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Friday, March 26, 2010

Women Behind Bars

This week on TCM I saw the 1950 Warner Brothers film Caged, starring Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead, and it put me in the mood to reflect on other Women in Prison (or WIP, as they're commonly referred to) epics. Although there were other WIPs made before it, Caged was the first to take place entirely inside such an institution, and it really established the template for those that came after. I'll break the template down for you according to character:

1. The new fish. A young, innocent girl who has inadvertently been caught up in a criminal act and is terrified to be locked up. She learns about life the hard way and is usually released to begin a career in crime of her own by the end of the film.

2. The "boss" of the cellblock. A professional, hardened criminal who is serving serious time and controls the rest of the women in her block. Variations include sapphic lusting for the new fish, corrupt financial dealings with the warden and guards and a last-minute heart of gold. She always has toadies hanging around to do her dirty work.

3. The warden. Either male or female, the warden can be either a corrupt sadist who uses the inmates for sexual and financial reward or an earnest individual struggling against the system to improve conditions. Sometimes gets killed, sometimes ends up behind bars, too.

4. The head matron. Usually corrupt and in cahoots with the cellblock boss. Enjoys psychologically traumatizing the inmates and delivering severe physical punishment when the need arises. Doesn't often get sexually involved, but is typically depicted as a mannish lesbian.

5. The older-but-wiser inmate. She's spent much of her life behind bars. With jaded eyes, she sees the high-pitched dramatics of the other characters as ridiculous, but she has valuable life experience to pass on to the new fish.

6. The delicate flower. Like the new fish, she hasn't been incarcerated for a very long time, but she is unable to handle the rigors of prison life. Trembling and in constant fear, she is easily pushed over the edge, resulting in her suicide or the killing of someone else (often the head matron).

In Caged, Eleanor Parker is the new fish, Agnes Moorehead is the kindly warden and Hope Emerson plays the head matron. Parker and Moorehead are very good, but it's the astonishing 6'2" Emerson who really steals the show whenever she roars onscreen. It's a good film, too, addressing some then-taboo topics, including corruption in the prison system and some brief but delicately-handled same-sex lusting. Parker is an unwed mother (well, technically a widowed mother), and the word "pregnant" is used and—gasp!—you can actually see that she's with child! It did well at the boxoffice, even garnering several Academy Award nominations, assuring the genre would continue.

1955 brought Women's Prison with then-husband-and-wife Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, respectively, as the kindly prison doctor and the sadistic warden who loves to psychologically torture the inmates by wearing feminine clothes and makeup denied to them. A great cast of B-movie vixens, along with Lupino's unabashed hamminess, make it a lot of fun. 1958's I Want To Live! is technically not a pure WIP, as it is based on a true case and doesn't completely take place behind bars, but it is notable for Susan Hayward's Oscar-winning performance as real-life convicted murderess Barbara Graham, sentenced to death in San Quentin's gas chamber. Later in the decade, the drive-in craze spurred by the influential teen population moved the action from prisons to reform schools so that younger, more buxom stars like Mamie Van Doren (Girls Town) could take the leading roles. Nowhere near as hard-hitting as the earlier films, these movies often featured rock 'n' roll numbers by popular acts of the day and just the right amount of teenage titillation.

By the time the more liberated '60s rolled around, sex and sadism became the two major plot points in WIP, initiated by prolific Spanish director Jesse Franco's 1969 99 Women. Pornography was still illegal in the United States at the time, so men anxious to see female flesh both bare and bloody (the "raincoat crowd") would queue up wherever these films were shown. This particularly nasty offshoot of the genre continued for decades, upping the ante as censorship slackened until they became full-on porno with scenes of cruelty and torture thrown in for good measure. An extreme example of this is the notorious Dyanne Thorne Ilsa series.

In the '70s, American producer Roger Corman decided to play catch-up, bringing films like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House (both starring Foxy Brown's Pam Grier) to American drive-ins. They delivered the requisite nudity and violence, but not as extreme as their European counterparts. They also had a sense of humor. Cage, for example, has an amusing twist—all of the male guards are gay to prevent them from being "interested" in the nubile inmates! Most importantly, Jonathan Demme made his directorial debut with Caged Heat (1974), featuring the incredible Barbara Steele as a sexually frustrated, wheelchair-bound warden and Erika Gavin, from Russ Meyers' Vixen and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, as an inmate.

On stage, John Waters' muse Divine played the matron in the WIP parody Women Behind Bars, which was frequently revived over the next couple of decades.

The 1970s also brought WIP to the small screen. Ida Lupino returned to play another sadistic warden in 1972's Women in Chains, also starring Stella Stevens and Lois Nettleton. Most notorious was the 1974 Linda Blair telefilm Born Innocent, in which she plays a runaway teen whose uncaring parents have her locked up. A scene depicting a shower room rape with a broomstick allegedly prompted a similar real-life assault and so outraged the viewing public that the concept of "family hour" was born. The Partridge Family's own Susan Dey played the new fish in Cage Without a Key in 1975, during a period in which teen idols took on "adult" dramatic roles in TV movies to demonstrate their range. It's amusing to see Laurie Partridge facing the rigors of incarceration. And what a performance—in one scene, she's supposed to be losing control, spinning around to beat her fists against the wall, but you can clearly see she isn't even touching it.

Blair was locked up again in one of the genre's highlights, Chained Heat (1983). Once more playing the new fish, she has a rather embarrassing shower scene and veteran villain John Vernon plays the warden who videotapes his sexual exploits—ugh—with the inmates. Stella Stevens is the butch matron, and Sybil Danning is the cellblock boss. It's wall-to-wall sleaze, and it's a hoot. It's the only WIP I saw in an actual theater. Danning was promoted to warden in the 1986 WIP spoof Reform School Girls, but unfortunately it's never as funny as it thinks it is, despite the presence of The Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams and Warhol stalwart Pat Ast. It was probably the last WIP to receive a legitimate theatrical release.



Chained Heat Trailer - MyVideo

On stage, Women Behind Bars was revived with Adrienne Barbeau as the warden.

The '90s were a dire time for WIP, with nudity-laden, low-budget sequels being churned out for the increasingy uninterested home video marketplace. A sequel-in-name-only, Caged Heat 3000, was made by Corman's Concorde Pictures in 1995, and it represents the absolute nadir in my opinion. Allegedly set on an asteroid in space, its chintzy sets barely suggest anything other than someone's basement. The silicone budget was much higher than the production costs, if you know what I mean. With endless shower scenes and sexual interludes, it's as explicit as a Hustler spread, but it's not erotic, it's not funny—it's just awful. Recently WIP spoofs have come back to the marketplace. Cult star Mary Woronov played the warden in 2003's Prison A-Go-Go, and most recently, Stuck!, with Karen Black and Mink Stole, has been making the festival rounds. Filmed in black and white, it's a throwback to the beginning of the genre.

So, in a way, the circle is complete.

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