|Formidable Hope Emerson towers over the tough Betty Garde|
'If it weren't for men, we wouldn't be in here."
"If you stay in here too long, you don't think of guys at all -- you just get out of the habit."
A 19-year-old named Marie (Eleanor Parker), who may or may not have participated in an armed robbery with her now-dead husband, is sent up the river for one to fifteen. While having her baby, Marie is introduced to a motley crew of pretty tough career criminals of the female gender: Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who wants to get Marie into the rackets; Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), the super-hard queen of vice; June (Olive Deering), who is desperate to get paroled; Georgia (Gertrude Michael), who thinks she comes from society and is losing her mind; elderly Millie (Gertrude Hoffman) a lifer who'll think nothing of taking out a hated matron if she has to; spacey Emma (Ellen Corby) who finally murdered her husband after four previous attempts; and others. Speaking of matrons, we have the relatively kindly head of the isolation ward, played by Jane Darwell, and the fat, sadistic and highly formidable Harper, played by Hope Emerson. Harper and Kitty are, in particular, major antagonists and sooner or later something will blow ... Caged has been dismissed in some quarters as camp (sometimes because of the not very subtle lesbian inferences), which is completely unfair, as the movie is a powerful, completely absorbing drama with excellent performances and one compelling scene after another: a disappointed inmates' suicide; the jailhouse riot over a kitten; the physical and psychological battles between Harper and Stark; and the compassionate warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), having to deal with the infuriatingly disinterested and misogynous parole board and other dumb-headed politicians. Caged doesn't say that most of these women don't belong where they are, only that their imprisonment is punishment enough and abusive behavior among the matrons should be prohibited. Parker, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and should have won, is superb, as are Hope Emerson (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Kitty Garde; and there is notable work from Moorehead and hard-boiled Patrick, as well as Taylor Holmes as clueless Senator Donnelly. John Cromwell's direction helps give the film a major dramatic punch after 66 years, and Max Steiner's score is subdued but effective. Caged engendered several inferior imitations -- Women's Prison, Blonde Bait, House of Women, a nominal remake with absurd situations not in the original, Betrayed Women -- and practically created a new sub-genre still going today. However realistic Caged may or may not be regarding conditions in women's prisons then or now, the story still packs a wallop.
Verdict: Perhaps Parker's finest hour -- as well as Emerson's and Garde's. ****.