Archive for Caged

C is for Carcel de Mujeres

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by dcairns

Once more, special guest Shadowplayer David Melville takes us down Mexico way ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

 C is for Carcel de mujeres (Women’s Prison)

 “She has no idea what’s in store for her,” sneers a young and very sexy Sarita Montiel – as two butch uniformed guards lead an angelic blonde beauty (Miroslava Stern) into the riotous main hall of the Mexico City Penitentiary for Women. In fact, we in the audience can hazard a guess. Just a few shots away, the movie’s most ostentatious lesbian (Katy Jurado) is languidly stroking the hair of a cute blonde companion.

Prison melodramas were all the rage in Hollywood in the late 40s. Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947) put Burt Lancaster at the mercy of sadistic closet case Hume Cronyn. Caged (John Cromwell, 1950) had Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead under the guard of terrifying Hope Emerson, and is still cherished as a minor camp classic. Yet for me the ne plus ultra of the genre is Carcel de mujeres (whose title translates bluntly as Women’s Prison) directed by one Miguel Delgado in 1951. This Mexican variant is like the Hollywood movies, only much more so…and that, in the realm of melodrama, can only be a Good Thing.

The first thing we see is a glamorously garbed woman – her face cast in shadow, the moonlight aglow on her slinky white fur. Her arm, clanking with jewels, reaches out and fires a round of bullets into her sleazy, no-good boyfriend (Tito Junco). The police arrest two suspects: Sarita, a brassy nightclub chanteuse, his mistress and partner in his shady deals, and Miroslava, a respectable doctor’s wife, who had a brief fling with him before her marriage. She’s still wearing her immaculate high-fashion gown when the guards lead her into the clink. The other ladies gang up and tear the fancy duds off her back.

This being Mexico in the 1950s, the script (with dialogue by Max Aub) is not exactly on the cutting edge of Political Correctness. When poor Miroslava gets arrested, her stuffy dolt of a husband is less concerned that his wife is going to prison, than worried that she might not have been a virgin on their bridal night. (“My dear, do you have anything to reproach yourself for?”) When he comes to visit her in stir, she gazes at him tearfully and wails: “My love, how you have suffered for my sake!”

When hubby is big-hearted enough to suggest that she might be suffering too, she replies with a line that sums up the whole ethos of melodrama, Mexican or otherwise: “No suffering is too great, if it makes our love grow stronger!” The brilliance of the genre lies in convincing an audience of hardened cynics that yes, people actually do talk this way – and, what’s more, the sadomasochistic wallowing they express is not only natural but admirable. Watch enough movies of this sort, and you may start to talk like this too.

Once Miroslava is behind bars, a spiteful Sarita sets out to make her life a living hell – even throwing a bowl of hot soup into her face! This is the cue for a spectacular cat-fight, which all their fellow inmates join in. An orgy of bitch-slapping and hair-pulling erupts in the dining hall, so the (male) guards have to step in and hose down the ladies with water cannons. Both women must also contend with a slinky, sinister warden (Maria Douglas) who’s a cross between Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Any pretty young thing who doesn’t do her bidding is liable to wind up in solitary confinement. (“One meal a week and six days on bread and water is the best way to keep your figure, don’t you think?”)

At last, the two rivals bury the hatchet when Sarita gives birth, behind bars, to Junco’s baby and Miroslava saves it from an elderly psycho who wants to “teach the little angel how to fly”. There’s still time, of course, for a climactic riot and mass break-out…and we even get to find out who committed the crime! Nobody would ever mistake Carcel de mujeres for a work of art, but it sure packs a lot into 85 minutes.

Off screen, life did not run quite so smoothly. The beauteous Miroslava committed suicide at a young age – but not before appearing in one of Luis Buñuel’s best films, Ensayo de un crimen/The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Sarita (or Sara, as she is now known) thrives to this day in her native Spain. Returning home from her sojourn in Mexico and Hollywood, she reigned as queen of the kitsch musical melodramas known as españoladas. (The most unmissable are La Violetera (1958), La bella Lola (1962) and Variétés (1971)). An icon to three generations of drag queens, she also inspired the Pedro Almodóvar film Bad Education (2004). 

