Caged follows the tale of 19 year old Marie Allen who gets locked up as a result of a botched robbery. Her husband was armed, yet she’s the one taking the brunt of the fall. Did I forget to mention that she discovered she was pregnant? Yeah, it’s equal parts Jack Chick tract and typical 1950s scare picture. But, what does Caged do differently?
I’ve been enjoying the work of John Cromwell recently
Director John Cromwell was approaching the most difficult point in his life when Caged hit theaters. He had an idea between RKO and Warner Brothers that he was about to get whacked by HUAC. Yet, he persisted and tried to move off Caged and straight into The Racket. But, the writing was on the wall. So even before he started work on Caged, he knew where HUAC was going to push him.
Given that all of this happened in under two years, it makes Cromwell an interesting choice to direct a women in prison movie. Cue the modern film lovers bemoaning the fact that it was a group of men deciding what women in prison had to endure. While that might be true to a certain extent, look at the cast that Cromwell assembled here? None of these women were your traditional leading ladies. Hell, Hope Emerson was used as a comic sight gag as recently as Adam’s Rib.
But, Emerson and Parker both pulled in Oscar nominations for Caged. Everyone in this movie isn’t a face that a studio at the time would have used for promotion. Cromwell wanted to make sure you believed everyone of the ladies could be criminals and wanted the younger ones to help instill that sense of everything going wrong.
The beginning of Women in Prison movies
Women in Prison movies are a proud subgenre of the cinematic experience. Whether being shot in the Philippines in the 1970s or cut together fast on the Drive-In circuit, they served to show one thing. That anyone could go to jail and suffer at anytime. As much as we like to believe that Hollywood is some sort of Leftist bastion, they have a rather authoritarian stance on crime. Hell, they’ve had since their infancy.
There is not a moment of Caged that doesn’t reinforce Crime Does Not Pay. Whenever Elvira or another prisoner gets thrown into the mix, it’s all about seeing how fast we can take Marie down the corruption hole. Kitty Stark is her friend for most of Caged, but even she gets broken down and it’s end up stabbing Harper to death. Throw in a weird visual allegory about a kitten getting killed in a prison conflict and we’re firmly into a melodrama.
Punishment narratives of 1950
What’s so funny about prison movies before a certain era is that their views on prison and criminal justice are antiquated. Yet, our fictional and non-fictional narratives haven’t changed much in the last 73 years. There are elements of Caged that you will see come up in “Orange is the New Black” and their later works of Eddie Romero and the rest of the New World crew. Women get punished, the authority figures are inhuman monsters and there is always one person trying to save the day, but the system won’t let them.
It’s been seven decades and we can’t break out of that mold. I will never be able to understand why we can’t get a more realistic take without sacrificing reality for the fantasy. What makes it worse is when other movies and shows pivot the wrong way and either go too hippie-dippie or make up hellscapes. Reality is supposedly not great for fiction, but all great fiction starts in truth. So, where do we begin?
Why Cromwell improved Caged
Director John Cromwell was an RKO directing superstar making the gritty pictures that didn’t exist at the major studios. So, when he got loaned out to Warner Brothers, everyone benefitted. WB got to cash in on his street cred, while Cromwell got to go to town with a major budget and the WB hard boiled dialogue. Cromwell had just came off his last few RKO assignments plagued by anti Communists running everything from his scripts to production.
At Warner Brothers, you had the Shield to protect you from harassment. When it comes to a movie like Caged, who else could nail down the layers of paranoia, fear and intimidation like someone who has been living it recently? Honestly, it’s a miracle that the film wasn’t angrier than it was.
The legacy of Caged
Caged is probably best remembered as the last big movie Cromwell got to make. After The Racket, Cromwell wouldn’t work again for seven years. Even still, he only made a trio of movies before being forcibly retired as an actor. Acting was how he got started and he finished strong in some supporting turns in Altman’s late 70s works. But, a talent like this shouldn’t be forgotten.
As we continue the renovations at the site, I’m working on a section to call attention to Cromwell and the other directors that were plagued by the HUAC. Sometimes, life drops a film like Caged in your life that gets you going down that rabbit hole.
Caged comes to Blu-ray with more special features than I expected for a 1950 film
The joke used to be that only Criterion provided special features for films of a certain age. Then, Arsenic and Old Lace was released. People pointed fingers, but as time went on…it became evident that certain movies even at the big boutique labels were starting to get less special features and extra perks.
Warner Archive always manages to kill it with these releases. As the future of TCM grows uncertain, make sure to keep an eye towards the last bastions of physical media and devour classic cinema. The special features on the disc range from the Screen Director’s Playhouse Radio Braodcast in August 1951. Plus, you get a classic Looney Tunes cartoon and trailer.
The A/V Quality on Caged is pretty superb, but I still felt like the audio track could have been more supportive. The 1080p transfer really pops, however the DTS-HD 2.0 mono track is period appropriate, but it lacks the punch-up that makes dialogue really pop. Still, I’d recommend a purchase.