7.01.2016

Women's Prison (1955)

Tonight!
(1955)

Helene, convicted for the accidental vehicular manslaughter of a child, and Brenda, habitual ward of the state returning for a new stretch, are escorted by a kindly matron to their new home: the women's prison.

(L to r) Kindly escort, Helene, Brenda.

This particular women's prison is separated from a men's prison only by a thick wall and heavy guard. The do-nothing supervising warden Brock (Barry Kelley, last seen in these pages in The Asphalt Jungle) lets his sadistic second-in-command Amelia van Zandt rule the women's prison with a heavy hand, despite the frequent objections of Doctor Crane.

(L to r) van Zandt, Brock, Dr. Crane.

While Brenda seems almost happy to be back in prison, Helene is ill-suited for life inside. While her husband fights to reduce her sentence on the outside, van Zandt subjects her to the standard ritual for all new inmates under her watch: 

two weeks in solitary quarantine.
When Helene cracks completely, Dr. Crane manages to get her switched to the infirmary, a move that sets he and van Zandt on a collision course

The more experienced inmates (principally Brenda and three others: Mae, Dottie, and Joan) try to protect Helene, but soon another drama unfolds. Joan's husband Glen is imprisoned on the other side of the wall, and he knows a secret way into the lady's laundry room. 

He surprises her there, and they embrace suggestively.

When it looks like one of the matrons is going to discover them, Brenda intentionally burns her hand to cause a distraction.

That's a pal.

The suggestive embrace leads to some hot laundry room prison sex (only suggested of course, in true 50s fashion) and Joan becomes pregnant. After she faints on a work detail, Dr. Crane discovers the truth, and Glen is called before the warden. 

He's willing to do whatever he has to not spoil Joan's chance for parole, but the warden decides to play hardball.
He gives van Zandt one week and carte blanche to uncover how Glen got into the women's prison.
Uh-oh.

She beats the pregnant Joan into a coma, and Dr. Crane moves her into an oxygen tent. When the other inmates hear the news, they take matters into their own hands. Things go rather fast and furiously from here to the end of the movie, but it plays out more or less how you'd expect: 

The ol' fake a stomach cramp and grab the guards and keys trick.
Followed by taking the ladies' warden hostage.
Meanwhile, Glen's got his hands on a gun and is out for blood.
(Nice symmetry with the padded solitary room from the beginning.)

A good bit of tear gas later, order is restored, the wardens are brought up on charges, and Helene's early parole is secured.

The End.

Okay, so as you may have noticed, this isn't exactly a film noir. It's packaged as one on the Bad Girls of Film Noir DVD (which sounds awful, I know) I own, but this is more or less just a black-and-white entry in the Women's Prison genre. (Minus a lesbian angle and exploitative shower scenes.) In 1955, this genre barely exists. It's interesting, though, how many tropes of the genre as it exists today (Orange Is the New Black, though I haven't actually seen it, but from the reviews I've read) are on display in Women's Prison:




THE CAST

The "bad girl" in question on the Bad Girls of Film Noir DVD mentioned above is apparently Cleo Moore, who plays Mae. But the villain and gravitational center of Women's Prison is undoubtedly Ida Lupino.

Lupino was coming off the collapse of her and former husband Collier Young's independent production company (for which she directed a good run of films, of which I've only seen "The Hitch-Hiker") and was returning to being in front of the camera after being behind it for so long.

She stayed in front of the camera for two more decades. (L, early photo; R, with Shatner in The Devil's Rain.)

Howard Duff, her real-life husband at the time of filming Women's Prison and until the early 80s, plays Dr. Crane (relation to Frasier unremarked-upon as near as I can tell). Their marriage was a tempestuous one, and this gives the scene where the doctor tells van Zandt that the reason she runs the prison the way she does is because she's a sexually frustrated psychopath some fun context. 

Not that I am in any way implying Ms. Lupino was a sexually-frustrated psychopath. I just mean for Old Hollywood Camp value.

Phyliss Thaxter plays Helene, and while she's perfectly fine, her character recedes into the background for the more interesting parts of the film. Jan Sterling and Cleo Moore play Brenda and Mae, respectively, and they get most of the film's most notable lines and scene-stealers. 

Both were under contract  but "failed to launch" as the studios' go-to blonde bombshells. (The wikipedia scuttlebutt indicates they lost those roles to a young Kim Novak.) P.s. I can't seem to resize this pics on the right, sorry about that; I tried to enlarge the ones on the left to match them but then the whole thing is just way too big. #BlogginProblems

Vivian Marshall gives quite a memorable performance as Dottie, but it doesn't appear she was in all that much. That's too bad. She's something of the feminist heart of this film - don't take my word for it, of course - and displays clear talent for impersonations, among them Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, and - as will come in handy in the prisoners-take-over-the-prison portion of the film - a spot-on Ida Lupino.


There's a small role for future Academy Award nominee Juanita Moore. And Joan's virile husband Glen is played by Warren Stevens, i.e. Rojan.

"We conquer. We RULE."

I promise that the next Friday Night Film Noir entry will be more traditionally film noir-y. Only a few left on our list to cover! Though - I might just add more, haphazardly, from here on out. That seems to be the Dog Star Omnibus way. 

~

2 comments:

  1. (1) "This particular women's prison is separated from a men's prison only by a thick wall and heavy guard." -- No way that ends well.

    (2) The season premiere of "Dark Matter" involved somebody intentionally burning their hand while in prison. I guess that's a trope of the sub-genre.

    (3) Ida Lupino is one of the many stars of yesteryear whose name I've been hearing all my life but whose work I've basically never encountered.

    (4) The idea of this movie as an unwitting prequel to "Cheers" and "Frasier" revolving around some uncle Crane is kind of amusing. Hey, why not?

    (5) Good screencaps all around, but I love the one of the title card. I kind of like it when a movie's title looks like it's shouting at me.

    (6) Phyllis Thaxter looks like a sympathetic lead. Is the arc of this movie sort of a look-how-much-it-sucks-in-prison type of thing with her as the point of view character?

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    1. (4) It would've made a good gag for "Frasier." Well, if "Women's Prison" was better known, I guess. Kind of out of left field otherwise.

      (6) Very sympathetic indeed. She's got such a sweet face, beyond the sympathetic conditions of her character. Anyway, she disappears for a good portion of the film, but yeah, she's the every-girl-there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I character of the piece, for sure.

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