W.I.P. marks

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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32 Responses to “W.I.P. marks”

  1. I beseech you, see Cromwell’s CAGED. As loads of tosh go, CAGED is far superior to WOMEN’S PRISON, it does not disappoint. If Fiona thought this was entertaining, she will be enthralled by the Cromwell film. And Jan Sterling is in both, playing two very different types of women. Trust me on this.

  2. Indeed it is. Caged is incredibly powerful — especially the ending where our heroine returns to a life of crime. But like all women’s prison dramas it’s great lesbian camp.

  3. Thanks Guy, and thanks for supplying me with both Women’s Prison and Caged. If I’d thought of it earlier, I might have devoted this whole week to prison-based noirs.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    At Warners in the late 30s, Seiler was the “go to” guy for reform school movies (DUST BE MY DESTINY, CRIME SCHOOL). His juvenile delinquents were no more convincing than his prison babes in WIP.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    When Harry Warner wanted to really terminate Kay Francis’s career (she was costing him a ton of money when she was “box office poison”), he sent Lew Seiler to kill her off (KING OF THE UNDERWORLD, 39).

  6. […] doesn’t like a good women in prison film? Not David Cairns. He’s looking at Women’s Prison today at Shadowplay, a follow-up from his post yesterday on Brute […]

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    Seiler seemed to have been an incarceration specialist: THE BAMBOO PRISON (54) sounds like the first ten minutes of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE made in a crummy B-movie parallel universe.

  8. His filmmaking seemed competent here, except for the shoddy montages which really weren’t up to the task. You wondered why you were looking at them, and then a line of dialogue in the next scene would explain it anyway.

    Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus made a juvie jail drama… I long to see it.

  9. Divine toured for a rahter considerable amount of time in Woemn Behind Bars</i — Tom Eyen's cheeky take on the sub-genre.

    And leave us not forget Joanthan Demme's Caged Heat with Russ Meyer star Erica Gavin as the lead good-bad girl, and Barbara Steele as the wheelchair-bound warden. All that plus a msuical score by John Cale.

  10. Caged Heat is pretty good for a 70s Corman production. It helps that Demme tends to really like his protagonists, as opposed to treating them as posable pin-ups, as tended to happen in many Corman shows.

  11. tinkyweisblat Says:

    The gals look rather well dressed for prisoners. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for this one!

  12. Perhaps the ur-text for all these is Madchen…

  13. Kind of off-toptc, but noir is in the air. Is this post Manson -ism?


  14. I believe R Kelly’s old residence is also having trouble finding buyers…

    Yes, Madchen in Uniform is probably key. Yet to see it, though, so I don’t know. On the other hand, I just saw Caged, which was a corker. Good old WB — no punches pulled, and social commentary fairly seemly blended with melodrama.

  15. Just thought of something- Eleanor Parker’s shaved head in CAGED and Natalie Portman’s head shaved in V FOR VENDETTA. Both incarcerated and violated by way of buzzcut. And then of course there’s Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS… what a jaw-dropping intro for a film that was. But then only one of the three had Hope Emerson hovering over the proceedings. She was just as menacing in the classic noirs as Raymond Burr was, hulking male, hulking female.

  16. Sounds like Paul Bartel narrating that CAGED HEAT trailer.

  17. Re Natalie Portman’s shaved head in V FOR VENDETTA – I thought the direct inspiration for that was Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

  18. I must join the praise for Cromwell’s CAGED, which really established the Women-in-Prison film as a genre (although far from the first). Cromwell dabbled with the subject before in ANN VICKERS, which features some wild images. There’s also SO YOUNG SO BAD, from 1950, the reformatory-school answer to CAGED, and almost as good. WOMEN’S PRISON has its moment, but proves a rather conservative collage of the genre’s stereotypes overall.

