Made in 1955, “Women’s Prison” is an early example of a sub-genre of films that has muddled along for more than 5o years without much change in storyline. There is the young waif (not your typical criminal type but a young innocent who through unfortunate circumstances became involved in a crime), the career criminal who is returning to the joint for the umpteenth time, the wise cracking sidekick, the cruel matrons, and the sadistic superintendent, in this case played by none other than Ida Lupino. Few of these films have ever risen above the level of exploitation, John Cromwell’s “Caged” (1951) the most obvious exception. The most unique and improbable feature about “Women’s Prison” is the prison itself, being a coed penitentiary, well almost. Split into two sections, the men’s and the women’s. There is a Warden (Barry Kelley) who runs the entire institution and a cruel female Superintendent, Amelia Van Zandt (Ida Lupino), who is in charge of the female wing.
Van Zandt is no nonsense, borderline psychotic who runs the prison with an iron hand, minor infractions punished severely without remorse. It seems the root of Van Zandt’s sadistic nature is her incapability to establish an emotional relationship with a man and takes out her frustrations on the inmates. At least, we are given that explanation by the compassionate prison doctor (Howard Duff) who is in verbal battles with Van Zandt throughout the film. Yes, a woman cannot be fore filled without a man according to the doctor and of course, by the two writers credited of the script, Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur.
The film begins when waif like Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter), convicted of manslaughter due to a car accident that caused the death of a young girl, and returning inmate Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) are delivered to the prison. Helene is immediately placed into solitary for a two-week stretch, on orders from Superintendent Van Zandt, which is too much for Helene’s fragile psyche and soon she is screaming uncontrollably. Annoyed by the constant ear-piercing crying, Van Zandt orders the matrons to strap Helene into a straight jacket and toss her into a padded cell. That ought to teach her! The following morning, the matrons find Helene comatose, probably from all that screaming. She is taken to the infirmary where prison’s doctor, the sensitive Doctor Crane lashes out at Van Zandt’s inhumane methods. Not taking any bullshit from this compassionate do-gooder, Van Zandt verbally strikes back at him by enlightening him to the fact she is only reforming these women and the harsh measurements are necessary in order to prepare them to function in society. Helene manages to survive her ordeal in solitary and is eventually transferred into the general inmate population.
The film’s switches its focus from Helene to another inmate Joan Burton (Audrey Totter), whose husband Glen (Warren Stevens) is also a prisoner in the male section of the prison. Glen has discovered a secret passageway that leads to the women’s wings and sneaks over to visit his wife. Joan is scheduled to be released soon and being a loving husband, Glen wants to spend a little quality time with his wife before she departs. Apparently, one of his visits was a memorable one as Joan soon finds herself pregnant. When the Warden and Van Zandt discover the pregnancy, they want to know how Glen accomplished this breach in security, sneaking into the women’s wing that is, not getting his wife pregnant. The Warden can’t get any information out of Glen so he threatens Van Zandt giving her one week to find out from Joan the details or she is out of there.
Van Zandt begins a methodical ritual of waking up the pregnant Joan every night dragging the expectant inmate to her office and attempting to force the woman to spill the beans on how her husband sneaked into the women’s section. Only problem is, Joan doesn’t know because Glen never revealed to her how he did it. Of course, the vile Van Zandt does not believe Joan’s claims of innocence and responds with vicious slaps across the inmate’s face. Finally, in a fit of rage Van Zandt knocks the pregnant Joan down to the floor.
Unconscious, Joan ends up in the infirmary, so severely beaten she is on oxygen. Glen sneaks over again to visit her only to watch her die with him by her side. Almost magically, Glen pulls out a gun and goes after Van Zandt. Meanwhile Brenda and the other inmates upon learning of Joan’s death are set to riot. They burst into Van Zandt’s office, drag her out taking her hostage. The Warden sends in armed guards with tear gas to crush the uprising.
So here, we have a riot in the women’s wing, a crazed husband with a gun on the hunt for Van Zandt, armed guards lobbing tear gas in and Van Zandt running, hiding and dodging everyone only to appropriately “hide” in the padded cell. The good Doctor, the only one with any common sense in this entire film is helpless to stop the out of control insanity.
Overly melodramatic, with some laugh out loud situations you can easily understand how this film found its camp following in the early 1970’s. Ida Lupino, a very good actress, hams it up here, and one has to wonder if she was in on the joke. Then there is Ms. Lupino’s wardrobe. While the inmates all wear standard drab prison uniform type dresses, Ms. Lupino is dressed as if she fell off the pages of a 1950’s Vogue magazine ad. Lupino apparently, wanted her character to dress stylishly to emphasize the contrast between her control freak character and the lowly inmates.
Lupino made this film right after the collapse of “The Filmakers”, the independent production company she formed with her former husband Collier Young. It was with “The Filmakers” that Lupino directed most of her films, “The Bigamist”, “Outrage” and “The Hitch-Hiker” and produced and acted in such works as “On Dangerous Ground”, “Beware My Lovely” and “Private Hell 36.” When the company collapsed in 1955 (an ill-fated decision to go into film distribution, which Lupino fought against) Ida had to find work and “Women’s Prison” was her first post “The Filmakers” job. Interesting enough, Lupino would play a similar role some 17 years later in the made for TV movie, “Women in Chains.”
Women in Prison films became very popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s though the premise changed very little. This included Roger Corman cheapie’s like “The Big Doll House” and its sequel “The Big Bird Cage”, both with Pam Grier, “Caged Heat”, directed by Jonathan Demme among many others. These films became so popular that even made for television movies like the previously mentioned “Women in Chains” (1972) again with Lupino and in 1982, “Born Innocent” with head twisting pea soup queen Linda Blair (who also made her own “R” rated WIP feature film, “Chained Heat”). Even the quaint murder mystery TV series “Murder She Wrote” had a WIP episode entitled “Jessica Behind Bars” that included Adrienne Barbeau in the cast.
“Women’s Prison’ was directed by the pedestrian Lewis Seiler with a cast that includes along with Lupino, Howard Duff, her husband at the time, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Cleo Moore, Mae Clarke and Juanita Moore. The film was released by Columbia.
You will notice I am giving this film only two stars out of five for many reasons including a hilarious overly melodramatic script, over the top acting and uninspired direction. That said, on another level, the film is a lot of unintentional campy fun much for the same reasons just mentioned. Just to see Lupino’s final scene padded cell antics makes this film worth viewing. On this basis I would rate the film ***1/2.
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what is the name of the actress who played the wise cracking theatrical female inmate who has to imitate Ida Lupino’s voice when the warden calls?
I believe her name is Vivian Marshall. She is the one who also does a Bette Davis imitation.
John, very interesting to read – there was an Australian soap set in a women’s prison called ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’ which was very popular in the UK in the 1980s – I gather this was also very campy and over the top, though I never watched it, but it must have been part of the trend you write about here. More recently there has been another hit series in the UK, ‘Bad Girls’, which again is a soap and quite over the top, though it has now finished.
Thanks Judy, I don’t think when the film was made it was intended to be so over the top. Frankly, I believe it was just mediocre filmmaking. Still, it has a good cast with Lupino, Sterling, Totter and Cleo Moore, all veterans with tough personas from better films.