Two female prison guards (one played by Mae Clarke, she of the grapefruit-in-face fame from Public Enemy over 20 years before), chat before going on break in 1955’s melodrama Women’s Prison:
“I want to catch the last show at the Bijou.”
“That prison movie?”
“They never get things right in prison pictures.”
“I know, but I like to pick out the flaws.”
These dames are in prison for all kinds of reasons. One was a stripper and she got “10 to life.” A newbie asks, “You got 10 to life for taking off your clothes?” The stripper responds, “No. I also shot my agent.” And all the girls burst into laughter. One is in for forging checks. She saw that pretty dress and couldn’t resist! This one’s in for involuntary manslaughter, another is in for her part in an armed robbery. These girls are criminals, but they aren’t hard. They’re tough, but the atmosphere in the women’s prison is more like a college campus with lots of camaraderie than a maximum security joint. The women have all made mistakes. They have a certain weary knowledge about their own flaws. They support each other. One dame got out on parole, and wrote a bad check during her parole, so now she’s back, and her return is greeted with whoops and hollers of excitement: Our old friend’s back!
The point is made very early on in the film: The women inside know more about life and love and friendship and warmth than the cold women in charge of keeping them locked up.
The women’s prison sits adjacent to a men’s prison, which is a huge problem (as the voiceover informs us portentously), and yet the State won’t devote money to building separate prisons. The problem of men getting over on the women’s ward is always on everyone’s mind (and breathlessly promoted in the poster above). In the actual film, however, the only man who “gets over” to the women’s side is a devoted husband, whose wife is also in jail, and he’s just got to see her, he loves her so much, he’s got to see her! So no, it’s not about rampant “man-smuggling”l it’s not like they’re having wild co-ed keggers every night.
The warden of the women’s prison is a ferocious and controlled woman named Amelia van Zandt, and she is played by the marvelous Ida Lupino. Lupino had been around for years by this point, as an actress, certainly, but also as a director. She made tough no-nonsense dramas, hits of the day. Not just “women’s pictures”. The Hitch-hiker, a fantastic movie, barely has a woman in it. Lupino was a good actress, and a canny thinker, always looking ahead. For her, it was about working, not a certain kind of short-lived stardom. She wanted to work. Actors loved working with her as a director. (I wish Kathryn Bigelow had given a shout-out to Ida Lupino and the other pioneers in her Oscar acceptancespeech, that was the only thing that was missing for me in her speech, a hats-off to the women who had gone before her). Lupino here, at the time of Women’s Prison, is coming off the heels of the collapse of her independent production company, and so she needed work. She chews the scenery and is quite frightening in her chilly reserve and arrogant smirk. She runs the prison her own way, and disregards the advice of the prison doctor, to tragic results in a couple of instances. But she cannot give in. She will not give in. She is Nurse Ratched for the prison-set. She tells the doctor (played by the virile Howard Duff, who looks MADE to have a career of guest spots on Knots Landing) that she knows these women better than anyone, and she knows what she needs to do to “reform” them. The doctor thinks otherwise. He has a belief that the Warden actually hates the female prisoners because “every broken wreck in here has some experience with love.” The warden takes out her rage at her unmarried workaholic state on the female prisoners, all of whom have husbands or fellas on the outside. It’s a rather ridiculous premise, making all kinds of assumptions about female motivation, but Lupino plays it to the hilt. She is unflappable. A giant ring of keys is clasped to her belt, and she moves soundlessly, showing up with no warning. She is a pressure cooker, that’s for sure. The doctor can see it. Can he intervene before things go south?
Words like “borderline psychopath” are thrown around in Women’s Prison with zero irony, reflecting the psychiatric obsessions of the day, and the age-old question who is crazier: the ones locked up or the jailers – is still popular today. We still see this drama played out in movie after movie after movie. Perhaps the women prisoners are a bit too cuddly and I did wonder how the platinum blondes maintained their hair-color without any roots showing. There is a sense of solidarity between the women, and it is in the scenes between all of the prisoners that the film comes to life. It’s an ensemble picture, with a big cast, but you very quickly get all of the characters sorted out. The black female prisoners are in their own cells, but once outside of the cells, they mingle freely with the others. Jail is an egalitarian world.
Phyllis Thaxter plays Helene Jensen, a woman just imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter: she accidentally ran over a little girl while passing a car on the right. (My sister Siobhan was hit by a car in that way when she was a little girl. She was okay, but I will NEVER pass on the right, no matter how much you morons beep at me. This is how people are killed!) Helene Jensen is not a career criminal, like the rest of the broads. She is terrified, and winces whenever the doors clang shut behind her. On her first night in solitary she freaks out, screaming and crying, and has to be restrained in a strait-jacket. The next morning when the prison guards come to let her out, she is unconscious. So begins Helene’s jail-term.