David Melville

Emersonian

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 16, 2011 by dcairns

More Limerwreckage drifts your way –

(1) about Hope Emerson’s nasty turn in CAGED.

(2) another ode to Ygor, as played by Bela Lugosi in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN etc

A friend reports via Facebook that her eight-year-old son just asked her “Did Einstein really kill people?” Turns out he meant Frankenstein.

Hope in Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2011 by dcairns

There’s so much to enjoy in CAGED — thanks for recommending it, everyone. Trashing the later, inferior WOMEN’S PRISON with its very first line (“Pile out, tramps: end of the line!”) the movie benefits from the application of Warner Bros grit and gristle, making it an effective female counterpart to I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Wisely, it dials down the brutality a little, but stresses psychological cruelty, corruption, and lack of empathy as being just as destructive as physical violence.

Hope looms over the excellent Betty Garde.

Agnes Moorehead plays the sympathetic governor, Eleanor Parker is the unworldly new girl, and a dorm-full of supporting players add physiognomic and dramaturgical variety (but no colour: while WOMEN’S PRISON kept its black cons in a separate cell, this stripy hole has apparently segregated them elsewhere entirely). But the movie’s secret weapon is twisted screw Hope Emerson. Coming on like a cross between a John Waters grotesque and Emile Myer in drag, she’s brutal, vicious, stupid and crooked in fifty diverting ways. It’s interesting to see a villain who isn’t very bright but is still horribly dangerous, just because of the barbaric situation and near-unlimited power she wields.

Kudos to Warners, and screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, whose other major credits are T-MEN and WHITE HEAT, showing her to be no slacker when it comes to the darker side of the screen. While on those movies she generated the original ideas and research but did little of the final drafting, she developed CAGED from scratch for ace producer Jerry Wald and wrote most of the script, with some assistance from Bernard C, Schoenfeld. According to Lizzie Francke’s book Script Girls, Women Screenwriters in Hollywood, Kellogg visited numerous prisons and even arranged a two week stay in one.

“Out of my prison observations, the most frightening thing of all was the realisation that the conditions that I saw exist even in our most enlightened states, and that few Americans have any idea of what is going on in their own back yards. Club women often visit the women’s penitentiaries in their states (on carefully guided tours). Invariably they come away impressed with the clean, modern buildings and the superintendents, most of whom are the capable officials recommended by penal-reform organisations. But the club women cannot see the rot inside the buildings.”

Despite these words, Kellogg’s script, as realised by John Cromwell, an able stylist able to fully channel the Warners look (noirish, darkly glossy yet “real”), is unsparing when it comes to the institutionalized emotional brutality and the way the effect of a prison sentence is to concentrate criminals together so that they become more corrupted than they were when they went in. There’s no human sympathy on display whatsoever until we meet Moorehead, and perversely, despite being the boss, she’s almost the least powerful figure in the film, sandwiched as she is between the politicians above and the staff below, neither of whom give her any respect or listen to her ideas.

Also, bracingly, the movie lays much of the blame at the door of men — the cons are in stir because of the men in their life, and the prison is a hell-hole because of the men who run it. A concerned doctor is the single male voice of reason, and the film sensible shoves him out the door as quickly as it can (unlike in WOMEN’S PRISON where Howard Duff hangs about preaching in his deep manly voice until you want to shiv him). Hope Emerson provides a note of variety since there’s no hint that any mere man has made her into such a spectacularly rotten a human being.

A round of applause too, to Max Steiner, for achieving some unusually subtle effects (he’s normally Mr Bombast, and we love him for it, but sometimes you have to put the big guns away). Cromwell’s use of sound and silence is exemplary too, with the myriad creakings and clankings of metallic bedframes making the dorm at night sound like a typing pool until the inmates settle. And a major character’s final choice to accept a life of crime rather than to play ball with a crooked system is played out, remarkably, under the distant echoing sound of a hymn being sung. Chills.

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