When I was introduced to Eleanor Parker as Baroness Elsa Schraeder in The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), I didn’t immediately become a fan of her. Her character annoyed me, and, perhaps, I was too focused on Julie Andrews to take the time to appreciate her performance. And this, even tho I have seen the film multiple times.
But then, I saw her in a few more films like Detective Story (William Wyler, 1951), Caged (John Cromwell, 1950) or The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1950) and finally witnessed her incredible range as an actress. I finally understood the admiration some people had for her. Eleanor Parker was Oscar-nominated on three occasions (all in the 50s). Her first nomination was for Caged, which is the film I chose to write about today.
The occasion for me to discuss Eleanor Parker on this blog is Maddy’s Eleanor Parker Blogathon that she is hosting on Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.
In Caged, Eleanor Parker plays the role of Marie Allen, a 19-year-old woman convicted for being an accessory in a failed armed robbery led by her husband (who died during the process). On the day she arrives at the women prison, the poor Marie is terrified and, on top of that, it is quickly discovered that she is two months pregnant. Marie will face the harsh life in prison, especially because of the terrible matron Harper (Hope Emerson). Luckily, she becomes friends quickly with other inmates. On her side, the prison superintendent, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), turns out to be a sympathetic figure who wants the best for the new prisoner. Marie will learn about life in prison the hard way.
What is fascinating about Eleanor Parker’s performance is how well it accompanies the drastic transformation Marie undergoes. All the events and obstacles put in her way during her time in prison provoke it. The film initially introduces her as this scared young lady taken to the building in a prison truck and knows her days of freedom are about to end in a jiffy. The camera focuses on her terrified face, and we wish we could be there to comfort her. Her fear is contagious, and we somehow feel it with her. And we know she’ll have to be strong to endure what is coming up for her. Her voice, in the beginning, is soft and hesitant. It serves as a reflection, not only of her fear but also of her innocence. One that won’t last long. And, as Ruth Benton later observes, she’s been through a lot for someone of only 19. Note: Eleanor Parker was actually in her late 20s when she played in that film. Does she look like she’s 19? Well, not necessarily, but, in a way, people in those days could look older than they were, and it’s not so important in the end. We have to remember, she’s a young woman who’s been through a lot and has yet a lot to face. As soon as she meets matron – therefore provoking a well-calculated game of rivalry between Hope Emerson and Eleanor Parker- she can see through her. If the nurse that auscultated her seemed brutal and barely respectful, she’s far from being the worst staff employee. She even shows some humanity and shares a smile with Marie the first time she sees her baby. But matron Harper, if she initially pretends to be a friend to the girls, makes Marie feels more uncomfortable than anything when they make each other acquaintance. Eleanor Parker shows this tension and discomfort subtlety and without a lot of words and, therefore, successfully manages to accompany the initial timidity of her character.
A series of unfortunate events change Marie’s personality and, therefore, how Parker chose to portray her. However, it takes a few more steps before a complete transformation. When Marie’s parole is denied, she appears under a new day and seems to have toughened. Her voice is different (Eleanor Parker chose a deeper and bitter tone). She is visibly a new woman and seems to have more self-insurance like some of the other inmates who have been caged for a long time. However, a few clues tell us that she’s still vulnerable. That doesn’t mean that she has become someone with no heart like Matron. One of the best clues is when she finds this adorable little kitten in the snow that she names “Fluff”! She wants to protect it. That perhaps fulfils the gap created when her baby was taken away from her. Later, Harper and her archaic ways of running the prison does something unforgivable to Marie: she shaves her hair. That seems to be the straw that broke the camel. Interestingly, Eleanor Parker allowed her hair to be shaved for the good of this scene1, which added to the realism of the whole thing. When one of the inmates, Kitty Starks (Betty Garde), reaches her breaking point and [SPOILERS] manages to kill Harper with a fork, a furious Marie orders, “Kill her! Kill her!” Marie manages to get out of jail thanks to Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick)’s help. She’s far from being the same person as when she entered. She harshly tasted life. [END OF SPOILERS]
Prison movies need to have strong supporting characters and actors to play them to precisely challenging this idea that everybody is a number in such an institution.If we begin with the previously-mentioned Hope Emerson, it’s pertinent to observe her character’s and acting’s evolution. As I’ve said previously, she initially appears to be a good sport (not very smiling tho), but she quickly shows her true colours. She expresses a self-assurance that is unwholesome and scary. It fits the character perfectly. Before Marie even meets her, Matron Harper is perceived as lazy, lying in bed eating caramels. She pretends to be brave, but as soon as the prisoners start a riot, she runs away to ring the alarm. She can only face them and make them suffer when they are vulnerable. She treats the inmates like animals. For her strong performance as the terrible Matron Harper, Hope Emerson received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Then, we come to my favourite character actress: Agnes Moorehead. She delivers one of my favourite performances of hers and efficiently proves her versatility as an actress. She could play mean or annoying characters in films like Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson, 1943) or Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947). Here, she’s the complete opposite. Thanks for that because she establishes equilibrium in a place where it’s already difficult to live. Ruth Benton is a strong woman, but not in the same way Matron is. She is fair and knows that the prison should be meant to make the women prisoners better people. She fights for her ideals and the good of her institution. She has wise pieces of advice for the prisoners, especially for Marie.
