Friday, March 19, 2010

If you enjoyed The Snake Pit

A month ago I recommended The Snake Pit, about women locked up in the state mental hospital. If you want to see another good women-locked-up movie, this time about women who have actually committed crime, stay tuned for Caged, airing overnight at 3:30 AM ET on TCM.

Eleanor Parker stars as Marie, a young woman who's entering prison. She's a widow, to boot, having been pushed into crime by her husband, who was killed in the hold-up for which she's now in prison as an accomplice. Not only that, but in the brief time they were married, he managed to knock her up! Prison isn't an easy place, especially for a pregnant woman, and this prison is no different. The other women, who have experience with prison, have already become hard-boiled. Warden Agnes Moorhead tries, but as always seems to be the case in prison movies, the warden doesn't have the resources. And then there's the matron, played by Hope Emerson. She's one of the more chilling female characters you'll ever see on screen. (But more on that later.)

It goes without saying that Marie gets worn down, just as all the other women do. One of her cellmates commits suicide; she gives birth to the baby but loses it to adoption when nobody in her family wants to take custody; she gets a kitten smuggled in, but it gets killed in a prison riot; and she gets her head shaved as a result of that riot. Eventually, Marie does get parole, but even that doesn't seem so positive, as warden Moorhead doesn't have much hope for her.

The other prisoners are well played by Ellen Corby as a murderess; Jan Sterling as a prostitute; Betty Garde as the alpha female; and Lee Patrick as a society woman who got on the wrong side of the law. But the best of the supporting cast is undoubtedly Emerson. Her matron is so nasty and frightening that you'll probably be cheering when she gets her comeuppance. I believe the last time TCM showed Caged was back in June 2007 during the Screened Out festival on Hollywood's portrayal of homosexuality: this being a women-in-prison movie, there is a lot of lesbian overtones going around. Presenter Richard gave a story about Emerson that's probably apocryphal, but interesting nonetheless. At the premiere of Caged, the audience cheered when Emerson's matron bought it, and after the movie, they jeered her when she was walking out of the theater. This wouldn't be so bad, except the legend has it that Emerson was pushing her wheelchair-bound mother down the red carpet. (Sounds like a great story, but I'm not so sure it's true.)

Caged had the bad luck of being released in 1950. Parker and Emerson both give excellent performances, and each was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. Unfortunately, they were both up against a bunch of other outstanding performances that year. Parker had to contend with both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve; Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.; and the eventual winner, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Emerson, on the other hand, was also up against All About Eve (in the form of Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter) and Sunset Blvd. (Nancy Olson); these all lost to Josephine Hull in Harvey.

It's a bit of a surprise that Caged is being put in the TCM Underground slot since it's such a good movie. Still, you don't have to wait for the middle of the night to watch it, as it's been released to DVD.

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