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 focus on 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 really witness her incredible range as an actress. I finally understood the admiration some people had for her. Eleanor Parker was Oscar-nominated on three occasions during her life (all in the 50s), and 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 her blog Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.
In Caged, Eleanor Parker plays the role of Marie Allen, a 19-year-old woman who is 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’s 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, and the prison superintendent, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), turns out to be a sympathetic figure who wants the good for the new prisoner. Marie will learn about life the hard way in prison.
What is most fascinating about Eleanor Parker’s performance in this film is how well it accompanies the drastic transformation Marie goes through, which is produced by all the events and obstacles that are put on her way during her time in prison. She is first introduced to us at this scared young lady who is 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, at the beginning of the film, is also soft and hesitant and serves as a reflection, not only of her fear but, in a certain way, of her innocence as well. One that won’t last long. And, as Ruth Benton later observes it, 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 in a subtle way and without a lot of words and, therefore, successfully manages to accompany the initial timidity of her character.
A series of unfortunate events contribute to change Marie’s character and, consequently, the way Eleanor Parker chose to portray her. However, it takes a few steps before she is truly transformed. 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, and this perhaps fulfils the gap that was created when her baby was taken away from her. Later, Harper, with 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 scene (1), 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, and 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, just like Eleanor Parker, it’s interesting to observe the evolution of her character and her acting. As I’ve said previously, she initially appears to be a good sport (not very smiling tho) but her true colours are quickly shown. She expresses a self-assurance that is, somehow, unwholesome and scary, which fits the character perfectly. Before Marie even meets her, Matron Harper is seen as someone lazy as she is 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 who delivers one of my favourite performance 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), but here, she’s the complete opposite, and thanks for that because she establishes a sort of equilibrium in a place where it’s already difficult to live (add Harper to that). 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 better people and not more criminal than they already are. She fights for her ideals and the good of her institution and 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 important parts as they really set a mood to 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. The film was based on the story Women Without Men by Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld. Kellogg, who also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay, actually incarcerated herself in a woman prison in order 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, to say the least.
If one looks at the title of the original story Women Without Men, it reflects this idea that is often vehicled in the film that now the women are indeed separated from men but, for some (most) of them, also ended up there because of them. These women are maybe criminals, but many clues indicate us 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 too lose (but not in a very good way). [END OF SPOILER] That indeed reflects the lacks 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 before judging 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 in 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 music 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 accompanies Marie when she [SPOILER] leaves the prison, more transformed that 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 nomination, 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 just like it was the case for the popular women-in-prison series Orange Is the New Black, which was based on the book by ex-convict Piper Kerman.
I’m glad to know that a lot of 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 times. However, I wish people would choose to 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 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.