(director: John Cromwell; screenwriters: Virginia Kellogg/Bernard Schoenfeld; cinematographer: Carl Guthrie; editor: Owen Marks; music: Max Steiner; cast: Eleanor Parker (Marie Allen), Agnes Moorehead (Ruth Benton), Ellen Corby (Emma Barber), Hope Emerson (Evelyn Harper), Betty Garde (Kitty Stark), Jan Sterling (Smoochie), Lee Patrick (Elvira Powell), Olive Deering (June), Jane Darwell (Isolation Matron), Sheila Stevens (Helen), Don Beddoe (Commissioner Walker), Taylor Holmes (Donnolly, politician); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jerry Wald; Warner Brothers; 1950)
“Ranked as the best women-in-prison film ever made, but even if this is so it still doesn’t make it very good.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Cromwell’s Caged is ranked as the best women-in-prison film ever made, but even if this is so it still doesn’t make it very good. It isn’t anything more than a superficial melodrama with plenty of hysterics and preaching about the obvious virtues of going straight. The film was remade as House of Women in 1962.

Caged started the women-in-prison genre–think Prisoner Cell Block H. It is based on the story by Virginia Kellogg, who spent time behind bars to research her subject-matter. Eleanor Parker’s role as the 19-year-old first-time offender Marie Allen, who’s convicted for being an accessory to a robbery committed by her husband, earned her an Oscar nomination. In this prison flick, the staff is more scary than the inmates.

The film chronicles Marie’s hard luck sob story of going from a naive teenager to a hardened adult after spending a year in an Illinois prison. The prison is run by the sadistic matron, Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who has connections with crooked politicians with influence over the prison system enabling her to hold onto her job. Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is the sympathetic warden, who wants to rehabilitate the inmates instead of treating them like animals. That’s a practice carried on from previous administrations that can’t be broken because the lackey prison commissioner won’t back her when she asks for Harper’s dismissal.

Marie is given a rough assignment in the laundry room because she doesn’t have money to bribe Harper, like inmate Kitty Stark–a professional booster who unsuccessfully tries to recruit Marie. Marie also pines over being pregnant without a husband, who was killed during the robbery. After the baby is born in prison, it is given up for adoption because her selfish mother refuses to raise it. The more Marie is exposed to the cruelties of prison life and the claustrophobia of the setting, the more desperate she becomes. After 10 months her parole is denied, which leads her to be hooked up with Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), a vice queen who has the connections to get her a parole. Upon her release, Marie becomes a prostitute. This prompts the warden to say that Marie will be back.

This is one of Warner Brothers’ social commentary films, where it blames society for the poor prison conditions that turn Marie into a career criminal. It does this without excusing Marie for helping her own fall from grace by willingly choosing the easy way out of her dilemma. The film’s message is that punishment without rehabilitation doesn’t work, it will only force the inmate into choosing an easy way out of their situation.