Thursday, March 21, 2019

Night Gallery: A Look at "Eyes," Spielberg’s Debut & Crawford’s Hurrah 1969

“My abiding concern, my singular preoccupation, is myself.”

Universal’s boy wonder Steven Spielberg went from directing Joan Crawford to Jaws in just five years! Spielberg made his professional debut at 22, guiding living legend Crawford through one of her last roles, in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Steven was signed by Universal big wheel Sid Sheinberg in 1968, whereas chorus girl Joan hoofed it to Hollywood in 1925, for a six month contract with MGM that became 18 years.
Spielberg and Crawford on the 'Night Gallery' set. Though Joan had initial strong reservations
about the new director, they worked well together and she became his champion. 

According to Night Gallery co-star Tom Bosley, Bette Davis and Martin Balsam were first asked to play the dowager and the doctor. Davis turned the part down, and Balsam dropped out. Though Rod Serling first wrote “Eyes” as a story, the script insinuatingly aligns with the latter day Joan Crawford image: the imperious dragon lady, alone in a New York City penthouse and imposing her will on hired help. Joan’s introduction is certainly fit for a star, when you hear her commanding voice first, and then see her from behind, in a chair. With a flip of a switch, Crawford’s chair swivels around, much like Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil!
Joan certainly tweaked her own most important character point, by first grandly announcing her age: “…in the 54 year history of my sojourn on earth…” This was aired in 1969, which would make Crawford anywhere from 61 to 65, depending on who you believe.
Joan Crawford leads with her chin up as the domineering Miss Menlo.

Rod Sterling’s introduction to the “Eyes” segment, standing next to a sinister portrait of Joan, neatly sums up her character: “Objet d'art number two, a portrait. Its subject, Miss Claudia Menlo, a blind queen who reigns in a carpeted penthouse on Fifth Avenue. An imperious, predatory dowager who will soon find a darkness blacker than blindness. This is her story.”
'Night Gallery' creator Rod Serling wrote the script for 'Eyes' from one of his short stories.

Artist Jaraslav “Jerry” Gebr created the paintings for the Night Gallery pilot. I’m surprised that they just didn’t use Crawford’s infamous Keane painting—it’s nearly as creepy. The fictional artist who paints Miss Menlo’s portrait berates her as “a tiny, fragile little monster.” This reminds me of the tribute quote by Spielberg upon Joan’s death, how surprised he was that Crawford was just 5’3”, but looked six feet tall onscreen.
“The used lightbulbs of Miss Menlo’s life—when they cease lighting her way – out they go.”

*Spoiler alerts ahead*
The plot is about a blind, heartless rich bitch, who wants to buy the eye sight of a dim bulb, for a controversial surgery that might restore her sight for mere hours. Naturally, things don’t go as planned, which leads to a climactic aria of Joan Crawford crashing into the scenery, not to mention chewing it up like a rare steak dinner. The biggest beef internet naysayers have is why does Joan’s Miss Menlo go under surgery so that it she regains sight during the night? Barry Sullivan’s doctor explains post-surgery that the woman, blind from birth, must gradually adjust her eyes to the light. So, night time is the right time.
Barry Sullivan as the increasingly depressed Doctor Heatherton to rich bitch Joan Crawford's Miss Menlo.

The other big bitch is that when the NYC blackout occurs, Miss Menlo’s penthouse goes pitch black. In a huge city, there would be other sources of light. To me, this is nit-picking, since the big finale is stylized with just Joan, framed against the darkness, and it’s extremely effective.
My head scratchers are why does the gambler sell his sight for only the amount he needs to pay off his loan shark? What’s he supposed to live on afterward? This is to show how self-centered Miss Menlo is about everything, but still. The other puzzler is that this control freak is determined to have this operation, even though it’s only been performed on a chimp and a dog—and she’s all hey, sign me up! But this is Night Gallery, folks. From the mind of Rod Serling, who loved to tell starkly stylized stories to make a greater point about mankind’s foibles—or in this case, those of an unkind woman.
“My eyes will take pictures,” says Miss Menlo, grandly efficient as Joan Crawford herself.
 “Pictures of everything to be filed for future reference. A rather long future reference."

