|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.