Over six decades before Orange is the New Black revolutionized television, another work of media aimed to reveal the realities of women’s prisons. Caged (1950), directed by John Cromwell and written by Virginia Kellog, follows pregnant 19-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), incarcerated as an accomplice in a desperate armed robbery that led to her husband’s death. Once in prison, Marie is torn between Ruth Benton, the sympathetic warden (Agnes Moorehead), Evelyn Harper, the sadistic matron (Hope Emerson), and Kitty Stark, the older prisoner who wants to recruit her into a life of crime (Betty Garde).
While often cited as the original “women in prison” movie, Caged largely lacks the exploitation later found in the genre. Instead the film embraces a mix of melodrama and realism, capturing the cruelty — and ineffectiveness — of prisons. Marie goes from a desperate kid to a committed criminal, the system creating what it claims to want to stop.
I watched Caged at the Film Forum as part of their series Sapph-O-Rama. While the lesbian subtext is obvious — Bette Davis supposedly turned down the film because it was a “dyke movie” — watching it in the context of a lesbian film festival centered what might’ve been secondary.
When Marie arrives, Ruth Benton informs her that she’s not in prison to be punished — prison itself is the punishment. She means that Marie’s time incarcerated should provide structure and reflection, not torture. But Marie will soon learn that prison itself is punishment, because it is torture. Although Ruth is the warden, she lacks the political connections of Evelyn Harper and therefore lacks the power to regulate treatment and additional punishment.
Many of the punishments Marie faces attack society’s idea of her womanhood. She’s kept away from men, her wedding ring is confiscated, her clothing is drab, she’s forced to give birth in prison, her baby is taken away, and, finally, her head is shaved.
At one point, Kitty Stark warns Marie that if she spends too much time in prison — too much time away from men — she’ll lose her taste for men. Other than the swagger of various characters, this is the most explicit mention of queerness. In the world of Caged, lesbianism is another punishment, a further reduction of womanhood carried out by the state.
This is emphasized by the arrival of Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), a wealthy crime boss who usurps the position of top prisoner — and top top — from Kitty. In a movie where every character feels like a lesbian, Elvira is the most undeniable. She enters the prison with a powerful gait and even more powerful resources. She doesn’t need to flirt — her presence alone demands attention from the women, prisoners and guards.
Marie tells Elvira that if Kitty couldn’t seduce her into a life of crime, Elvira doesn’t stand a chance. But Elvira can make bigger promises than Kitty. Her life of crime and lesbianism isn’t just to survive, it’s to thrive. And it’s not for when she gets out — she can pull strings to get her out now.
As Marie is denied parole and faced with increased violence, Elvira’s proposal becomes nearly impossible to ignore. Ruth begs Marie to keep waiting and to trust in reformist principles. But Marie has grown too wise. Here we are three quarters of a century later and Ruth’s “work within the system” approach to prison reform has failed.
By the end, Marie has completely abandoned her roles as good girl, wife, and mother. She leaves the prison reborn as a femme fatale. Ruth mourns Marie’s choices and the inevitability of her return to prison, but, as a viewer, it’s easy to cheer Ruth on. When the options are be beholden to the state — or, if lucky, to a man — or live a luxurious life of crime, who wouldn’t become a lesbian?
While the filmmakers present this shift as negative — either to reflect their own beliefs or to appease the Hays Code — lesbianism is not so easily dismissed here as tragedy. If anything, it’s a relief and an escape. While incarcerated, the solidarity Marie finds among the women is her only reprieve. The conflicts between prisoners often found in prison media are secondary in this film to their united front against Evelyn Harper and the system that confines them all. There’s an intimacy throughout that suggests a life without men might not be so bad if it was allowed to happen on their own terms.
Ruth may not have Elvira’s overt sexuality, but actress Agnes Moorehead was widely known to be queer and that seeps into her tender rendering of Ruth. It doesn’t feel as if Ruth is begging Marie to commit to heterosexuality. It feels like she’s asking Marie to commit to a quieter queerness, one that can work within the system.
And so Marie doesn’t choose lesbianism by becoming Elvira’s femme fatale. She simply chooses to be out. Out of prison, out of the closet, out of a society built on heteropatriarchy and carceral justice. The tragedy of the film is the limited options for these women — the fact that this cruel system still exists so many decades later. The hope is in Marie’s attempt at something different. It might not work. Ruth may be right that it’s only a matter of time before Marie returns to prison. But there is hope in rebellion against a broken system, there is hope in fighting back, there is hope in being a dyke.