Serling’s stylized writing, newbie director Spielberg’s showy camera angles, and grande dame Crawford’s emoting—they are all quite complementary and entertaining. If you’re looking for realism and subtlety, move along.
Though Spielberg’s copped to his neophyte showoff moves in later interviews, ‘Eyes’ is still distinctly different from typical TV fare of the era. Considering he was working on a tight schedule and budget, the final result is striking, despite some showy zoom shots and “unique” camera angles. Spielberg wisely relies on huge close-ups on his veteran actors to striking effect.
Barry Sullivan, who already went a few rounds with Joan Crawford in Queen Bee, is once again the defeated drone, stung by the waspish Crawford. As Doctor Heatherton, Miss Menlo blackmails him to perform the sketchy surgery. Sullivan is an authoritative actor who holds his own quite well opposite the formidable Joan, and their tense scenes together are the segment’s highlights.
Tom Bosley, Joan Crawford has eyes for you!

Tom Bosley is the hapless gambler, who will give up his sight for Crawford, to pay off debts to his loan shark. Bosley, one of Hollywood’s most likeable character actors, is touching and believable as Sidney. However, he reminds me a bit much of Lenny in Of Mice and Men, with his childlike attitudes and platitudes. At least he doesn’t ask the depressed doc about the bunny rabbits.
Ultimately though, all “Eyes” are on Joan! Bosley recalled, in discussing Spielberg’s confidence in shooting close-ups without master shots, since “Miss Crawford was indisposed for much of the shoot.” I think anyone familiar with Joan Crawford knows what that means. He notes that Spielberg used Joan in voiceover a great deal to cover for her. This was an archival interview and Bosley says it matter-of-factly, without cattiness. Since Crawford’s major scenes were all with just Barry Sullivan, I question this statement, as the voice-overs seem natural for the story. According to an item by columnist Army Archerd, in February of  ‘69, Joan told Army that she worked 19 hours on the first day of shooting. Today, only Steven Spielberg is left to clarify the scenario.
“Eleven hours, twelve hours, it makes no difference. I want to see something.
Trees. Concrete. Buildings. Grass. Airplanes. COLOR!!!

What ultimately matters is what’s on the screen. This segment always stuck with me because this is the best part Joan had since Blanche Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? What a shame that Crawford didn’t retire on this note, instead of going on to the absurd Trog and the dreary episode of The Sixth Sense, “Dear Joan, We’re Going to Scare You to Death.” “Eyes” is the best Joan looked onscreen in her last decade. While still going for color me beautiful outfits and piles of reddish blonde falls, Crawford is toned down and flatteringly photographed, and fans can still admire the magnificent Crawford visage.
And Crawford is still a powerhouse performer here. Joan’s delivery of her character’s demanding lines are smacked out of the park with her silky, sly intonations. Later, when the gauze comes off, so do the gloves, as Joan Crawford’s MGM great lady delivery turns into howling and snarling, screeching threats to the departed doctor who “failed” her.
“That’s color. Oh God, it’s beautiful!”

And Joan’s Miss Menlo comes full circle when she actually sees the light, witnessing a sunrise for the first time. Crawford’s delivery is almost like a little girl, who then turns petulant when her sight begins to fade again with the new dawn. The character arc of Miss Menlo gives Joan Crawford a mini-field day and she makes the most of every moment. This should have either led to more work or to retire on a high note—that’s hindsight, I know.
Crawford's Claudia Menlo takes in her first--and last--sunrise.

I’ll let Steven Spielberg have the last word on Joan Crawford. Recalling his start, Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly: “She treated me like a king. Like Henry King, or like King Vidor.”
“I found out years later from [Universal mogul] Lew Wasserman that the second she met me, she called him and said, “You get me a professional director, or I won’t do the show. It’s either him or me.” And Wasserman said — I actually told the story at his memorial service — “Well Joan, if you’re going to make me choose between Steven and you, it’s going to have to be Steven.” And there was a big silence on the end of the phone. And he said, “You know, you don’t have to come back to television. You’ve got a great job right now with Pepsi-Cola. You don’t have to do this, Joan, but we’re gambling on this kid, and we’re going to let him do it.” And then Joan, because Lou set the stage, when I came on the set, she treated me just as she had treated the directors that she had made into stars, and who had made her into a star. I was given such spectacular treatment by her.”
Steven Spielberg and Joan Crawford: Hollywood royalty.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Ann Sheridan's Glamour Brightens Gloomy Noir 'Nora Prentiss' 1947

Ann Sheridan is top-billed and the title character, but plays second fiddle to WB's resident wimp, Kent Smith!

