Caged (1950): Controversial, Oscar-Nominated Women Prison Melodrama, with Lesbian Themes

The protagonist of this “woman’s melodrama,” which was considered harsh when initially released, is Marie Allen, a 19 year old innocent woman, who becomes an accomplice of crime. Marie’s husband, in desperation, stuck up a gasoline station and was killed in the process. Not realizing what he was up to, she gets a one-to-15 year term, and bears a child in prison. We are led to believe that through association with murderers, pickpockets and hopheads, Marie becomes herself an unregenerate outcast, though she was just an accessory in a holdup that led to her hubby’s death.

Marie enters prison as a guileless first offender and comes out a hard and bitter prospect for criminal career. In the process, she is abused by a sadistic and corrupt matron (Hope Emerson) who is later stabbed by one of the desperate prisoners.

When Marie is finally set free, the prison superintendent (Agnes Moorehead) remarks cynically yet matter-of-factly, “Keep her file active. She’ll be back.” (Stats point out that many casual, one-time criminals often engage in crime as a career after, and as a direct result of, their brutal socialization in prison.

The prison drama genre has been male-dominated, and a lot of the press of “Caged,” stressed the fact the novelty of seeing a harsh, often remorseless Hollywood account of a female prison. Though scary, at the time, most critics simply singled out Emerson’s hardened portrait of a monstrous prison matron, but in later years, she’s been perceived as evil personified and more of a cause than a result of life within prison walls.

A master of melodrama, John Cromwell directs in a taut style, coaxing excellent performance from his female-dominated cat that, alongside Parker, Emerson, and Moorehead, also includes Ellen Corby, Jan Sterling, Lee Patrick, and Jane Darwell. Even so, as other samplers of its genre, “Caged” walks a fine line between a socially conscious drama (and wake-up call) and exploitative, borderline campy fare, later parodied by John Waters and others in “Women Behind Bars.”

Oscar Nominations: 3

Actress: Eleanor Parker
Supporting Actress: Hope Emerson
Story and Screenplay: Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Eleanor Parker gives one of her least mannered performances. In 1950, one of the toughest years for female leads, the Best Actress winner was Judy Holliday for “Born Yesterday,” beating out Bette David (“All About Eve”) and Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”). The Supporting Actress was vet actress Josephine Hull for the comedy hit “Harvey,” starring Jimmy Stewart.

The Story and Screenplay Oscar honored Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman Jr. for “Sunset Boulevard.”

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