Wednesday, August 10, 2011

If You See Just One Production Code Era Women in Prison Movie, Make it John Cromwell's Caged w/ Sweet Meat Eleanor Parker

Back in 1950, the Hollywood production code was still in full force and would not even begin to crack and decay for another few years.  With this heavy censorship going on in the movie industry, a film about women in prison would not and could not be made in the same quite over-the-top manner as this sub-genre would and could be made in the hey day of Grindhouse cinema in the 1970's.  Now Quentin Tarantino's lustful cinematic desires aside (the audacious auteur counts women in prison movies as his favourite genre - for some rather obvious reasons) these more modern tales of feminine behind bars mayhem, replete with their hair-pulling, ass-smacking, bitch-slapping, fellatio-heavy ways, are pure unadulterated B-grade schlock and soft core (sometimes hard core) porn, made merely to get lonely guys off in the dark.

Now nothing against such self-realized, paradigm-switching cinematic endeavors (to each his own I suppose / they do have their purpose) but to this critic, perhaps sometimes less is more.   Of course with the production code, the "less" we see in the 1950 produced Caged is a forced necessity - but it works to instill not only a heightened sense of tension but also a heightened sexuality as well.  In these golden olden days of Hollywood, many a wily director knew how to subtly get around the censorship (which in turn would help lead to the erosion and eventual breakdown of said system throughout the next two decades) but even they could only go so far in 1950 America.  Nowhere could director John Cromwell nor screenwriter Virginia Kellogg show the actual events that were obviously going on behind what we did see on the screen, but it was this forced censorship of sexuality that makes the film so much sexier (albeit in a most disturbing manner) than if the same film were made in this day and age where nothing whatsoever is left to the oh so hungry imagination.

I suppose we should talk somewhat about the actual story of Caged so you the reader can see just what is shown and what is not.  Based on a short story entitled "Women Without Men" by Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld and released by Warner Brothers (the more daring studio if one were to make comparisons) in 1950, Caged is the story of a nineteen year old newlywed who is sentenced to 1 to 15 years in prison for her part as a naive accomplice in the armed robbery that her husband was killed during.  The timid and scared Marie Allen, played by pretty Eleanor Parker (more of which shall be said of her later in this article), is thrust into a world of hardened cut throat criminals and demanding monstrous prison matrons - her world and her youth unraveling around her.  Marie learns fast and quick that she must adapt in order to survive - even if that means doing things she would have never even imagined doing in the outside world.

Falling in with some surprisingly friendly fellow inmates, including a stupid but good-hearted prostitute named Sweetie and a tough-as-nails con named Kitty, Marie learns to adapt, but even in this she still brushes off Kitty's offer to pull some strings to get her out early in exchange for becoming a thief in the gang she has on the outside.  Now there is really no denying that Kitty is a lesbian and wants a lot more from the young nubile and quite naive Marie than just a con job on the outside, but never is this mentioned due to the production code.  Alluded to yes (you would have to be even more naive than Marie to not pick up on this) but never actually shown or spoken of.  Much the same relationship can be construed in that between Marie and Evelyn Harper, the prison matron (played with a beastly bravura by 6' 2" Hope Emerson who incidentally was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role) that takes every opportunity to inflict harm on her girls - except for those that bribe her of course, which again, these means of bribes are only alluded to, even tossed off as gift-giving.

As her time drags on in prison, Marie becomes more and more hardened.  Giving birth in prison and having the baby taken away by the state, her head shaved and shut up in solitary for three days, having her parole denied due to her inability to procure a home on the outside (her mother's new husband refuses to have her in his home) - all these things add up to Marie losing her innocence and becoming just as jaded and hardened as the women who are doing their third or fourth or fifth stretch.  By the end, as Marie must decide if she wants to give in to another inmate (the new queen cock of the walk so to speak) in order to have strings pulled and get released into a new life of crime - a life she promised herself and the warden she would do anything to stop from happening.  Of course in the film, Marie need only accept a gift of jewelry from this inmate in order to show her allegiance but of course we know that this pretty young thing would have to do much more than that to win her freedom.  Will she or won't she (I won't give away the ending here) is the question that permeates the final act of the film.

Now as for the cast, it is highlighted by that oh so sweet piece of meat jokingly mentioned in the title, Eleanor Parker.  Parker may not be the great beauty that some of her contemporary fellow actresses were nor is she the lustful vamp shaking her hips for her supper, but she, much like compatriot Susan Hayward, is that wonderful combination of cute meets sexy.  An innocence that could also play as sultry if she so wished it, yet still able to keep the needed vulnerability (the emotion that truly makes the portrayal work as well as it does) even in those moments where Marie seems to take charge of her situation, worked wonders in a role such as Marie Allen.  Looked upon as that proverbial sweet meat by the older, cagier inmates, Parker's Marie was like a pretty little lamb ready for the slaughter - and the actress plays it beautifully.  Garnering the first of her three Best Actress Oscar nominations for this role (Parker is probably most well known for her role as Baroness Elsa Schraeder, the second female lead in the 1965 Oscar-winning smash hit The Sound of Music) Parker had a flair for the dramatic, and she more than proves it here.  Lurid or only alluded to, Caged is quite the amazing film - and it is sweet meat Parker's naive allure that makes both her fellow inmates and this critic swoon with a fully rested imagination to go with.

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