Ann Sheridan, one of the '40s most appealing actresses, had her last hurrah with WB in 1947-48. The Unfaithful was a San Fran transplant of The Letter and Nora Prentiss was a domestic drama turned film noir. Sheridan teamed with Errol Flynn in ’48 for the Raoul Walsh western, Silver River. Ann then appeared in Leo McCarey's Good Sam with Gary Cooper. Though the comedy disappointed critics and audiences, Sheridan and Cooper’s appeal still helped make it a box office success. None of these movies are classics, but overall, were popular at the time.
After leaving WB, Ann starred in Howard Hawks 1949's I Was a Male War Bride with Cary Grant. Sheridan was sparkling in this smash screwball comedy, with Hawks' showcasing Ann’s comic flair as he did with Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century.
Ann Sheridan in a publicity pose as 'Nora Prentiss.' Though hyped as a femme fatale, Ann's singer is sympathetic.

With all this, Sheridan’s box office standing seemed in better shape than most veteran female stars. Yet, the bottom dropped out of Ann Sheridan’s career in 1950. Was it because Sheridan turned 35? Back then, that was the point of no return for an actress. Was it that Sheridan never had a signature movie role? Say, a role or film that could take Ann to the next level, of a Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Rosalind Russell? Even as Randy Monaghan in Kings Row, Sheridan didn’t appear till nearly half way through the picture. Was it because she wasn’t a careerist, like Crawford, Davis, and Hepburn? I think that Sheridan was a bit like Joan Blondell, someone who was considered a great broad that could do a little of everything, but not a so-called great actress, like Norma Shearer or Greer Garson.
What a shame, since Ann Sheridan had one of film’s most distinctive personalities, full of warmth and good humor. Not only was Sheridan a terrific wisecracking comedienne, but also a natural dramatic actress, much like Lombard. Ann also had an appealing singing voice, unlike many dubbed movie divas. Sheridan looked like a more “down to earth” version of Rita Hayworth, and wasn't called 'The Oomph Girl' for nothing! With all of this going for her, why did Ann Sheridan’s star fall so far after 1950?
I preferred the first half of 'Nora Prentiss,' where the good doc is torn between family and Sheridan's sassy singer.

In retrospect, 1947’s Nora Prentiss seems like a sign of things to come. As the title character and top billed star, Ann Sheridan somehow plays second fiddle to Kent Smith. Yes, the Kent Smith. The actor arrived at WB after WWII, and Smith quickly became typecast as the milquetoast male for the leading lady or the bad guy to walk all over. Smith was certainly a capable performer, and after he left WB, became a reliable character actor. Kent Smith just wasn't dynamic enough to become a top rank star. In fact, WB never really had a breakout male superstar after John Garfield. There were middling male stars like Ronald Reagan, Dane Clark, and Harry Guardino—or worse, Steve Cochran and David Brian! How ironic that mild-mannered Kent Smith's big starring role came at the expense of Ann Sheridan, who was about to walk out the WB door, like so many of her fellow stars, over money and scripts.
 Ann Sheridan on the set of 'Nora Prentiss' with co-star Kent Smith. Does he measure up?

Nora Prentiss is a sassy night club singer who is the catalyst for dull doctor Richard Talbot to leave his wife and family. The first half of the movie is a romantic triangle, with Talbot increasingly drawn to Nora, yet guilt-ridden for wanting to leave his family. Sheridan and Smith’s first scenes together, when Nora is tended to by the doc after a minor accident, showcase Ann’s snappy delivery. Sheridan later sings two numbers, sounding especially lovely on “Who Cares What People Say?”
Ann Sheridan is a more than capable chanteuse as 'Nora Prentiss.' 

Their romance is reaching dead end when an improbable opportunity presents itself. Talbot takes it, and from then on he hijacks the movie to the road of abject misery and absurd twists. The WB ads play up Nora as a femme fatale, which she isn't. None of the events are Nora's fault, and she tries to leave him several times, so he can salvage his life. I won't give away the major plot spoiler, but what happens to make the doctor’s new life possible is so ridiculous, even before the DNA era, is patently phony. Eventually, Talbot pays an extreme price.
Smith's respectable doctor goes on the skids in record time over Sheridan's nightclub chanteuse.

