After watching season one of Netflix’s popular series Orange is the New Black, I was excited when the opportunity arose to review 1950’s Caged, a similar story of a naive young woman who is imprisoned after collaborating in a crime. Certainly there are many parallels between the two stories. Each was written by a woman who had actually served time in a women’s prison and deal with issues such as inmate suicide, sadistic guards, and power struggles among inmates. Indeed, the two films share many themes, although due to Code restrictions at the time of its production, Caged is lacking in profane language and lesbian sex scenes, although such relationships are implied. One major difference is that Orange is the New Black has a good deal of humor, whereas Caged is about as dark and depressing as they come.
Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is a young woman who is pregnant at the time she is incarcerated. Because she was in the car at the time that her husband committed a robbery, she was charged as an accomplice. Some of the women are kind to her and attempt to help her survive in the prison. When the leader of the group, Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), takes Marie under her wing, she attempts to recruit her to theft once she is paroled. At first, Marie declines, determined that she will get parole with good behavior and wants to do what’s best for her new baby. But when her baby is given up for adoption and she is declined for parole by an apathetic board, she begins to unravel. To Marie, it seems that the fastest way out of her current hell is to go to the dark side and agree to become a thief for a department store ring upon her departure from prison.
The women have a common enemy in the cruel matron, Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson). The matron does her best to make life hell for the inmates. She ignores instructions to give the pregnant Marie light laundry detail, and instead forces her to scrub floors. She taunts the women with her freedom and makes a point to show off her new dress as she prepares for a date: “He’s taking me to a show… After the show, he’s taking me to his place. He’s got a room up over the bar where he works. Real comfortable, if you know what I mean…” Just like cruel Officer Mendez in Orange is the New Black, Harper seems to enjoy the pain and suffering she inflicts upon the inmates. Harper even goes so far as to hold down Marie and shave her head.
Marie is a broken shell of a cold-hearted woman when she finally gets her parole. When the kind Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) counsels Marie before her release, Marie tells her that from now on, she’s only looking out for herself. Even her voice has become gruff, her face hard and unflinching when she prepares to exit the prison. It’s a sharp contrast from her naive and innocent arrest picture. Instead of reforming the inmates and forcing them to better themselves, it seems that prison either causes them to commit suicide to escape it, or to turn into a hardened criminal.
Eleanor Parker, known as “The Woman of a Thousand Faces,” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Marie Allen in Caged. It was a nomination that she certainly earned with her versatility and range of character, transforming from the wide-eyed young woman who was first incarcerated, to a brusque, hardened criminal. Parker turned down two separate screen test offers in her youth as she was studying to become an actress. This makes it seem as though she wanted to be the best actress that she could possibly be, and after watching this film, it’s clear she succeeded.
Although this film was fairly depressing, it was successful in highlighting the problematic nature of the prison system in its time. The prison genre was quite popular during the time that Caged was released, and such films served as a medium to spark prison reform. If prison is meant to serve as a reform system to better its inmates, it’s evident through this film that it was a failing one.
This film, which epitomizes the noir genre in many ways, fits perfectly with our Maudlin Mondays. If you don’t shed at least a few tears, we’re worried about you.
Caged scores three tears on the Maudlin Meter.
Caged is now available from Warner Archive through their MOD (manufactured-on-demand) service. The DVD contains a scene selection feature, making it easy to navigate the film, but otherwise lacks any additional special features.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of Caged for the purposes of this review.