up to 11. Poor Marshall never got a better role — if she didn’t shoot her agent for real, she should have.
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