I was agreeably surprised to be remembered that my birthday twin, the very underrated Jan Sterling, was part of the distribution of this film. I had forgotten about it. She and other actresses such as Ellen Corby, Betty Garde, Lee Patrick, Sheila MacRae and Olive Deering play supportive small but significant parts. They set a mood for the place where the story happens.
Caged is, without a doubt, a critic of society and the prison system, at least the way things were at the time. Kellogg, who also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay, actually incarcerated herself in a women prison to live the real experience for her book. Her experience inspired some of the events depicted in the film. 2 She made a great sacrifice for her art.
The original story’s title, Women Without Men, reflects this idea often vehicled in the film: women are separated from men. However, some (most) of them also ended up there because of them. These women are maybe criminals, but many clues indicate that they have suffered. Is Marie a bad person? Not really. We believe she was just desperate when she helped her husband in this armed robbery. However, living in a cage forges her character and [SPOILER] she leaves it ready to face life again, but it seems that she doesn’t have much to lose (but not in a positive way). [END OF SPOILER] That, indeed, reflects the lack of resources at the prison that would help the women become better persons, such as the psychologist or the teachers that Ruth Benton mentions at one point. She, unfortunately, doesn’t have the resources to hire any. We also see that it is men who decide whether women should stay caged or not. When Marie is called for chances of parole, the board, only formed of men, initially ignore the poor girl. They then judge her on her young age and not on her life experience.
It’s easy to see who has gotten “used” to the place, but despite that, the women remain very much alone in this crowd and dream of the day they will be free. We think here of this scene where, a night, a train passes next to their window, and they all get up to sadly look at it. They all have their breaking points, and sadly it seems that there’s no way out. To reflect the difficulty of being in such a place, Kitty says to Marie: “You see kid, in this cage you get tough, or you get killed”. And we soon discover that these are the words of someone who knows what she is talking about.
I want to highlight the work of composer Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca) for this film. The score wonderfully accompanies the atmosphere of the film and the characters’ emotions. I can think, for example, of this crescendo that begins during Marie’s panic attack when she is denied parole. Another good example is the more jazzy tone that plays when Marie when [SPOILER] Marie leaves the prison, more transformed than before. She smokes, is accompanied by two men who will visibly run her life and Ruth Benton declares: “She’ll Be Back”. [END OF SPOILER]
I couldn’t find a clip from the soundtrack on YouTube, but you can hear it in this trailer:
Aside from its three Oscar nominations, Caged received mostly good reviews and is still a significant vehicle of the prison film genre. The film benefited from Virginia Kellogg journey in prison as it was the case for the popular women-in-prison series Orange Is the New Black, based on the book by ex-convict Piper Kerman.
I’m glad to know that many people have probably seen, at least, one of Eleanor Parker’s films, because The Sound of Music is one of the most famous films of all time. However, I wish people would explore more of her work and watch something highly poignant like Caged.
Many thanks to Maddy for hosting this blogathon and honouring this highly underrated actress that Eleanor Parker was. I’m a bit in advance with my entry, but please visit Maddy’s blog in the next few days to read the other participants’ entries!
1 “Caged: Trivia,” IMDb, accessed Oct 9, 2020. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042296/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv.