Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Crop of Uninhibited Talent Has a Field Day in Caged

           The grandmother of all subsequent women prison dramas, 1950’s Caged fittingly was produced at Warner Brothers, as the tough, uncompromising nature found in the studio’s bread-and-butter genre, the gangster film is evident throughout this prime example from its sister genre. Director John Cromwell, screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (who knows exactly how to compose all those shadowy prison bars) and a truly incredible cast proudly maintain a rich melodrama flair throughout, which somehow proves more powerful and unforgettable than a realistic depiction of the events might have- every one of the movie’s many conflicts are delineated with a vividness that makes it difficult to pick out one most memorable moment, as nearly every scene features a dramatic highlight that would serve as the sole, buzzy “remember that scene?” topper for many other classic movies. However, the film does attempt to make viewers aware of the serious problems and injustices found in the prison system at the time in an intelligent, straightforward manner which, along with the film’s more sensational aspects, helps the sharp Caged remain relevant and riveting viewing.

Cromwell proves masterful at guiding his strong ensemble; the veteran director instinctively seems to know when to offer a trenchant close-up showcasing a great moment, or when to emphasize a more subtle approach in order to feature each player at her thespian best. Cromwell also does a great job setting up exciting showcase scenes such as the “girls gone wild” cell block riot. Kellogg makes an equally valuable contribution with a smart screenplay featuring solid, entertainingly florid dialogue (“Kindly omit flowers” is one of many killer lines) and scenes illustrating Kellogg’s substantial gift for creating arresting plot points which grant the players a treasure trove of unforgettable moments to play, which they do with sublime verve (each cast member deserve a pardon for knocking her role out of the cell).

Eleanor Parker had slowly worked her way up the ranks at Warners during the previous decade but, despite several prime assignments, including a very interesting, underrated take on Mildred in the 1946 version of Of Human Bondage, by 1950 she was still waiting for the major career breakthrough Caged would afford her. Parker took a risk accepting the role of Marie Allen, as there was an unknown variable concerning how much critics and the public would rate and embrace the heretofore uncharted subject matter, but she must have recognized one of the richest character arcs available to an actress when she perused the script, and Parker admirably ran with it, resulting in a Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival and a well-deserved Oscar nomination in a legendarily competitive year. Parker masterfully employs a quavering voice and nervous, wide-eyed quality at the outset, as the naïve 19-year-old Marie finds herself put away after serving as an accessory to her husband’s robbery, then shifts gears as the policies and politics of the system wear Marie down and she becomes more immoveable. But before that, Parker handles Marie’s riveting emotional outbursts in astounding fashion (just as she would ace her highly dramatic role, and gain another Oscar nod, in the following year’s Detective Story) and due to Parker’s committed, convincing playing, the audience is pulling for Marie to come up aces throughout the film.

As Evelyn Harper, the calm-yet-caustic prison matron, the imposing Hope Emerson has a rare talent of making every line sound like a sneer, and she’s pretty magnificent at portraying each of her character’s vicious actions with a disturbingly sedate vindictiveness. Evelyn could serve as a blueprint for all the subsequent depictions of cold nasty pieces of work overseeing inmates (paging Nurse Ratched), but Emerson adds great originally to her meaty role by often playing the character with a cool detachment, signifying Harper is completely confident of how much power she wields, and of the ignoble, unorthodox methods she can employ to keep these gals in line. Emerson’s deliberately casual playing of such a rotten tomato actually makes her even creepier and more formidable than a more aggressive approach, as Harper appears to be able to effortlessly work the system to her advantage while wreaking havoc on her supervised environment and the prison system in general, without being hindered by attributes such as scruples or feelings of guilt regarding her tyrannical actions.

In most films these two performances would dominant the other players, but Caged proves to be an all-timer in regards to perfect casting. One tagline on the film’s poster (also found in the movie’s trailer) mentions “a brilliant cast you’ll long remember,” and in this case the hype is apt. Over seventy years on, it’s amazing to watch so many performers make such a strong impression- the film is a feast for high-powered emoting, offering a wealth of colorful, multi-faceted roles, and the cast rises to the occasion in each instance. In some cases, such as Gertrude Michaels (the likable waitress Joan Crawford befriends in the previous year’s Flamingo Road) as a well-to-do inmate who goes stir-crazy in one of the most vivid early scenes, or Lee Patrick as Elvira, the powerful vice queen who takes a very clear shine to Mary (Elvira is one of the more forthright portrayals of a lesbian found in an American film up to that time), their perceptive work in against-type casting is so different than their other lighter roles one may feel compelled to double-check the cast list to confirm their involvement in Caged.

Agnes Moorehead gives one her most controlled and intelligent performances as Ruth Benton, the prison superintendent working hard to make a better life for the inmates. Moorehead does a great job at illustrating the strength of character that drives Ruth to take on the bureaucratic red tape (and the men behind it) hindering progress, or to challenge Evelyn’s nefarious agendas as Ruth tries hard to give a well-earned sack to Harper, but she also suggests the resignation and compromise involved in such a demanding job. Ruth has to pick her battles, and although she demonstrates a caring nature towards the inmates, Moorehead makes it clear Ruth understands there’s not room for a sentimental demeanor in her position- she has to stay as tough as her foes to have any hope of achieving positive change for the prison.   

Jan Sterling offers some welcome lighter moments as Smoochie, the easy-going, wisecracking prostitute who relates her letters home from mother, and the audience eagerly looks forward to each of her “I got news for ya” utterings as Smoochie comments on the action and her fellow inmates various personalities. As the sad-but-hopeful June, Olive Deering, with her low voice and melancholy eyes, conveys a haunting presence that is hard to shake off, even years after viewing (when I watch The Ten Commandments, as soon as Deering appears, thoughts of June in Caged spring to mind). Gertrude Hoffman as the oldest and sagest inmate has a very satisfying moment challenging the bullying Harper (you believe this “lifer” is up to the task of cutting the evil matron down to size, thanks to Hoffman’s sedate-yet-ominous tone that proves an ideal match to Harper’s calm malevolence) and, in a larger role as the awesomely-named Kitty Stark, a leader among the inmates, Betty Garde has an equally memorable confrontation with the tormenting Harper that makes one want to cheer (I would love to catch a showing of Caged with a packed house of appreciative fans). Smaller roles are filled by the likes of no less than Ellen Corby and Jane Darwell, indicating just how rich the field of players was for this once-in-a-lifetime cast.

Many women-in-prison-peril movies have followed, but rarely in this distinct film genre (or any other) has a cast made an impact with the potency the talented roster of players in Caged manages. Drawing an audience in from the first scene as the innocent Marie is indoctrinated into her brutal new world, Caged never lets down during its mesmerizing 96 minutes, thanks to the resolute efforts of Cromwell, Kellogg and an astonishing cast clearly intent on revealing every facet driving their characters’ actions, leading a to a wealth of grim but extremely compelling scenes. Other films of its era may be regarded in a more respectable light as a venerated classic movie, but few have dated less or offer such a richly rewarding viewing experience as the down-and-dirty, take-no-prisoners Caged.


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