Aside from unbelievable, I found the last half of Nora Prentiss tiresome and depressing. The domestic drama was more real and heartfelt to me. The story seemed familiar, then I read a few comments on how similar Nora Prentiss was to Dreiser's Sister Carrie: A respectable businessman with a solid but dull life and dominating wife, throws it all away for a captivating small-time performer. Bingo! What's strange is that a film version, titled Carrie, was made five years later with Laurence Olivier—and Larry and Kent Smith bear more than a passing resemblance to each other—the basset hound eyes, set jaw line, and pencil mustache. However, unlike Olivier, Kent Smith's doctor declines in record time; it's like watching Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde!
Laurence Olivier in 'Carrie.'
Kent Smith in 'Nora Prentiss.'

Nora Prentiss has a stellar supporting WB cast. Yet it is typical how up and coming WB actors got thrown into thankless roles. Just a couple years earlier, Robert Alda made his WB film debut as George Gershwin and he played several starring roles shortly after. Alda was a nasty night club owner in The Man I Love. Here in Nora Prentiss, he's a nice night club owner. It's very hard to believe that tall, dark, and handsome Alda, whose character owns a nightclub and wants to marry singer Nora, would seem like a no-brainer, right? Sheridan’s Nora laments to Smith’s married doctor at the movie’s beginning that she can’t meet a good guy, only bums…yet takes a pass on Alda’s Phil.
Bruce Bennett, who was relegated to one scene in Bette Davis' A Stolen Life in ’46, hadn't made much progress since playing Bert Pierce opposite Joan's title character the year before. In Nora Prentiss, he's Smith’s fellow partner, who's there to pick up the pieces and find clues. Like Kent Smith, Bennett was a rather dull actor, but he was solid enough and attractive, but is stuck in a totally nothing role. It seems like WB filled out the background characters with anybody on the lot who wasn't working!
Vincent Sherman took over the helm from Edmund Goulding and Irving Rapper as WB’s top director of women. Combine all the Bette and Joan movies Sherman helmed, he should have gotten, if not an Oscar, perhaps a Purple Heart! Sherman was a solid, smooth, if not groundbreaking director, and he keeps spinning this tale skillfully before you have enough time to think about it.
Director Vincent Sherman, a bit of a ladies man, seems to be enjoying the charismatic Ann Sheridan.

Film noir fans will probably enjoy Nora Prentiss most, as will Sheridan admirers. I just wished it was truly an Ann Sheridan film.
As for Ann Sheridan’s career, while she is well-liked, you don’t see classic film historians and fans fawning over her or trying to elevate Sheridan’s legacy, like certain other “underrated” actresses who have become overrated by revisionism. Ultimately, a star’s work is their legacy, and as Ann Sheridan tearfully sings as Nora Prentiss, who cares what people say?
Ann Sheridan is the song bird in the gilded hotel cage for the last half of 'Nora Prentiss!'

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Kim & Kirk Team For Suburban Soap Opera ‘Strangers When We Meet’ 1960

Sin in the suburb on aisle 5! Kim Novak accidentally makes off with Kirk Douglas' shopping cart
and the rest is adulterous angst in 1960's 'Strangers When We Meet.'

Despite the star power of Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas as illicit lovers, Strangers When We Meet was only a moderate moneymaker in 1960. Critics didn’t heap praise on the slick screen soap, either. Strangers When We Meet was simply not an affair to remember.
Well, that slogan about sums it up for 'Strangers When We Meet!' 

Still, there are aspects that make Strangers, if not memorable, a noteworthy post-war take on adultery. While the stars are sympathetic—i.e. sanitized from Evan Hunter’s novel—they don’t get off scot free. And yet, they aren’t “punished” for their sins, either, like Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8, from the same year that Strangers was released. Nor is there a leering quality so common in “sensational” soap operas or sex comedies from that era. The cuckolded mates, while imperfect, are not caricatures, to rationalize the cheating spouses’ ways. For a mid-century cinema soap, there’s much gray area in this beautifully shot Cinemascope romance.
Kim is Maggie, the dissatisfied housewife, and Kirk is Larry, the bored husband--luckily, they find each other...