  19. I bet that is Bartel. And the trailer was probably cut by Joe Dante.

    Yes, Caged is indeed a storming piece of work, and if I have time I’ll celebrate it before the end of the week. Having also just re-watched Sweet Smell of Success, I had Hope Emerson down as a female Emile Meyer. I don’t know which of them should be more offended by that.

    While Caged follows similar beats to I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, I certainly wouldn’t hold that against it — some things are just THE RIGHT WAY TO GO. Actually showing the complete failure of “rehabilitation” with your main character is obviously the most powerful approach.

    I’ll keep an eye out for Ann Vickers, thanks!

    Portman’s shaved head originates in Moore & Lloyd’s comic book, which is noirish in look, but I’m not convinced either of them has seen Caged.

  20. david wingrove Says:

    My favourite gals-in-prison film is a Mexican flick from 1951 called CARCEL DE MUJERES. It stars Katy Jurado, Miroslava Steren and Sarita Montiel…and the lesbian subtexts are way more overt than in any of the Hollywood films.

  21. Was watching THE OUTFIT not long back, a great crime flick with an incredible cast from 1973, and lo and behold who should pop up but Emile Meyer. His character is selling guns out a a briefcase in the back seat of a car, to Robert Duvall and Joe Don Baker. As I’ve said before, some faces you just can’t forget. Admittedly he’s not as pretty as Burr, who admittedly is far prettier than Hope Emerson.

  22. David Wingrove, have you seen VICTIMAS DEL PECADO (Victims of Sin), from 1950? If not, I highly recommend it, not a wasted moment, an incredibly entertaining whirlwind of a film.

  23. Yes that triler was cut by Joe, and it’s Paul’s voiceover.

    Cromwell ended his career with acting roles for Altman in A Wedding and Three Woman

  24. david wingrove Says:

    Guy – I’ve never seen VICTIMAS DEL PECADO, although I’ve seen it for sale cheaply on Amazon. Doesn’t it star the wondrously over-the-top Ninon Sevilla, of AVENTURERA infamy?

    I do love my Mexican melodramas, so I’ll check that one out and see if I can track down a copy. Thanks a lot for the tip!

  25. With wonderful cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa (worked with Eisenstein early in his career, was the cameraman for Huston’s UNDER THE VOLCANO) and yes, Ninon Savilla is just that, wondrously over-the-top, a force of nature. Gritty, sensational, the music, the dancing, the clubs, it has a very noir look to it. Ninon rescues an abandoned infant from a trash can, and decides to take it in as her own. For this she loses her job as a dancer and becomes a prostitute. I’ve seen AVENTURERA, and I like it, but I favor this one.

  26. Cool. I need to experience this field of cinema, I’ve gathered a few Mexican dramas from the 40s and 50s, but I’ve only watched the Bunuels.

  27. david wingrove Says:

    Sorry to sound like a heretic, but Bunuel’s Mexican melodramas are a pale shadow of the real item. If you see a film by Roberto Gavaldon (LA OTRA) or Emilio Fernandez (LAS ABANDONADAS), it may strike you what a pallid and inexpressive director Bunuel actually was. Or maybe he was just too subtle and low-key for the genre he was forced to work in?

  28. El still strikes me as a superior melo, even without the quasi-surreal aspects, but Bunuel despised overt expressions of style for its own sake, and so the flamboyance of pure melodrama probably wasn’t his thing. I’ve basically only seen still images of Gavaldon and Fernandez’s work but it looks extremely alluring.

  29. david wingrove Says:

    In my humble but very strong opinion, anybody who “despised overt expressions of style for its own sake” has no business whatsoever directing a melodrama. But if you worked in Mexico in the 40s and 50s, I guess you didn’t have much choice!

  30. Los Olvidados opens with a shadowy image of a barn-like shack where the murder takes place at the end of the film. The structure is basically a manger. I always interpreted this as an iconoclastic rupture of the image of the Nativity.

    Intentional, or just kind of there? I don’t know

  31. Oh, Bunuel is a very Catholic atheist and any religious subtexts discernible are undoubtedly intentional, imho!

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