The doctor takes an interest in Helene. He tries to reassure her, encourage her. “You’ll get parole …” He gives her a sedative. But Helene’s psyche is severely shattered by her first night in prison, and she keeps messing up, freaking out and panicking when the guards approach her. The doctor advises the staff strongly against placing her in isolation, and his advice is ignored. The doctor smolders in his virile pipe-smoking hotness. He actually has a palatial apartment IN the prison, where he can hurriedly throw on his silken bathrobe when he hears women screaming just beyond the wall. Dude, you need a vacation. Or at LEAST your own house!
The wonderful Jan Sterling plays platinum-headed Brenda Martin, the check-forger, who wisecracks her way through the admission process. She’s been through it all before. She takes poor Helene under her wing, and shows her the ropes. Brenda is a kindly soul, but dangerous when roused. She has a Norma Rae moment later on in the picture when all of the women refuse to work due to the treatment of a pregnant prisoner. She, if not the ringleader of the group, is certainly an effective spokesperson, and she tells Ida Lupino exactly why the women won’t work, and what needs to happen for them to continue to work. “People need to know what’s going on in here,” she shouts. A veteran of other “bad girl” pictures, she’s got a lean face, interesting rather than beautiful, and she was nominated for an Oscar the year before for Wellmann’s The High and Mighty. She’s great here. She’s the heart of the picture.
Cleo Moore, another classic “bad girl”, plays another platinum-blonde prisoner named Mae, best friend to Brenda. Brenda has been trying to improve Mae’s grammar while in prison. There is a very funny moment late in the picture, when things are very tense and dangerous, and Cleo Moore snarls at her adversary, “One squawk out of you and I’ll punch a hole right in your diagram.” Brenda can’t help but say, quietly, despite the crisis around them, “Diaphragm, honey.”
Audrey Totter, unforgettable in The Postman Always Rings Twice and other films, plays Joan Burton, the woman whose husband keeps trying to sneak over to see her from the other side. She made a name for herself playing really bad and trampy dames, but here she is sweet and troubled. During one of her husband’s sneaky visits, she got pregnant. She was not supposed to see her husband at all, so how on earth can she explain her condition? Once her pregnancy is revealed, the Warden and her goonish matrons start to turn the screws on Joan, hauling her out of her cell in the middle of the night repeatedly, to interrogate her. Sleep-deprived, ill, pregnant, there is a terrible scene where Ida Lupino slaps Joan across the face 5, 6 times. Hard huge whaps. Joan’s screams wake up the whole prison. Totter is a wonderful actress, and her portrayal of Joan here shows her range, although she had been pigeon-holed by all of the bad girls she had played. She obviously has great flexibility with her talent. You would have thought, seeing her other performances, that she would have been better as Brenda, or Mae. But she gives a tragic and passionate performance here, of a woman trapped in a terrible situation.
So the dames in the prison get fed up and take over the joint.
Ida Lupino finds herself increasingly cornered.
When confronted with the righteous anger of the prisoners over the treatment of Joan, and the obvious friendship the prisoners all feel for one another, you can tell, from a couple of uneasy flickers in Lupino’s eye, that she is starting to crack herself. She feels left out. She clearly has no friends. Has she ever felt about anyone the way all of these prisoners feel for Joan?
Melodramatic, yes. Feverish with hysteria, yes. Ridiculous at points, yes.
“You are a borderline psychopath, Warden. And you are very close to the border,” warns the Doctor. Aren’t we all, doc.
But Women’s Prison has something far more important going for it than a realistic portrait of prison conditions. It is watchable. Every second of it. It has no annoying sense of self-importance. Despite its setting, it isn’t really a “message” film. The dynamic between the prisoners is sensitively and humorously portrayed, with each character emerging as a clear and distinct personality. The women work well together. And while Ida Lupino’s fear of her own cold cold heart is obviously a plot device for a satisfactory ending where she gets a taste of her own medicine, her performance is rather heartbreaking in its own way. She manages, with a pursing of the lips, a quick gleeful flash in the eye, a flickering unease at the corners of her gestures, to suggest that this woman is in the worst prison of them all: her own mind.
The other prisoners at least have a chance of getting out on bail. But she? She’s screwed.
If you only try to “pick out the flaws” in Women’s Prison, you’d have a field day, but you’d also miss the fun of it, the good performances all around, and the stylish noir look of every frame.
Part of the “Bad Girls of Noir” series, Women’s Prison is in a box set with Night Editor, One Girl’s Confession and the wonderful Over-Exposed – three of these films feature Cleo Moore, at the height of her bad-girl powers.