This was an atypical drama for Columbia’s resident comic director, Richard Quine. And he offers a surprisingly adult look at marriage and infidelity. Author Evan Hunter—The Blackboard Jungle, Last Summer, screenwriter for The Birds, and aka Ed McBain—never shied away from difficult topics.
Note how more blunt the promo was for the original Evan Hunter novel.

Strangers When We Meet plays like a low-key version of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, but without all his flourishes. Though some reviews and movie viewers have cited Strangers as dull, those who don’t enjoy Sirk’s stylized soap tropes may find Strangers When We Meet more satisfying to watch.
A visually interesting pic with Novak's Maggie sick in bed, hair down. Kim looks a bit like '50s Vera Miles here, whom she took over the starring role in 'Vertigo,' when Vera became pregnant.

One of those post-war looks at suburban angst, Kirk plays architect Larry Coe, who works at home, has lovely Barbara Rush as his wife, with cute kids, and lives in a fab modern house… but he’s not happy.
I’d say Kim Novak’s character, Maggie, has more to beef about. Her housewife leads an empty life, with a husband who barely seems to notice her and a child who’s hardly on screen. Maggie does have a mother, who she despises for having an affair herself. Novak does have a secret admirer/stalker that won’t stop calling her, yet pays the most attention to her. Between Kim’s trying to shut down the stalker while trying to hook up with Kirk’s architect, Novak spends half her scenes on the phone!
Kim Novak has almost as many scenes on the phone as she does with Kirk Douglas in 'Strangers When We Meet!'

As Maggie, Kim Novak gets a role in Strangers that plays to her strengths as an actress: she’s vulnerable, insecure, and enigmatic. There’s little studio-trained posturing here, Kim just is. Novak was given the big buildup by Columbia’s Harry Cohn to replace Rita Hayworth as the studio’s next film goddess. Kim was given the star treatment, but I always felt their glamour makeover was a bit heavy-handed, particularly in Bell, Book, and Candle. Here, Novak’s housewife is toned down, yet Kim rarely looked lovelier on-screen. Kim Novak comes across like a human being, instead of a movie star mannequin. Novak has a particularly good scene when she attempts to talk to and/or seduce her husband, who seems profoundly disinterested in her. Even though she’s only partially dressed in a black bra and slip, he’s ‘tired.’ Some viewers wondered if he was secretly gay, but in the novel, the character had it drummed into his head by his mother that sex was bad. Some critics commented on her hesitant, hushed line readings—I occasionally found Kim’s gulping words and near inaudible delivery distracting, too. Was it Novak’s fabled nervousness or part of her characterization? Like her performance in Vertigo, the actress and the character were perfectly aligned.
Kim's best scene as Maggie comes when she tries to find out why her screen husband does not desire her.

Some of Strangers’ critics felt that Kirk Douglas was miscast as the earnest architect, but I thought it was nice to see Kirk playing a normal guy for a change, instead of his usual hyperventilating hamminess. Douglas’ still a strong presence and makes his character sympathetic, even when he is not behaving that way. That’s a real trick for an actor, and the mark of a great star who can keep the audience from feeling alienated.
Kirk Douglas in one of his few low-key roles as Larry Coe, the dissatisfied family man.

Barbara Rush plays the thankless role of the “good wife,” Eve Coe, quite well. At first, she comes on like the pushy, upwardly mobile wife, but as the movie goes on, you start to see her side of things. As she feels shut out of her husband’s decision making, her character becomes more empathetic. And she holds her own in the intense, attempted rape scene with Matthau.
Lovely Barbara Rush does a fine job as Douglas' wife, Eve Coe, about to get pounced on by Walter Matthau!

Ernie Kovacs, the groundbreaking comedian, is surprisingly good as the neurotic author who hires Douglas to build his dream house. Even when given some pretty plumy lines, Ernie is natural and warm as the validation-seeking writer, whether it’s from critical raves or a house that reflects his success. Sadly, Kovacs died in his famous car accident two years later.
Comedic genius Ernie Kovacs is quite good as the insecure author who wants Douglas to design his dream home.

Irascible Walter Matthau often played villains early in his career. While Walter was physically unconvincing as the bad guy (ever see him bullwhip Burt Lancaster in The Kentuckian or chase Elvis with a gun in Kid Creole?), Matthau played a great sleaze, like here as Felix, the philandering neighbor. While practically taking notes on what his fellow suburbanites are up to, Felix feigns indignation at a neighbor for telling dirty jokes at a party. Matthau’s quite the scene stealer, sparring with Douglas, and his scene where he puts some unwanted moves on Rush’s Eve, is creepily chilling.
Walter Matthau is Felix, the nosy hound dog neighbor of Kirk's adulterous architect. 

