“Whiplash” is the kind of routine film Warner Brothers pumped out weekly back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the days before a television was standard in everyone’s home. Not saying this is as a bad thing or that “Whiplash” is a bad movie. It’s like the old saying goes, “They just don’t make’em like this anymore.” Now, no one is going to make the argument this is a great film, but with that said, it does keep you interested despite its flaws, specifically a script that at times stretches the imagination in the believability department.
Joe “Duke” Berne (Humphrey Bogart) is a three-time loser. One more arrest and the law will send him away for life. With that ingrained into his head, Duke has given up the criminal life. The problem is getting a regular job, you know how it is, who’s going to hire an ex-con? No one, so here he is roaming the streets, unshaven, wondering where his next meal is going to come from.
In desperation, Duke gets involved with some old cronies who are planning an armored car robbery. At first Duke wants nothing to do with it. He wants to remain clean despite taunts from a young punk named Frenchy who calls Duke a coward even throwing a glass of milk in his face. Duke takes it all.
When Duke finds out mob lawyer, Martin Fleming (Stanley Ridges) in backing up the deal he becomes interested.
Duke visit’s Fleming who is now married to Lorna (Irene Manning), Duke’s former lover. It’s obvious from the first time they see each other, Lorna still has a thing for Duke and visa versa. With Duke in charge they plan the robbery (Duke straightens Frenchy out by throwing a glass of milk in his face and kicking him off his chair) which all seems to think will be a piece of cake except for Duke. The night of the robbery as Duke is getting ready to join the boys, Lorna shows up at his door pleading with him not to go through with it. She tells him they could run away together and start a new life. Duke, still hooked on Lorna, stays with her.
The robbery, without Duke goes bad, all the criminals are killed except for Frenchy who will get his revenge on Duke soon after. A witness to the robbery, an elderly woman, is brow beaten by the police into mistakenly identifying Duke as the crook who got away.
Duke, now being hunted by the police, figures the only way to get himself off the hook is to get Fleming to defend him by setting up a full proof alibi. Fleming double crosses Duke after Frenchy, getting his revenge, tells Fleming about finding Duke and his wife together.
The remainder of the film spirals out of control as Duke escapes from prison, but in an unbelievable moment of weakness agrees to give himself up in order to set the record straight about a young con who is innocently being accused of being part of the escape plan and the resulting murder of a prison guard. We know from the beginning, Duke is doomed since the entire story is told in flashback from Duke’s deathbed in prison.
“The Big Shot” was made after Bogart had finally become a major Warners star that is after “The Maltese Falcon” and “High Sierra” so it is surprising to see him in a film that has the look and feel of a programmer. Still, Bogie is Bogie and he makes the film enjoyable but overall there is not much there. The car chase sequence toward the end is poorly planned with state police on motorcycles chasing after Bogie and his girl along a snowy icy twisting road. The motor cycle cops are implausibly shooting at Bogart’s car with one hand while managing to steer the motorcycle along the icy curved road with the other.
Directed by Lewis Seiler, who spent most of his career cranking out standard melodramas and westerns of little distinction. Bogart during his second tier days worked with Seiler in quite a few films (Crime School, You Can’t Get Away With Murderer and King of the Underworld), Seiler’s other works include some early westerns starring Tom Mix, “Tugboat Annie”, “Pittsburgh” and “Guadalcanal Diary”, probably his best known work. George Raft turned down this role and as he did with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” and just like those earlier flicks, Bogart took over the part. Don’t expect much from this minor film other than Bogie who makes it worth at least one viewing considering it was his last gangster role.
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.
I was watching “Hell’s Kitchen” the other night, a 1939 Warner Brothers programmer with The Dead End Kids. They were still riding the crest of a wave of success that began with William Wyler’s “Dead End” and continued with films like “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and the lesser successful “Angels Wash Their Faces.” This is, of course, before they began deteriorating into overaged caricatures of their former selves as they continuously changed names, from The Dead End Kids to The East Side Kids to The Little Tough Guys and finally the Bowery Boys. Moving from major studios like Warners Brothers and Universal to the depths of poverty row with Monogram. What struck me about the Hell’s Kitchen was this feeling of déjà vu, I had seen the film once before but that was not why I had the feeling. Somehow, I thought Humphrey Bogart was in this film or maybe it was James Cagney. In addition, to The Dead End Kids, “Hell’s Kitchen” starred Ronald Reagan (who also appeared with the boys in “Angels Wash Their Faces”) billed way down on the list of characters after all the DEK’s!
About halfway into the film, it struck me that “Hell’s Kitchen” was similar to the Humphrey Bogart film “Crime School” made just the year before. While there are differences between the films, the similarities are striking beginning with the fact both films are directed by Lewis Seiler, and Crane Wilber is given credit for both the story and co-screenwriting on each film. Then it came to me there is another similar film, 1933’s “The Mayor of Hell” where young James Cagney plays a reformed gangster who takes over a juvenile reformatory attempting to fix a corrupt system, which was what Ronald Reagan’s almost reformed gangster father-in-law Stanley Fields does in “Hell’s Kitchen.”
All three films contain corrupt sadistic superintendents. Both “Crime School” and “Hell’s Kitchen” have scenes where the juvenile inmates establish a self-governing system though, in “Hell’s Kitchen” it is sanctioned by the officials in charge whereas in “Hell’s Kitchen”, it quickly turns to a lynch mob mentality. In “Crime School”, Bogart, a deputy commissioner, takes over the corrupt reformatory, as does lawyer Reagan in “Hell’s Kitchen.” In “The Mayor of Hell”, a young James Cagney plays as a reformed gangster who takes over a juvenile reformatory attempting to fix a corrupt system.
Of course, all the films have caring, beautiful leading women. In the “Mayor of Hell”, it is the lovely Madge Evans, while it is Margaret Lindsay who attempts to take care of the boys in “Hell’s Kitchen.” “Crime School’s” leading lady Gale Page is a bit different as she is the older sister of juvenile problem child Billy Halop. One difference between the films is that “The Mayor of Hell” is pre-code while the other two films, made late in the decade, were more restricted in what they could show.
Today, remakes, sequels are almost an expected part of movie going. Can anyone imagine a summer season without a remake or a sequel? We know creativity and the financial guts to take chances is a rare commodity in Hollywood. With these three films, we are given a snapshot that taking chances and looking how to save a buck in Hollywood is not new. Warner Brothers recycled the same story, and in the case of two of the three films, the same actors (The Dead End Kids), the same director and the same writer, all within six years. That’s economy.
None of the films could be called great but all are entertaining, however, “The Mayor of Hell” shines with good performances by Cagney and Frankie Darro and “Crime School”, is well worth your time if for no other reason than it has Bogart. “Hell’s Kitchen” biggest problem is really a lack of a strong leading man. Ronald Reagan comes across as just bland. Of the three films, “The Mayor of Hell” is the only one available on DVD. Your best bet to catch the other two films is when they occasionally appear on TCM or download on-line.