Nancy Kovack made her film debut with Strangers. Kovack was a fixture on TV in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the statuesque starlet was always frosted blonde, with lipstick and eye shadow to match. So to see Nancy as Marcia, one of Ernie Kovac’s many girlfriends, all dolled up as deep brunette with arched eyebrows, was a surprise. In 1960, if a startlet wasn’t made over to look like Marilyn, they done up like Liz! Kovack looks like a sexier Paula Prentiss here. Nancy has only has one scene as the good-natured broad who likes to knock back a drink before noon, but she’s sexy, smart, and funny.
Nancy Kovack is almost unrecognizable in her 'BUtterfield 8' look! Kovack has one scene in her debut, but she's fun.

Strangers When We Meet shows off a great deal of location shooting, surprising for a movie that wasn’t a glorified travelogue, and this gives the movie some authenticity. Also noteworthy is that the house that is constructed for Kovacs’ character was real—movie legend has it that it was supposed to be a wedding gift for Kim and director Quine, who were engaged during filming, from Columbia. When Strangers wrapped, so did their romance!
A house is not a home: The house is real, but it never became a wedding home to Novak and director Richard Quine.

Much of Strangers was sanitized for the big screen: Maggie was no stranger to infidelity and Larry sought adultery tips from Felix in Hunter’s novel. But some of what’s onscreen is still eyebrow-raising: the scene after Kirk and Kim consummate their affair, they are dressing at a motel, afterward. She’s looking in the mirror, with the back of her dress unzipped to her waist and no bra. Kirk comes up behind and sweetly zips her up. Eve is shown nude from the back, waist up, as she puts on her robe to answer the door to hound dog Felix, emphasizing her sexual vulnerability. The movie is frank about sex as far as it could be in 1960, with even the Coe’s boy asking if sex was like Santa Claus!
This scene was a bit of an eye opener for 1960. Remember when Janet Leigh in a bra was a big deal
that same year in 'Psycho?' Well, Kim one-ups (or is that two-ups?) the censors by wearing NO bra!

Like The Sandpiper later, Strangers When We Meet finds the adulterous screen couple in a no-win situation. To have the romantic leads enjoy a happy ending would go against screen convention, yet to have the couple part in a way that satisfied audiences was tricky. I found Strangers’ finale melancholy and am sure that audiences weaned on happy endings found it even more so.
Kirk Douglas' architect spends the first part of this film always trying to pick up Kim Novak's housewife!
Despite the slickness of Strangers When We Meet, there’s a certain honesty that reflects the coming trend of realism in movies. And the stars’ polar opposite personas—Douglas’ overt intensity and Novak’s passive vulnerability—make a compelling counterpoint. If you check your expectations, you just might enjoy getting acquainted with Strangers When We Meet.
As of 2/9/19, there's a nice copy of Strangers When We Meet on YouTube:

Saturday, February 2, 2019

'Caged' Never a Classic, But Still Packs a Punch 1950

After 1950's 'Caged,' you'll never think of haircuts and kitty cats the same way again!

“Pile out, you tramps! It’s the end of the line!”
That’s the opening line barked to a van full of new female inmates in the 1950 WB melodrama Caged. While critics praised the performances and tight storytelling, more than a few thought the situations were a bit emotionally broad—pun intended. Apparently, the Academy agreed, as leading lady Eleanor Parker was the only Best Actress nominee that year whose picture wasn’t also nominated.
Some critics and film buffs now call Caged dated. True. How could it not be? Caged also gets called camp. While some of the situations and dialogue in Caged are melodramatic, director John Cromwell keeps the story and stars moving at a brisk, no-nonsense clip.
Producer Jerry Wald loved controversy and gave audiences just that with then-shocker 'Caged.'

There are two reasons that Caged still compelling today: First is Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virginia Kellogg’s well-researched and realistic look at women’s prisons of that era. The other is the gritty and glamour-free performances, from a cast of fine character actresses, right down to the smallest parts.
Eleanor Parker has one of her best roles as new kid on the cell block Marie Allen in 'Caged.'

Eleanor Parker got her breakout role as 19-year-old Marie Allen, who was sent to the pen as an accessory to her late husband’s hold-up attempt. Parker goes from wide-eyed innocent to tough cookie during the harrowing movie. She is mostly restrained, which makes Parker’s performance hold up quite well today. Eleanor Parker always reminded me of Anne Baxter, in her later acting style: all husky voice, arched eyebrows, and over-dramatic line delivery. But here, Parker relies much on silent reactions to the brutal treatment she receives and horrors she sees. Pregnant in prison, under a monstrous matron’s thumb, watching other inmates crack up, receiving harsh punishments herself, and finally giving in to the lure of larceny on the outside—Parker as Marie Allen is 100 percent convincing.
It's not long before Parker's Marie Allen's going crazy in 'Caged!'

Hope Emerson has to be one of movie’s most chilling villains as prison matron Evelyn Harper. Crooked, mean, and a bruiser of a tough broad, Emerson’s Evelyn is always keeping score—and a tab. When she realizes Marie has no money to pay her bribes, Harper is hell on wheels to new inmate Allen. Emerson was a pleasant person off-camera, but her creepy, intimidating looks and pitiless performance make her a memorable monster.
Some of the most tense scenes in 'Caged' are between monster prison matron Evelyn Harper and tough inmate Kitty.

Betty Garde as veteran inmate Kitty Stark reminded me of a middle-aged Bette Davis, with her big, baleful eyes and jowly, sullen mouth. Garde brings terrific believability as Kitty, the cellblock “queen bee” recruiting “newbies” for a life of crime outside of prison. While her character is tough, she’s on the level. And after Kitty runs afoul with hellish Harper, Garde has some great lines, and her moment of revenge is chilling.
Left, Olive Deering as tragic inmate June, gives one of the strongest performances in 'Caged.'

Olive Deering is startling as tragic, wide-eyed inmate June. This actress was a cross between young Bette Davis and Carolyn Jones, with her big melancholy eyes. Deering’s performance is riveting, ranging from defiant to hopeless. When June is turned back, her character’s pain is palpable.
WB stalwart Lee Patrick, as Elvira Powell, the new mover and shaker on the cell block of 'Caged.'

Lee Patrick, often the sympathetic type in WB movies, plays both sides of her persona as Elvira Powell, the new queen on the cell block who causes more trouble than she intended, when flaunting her connections and cash. Patrick plays tough well, comes on to new girl Parker convincingly, calling her a cute trick! Lee’s Elvira later shows regret for the trouble that she inadvertently egged Harper on to.
Agnes Moorehead plays a rare heroine as the progressive superintendent Ruth Benton in 'Caged.'

Agnes Moorehead has a rare warm role as the progressive prison superintendent, who is strong and sympathetic. Agnes commands attention as she battles corrupt employees, board members, and politicians. Ruth Benton is one of Moorehead’s juiciest roles as a career character actress.
Ellen Corby aka Grandma Walton, plays Emma Barber, a bonkers inmate who thinks Pearl Harbor is a new girl!

Grandma Walton herself, Ellen Corby, is fun as batshit crazy inmate, Emma Barber. Queenie Smith, who enjoyed renewed popularity on TV in the ‘70s, such as Mrs. Whipple on Little House on the Prairie, has one but wonderful scene as Marie’s skittish, self-centered mother. Gertrude Hoffman also has one memorable scene, as the elderly lifer who tries to set Parker straight, and sighs at the end of her monologue, “What I’d give for a sink full of dirty dishes.” Jan Sterling has one of her early roles as Smoochy, the brassy but good-hearted inmate.
Gertrude Hoffman is great as the lifer who tells the other girls a thing or two, ending with a classic line from 'Caged.'

A throwback to the ‘30s Warner Brothers message movies, Caged, though sentimental at times, still startles. “Women in prison” movies are now a campy genre. Though the slangy dialogue and the lesbian subtext can be considered camp, Caged is straightforward and pulls no punches.
The finale of Caged also contains a memorable quote. When secretary Helen asks what to do with new parolee Marie Parker’s file, Moorehead’s superintendent tersely replies, “Keep it active. She’ll be back.
Parker's parolee embarks on a new life as career criminal, as prison superintendent Moorehead keeps her file open.