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House of Women (DVD Review)

19 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Shirley Knight, Andrew Duggan, Constance Ford, Barbara Nichols.

Even if it contained only the all-timer scene where a militantly butch matron played by Hope Emerson gets vindictively stabbed by a dining hall fork, 1950’s Caged would still be the definitive women’s prison movie for having launched the genre — way back before gratuitous shower-room scenes were obligatory (or allowed). Thus, I was curious about this burn-on-demand obscurity because it is often lazily referred to as a Caged remake, though its only real similarities are a sweet-faced innocent as heroine (Shirley Knight for Eleanor Parker) and Warner Bros. as its home studio. And whereas Parker and Emerson both got Oscar nominations, nothing remotely like that happened this time around.

In fact, the closest Oscar link you’ll find here is the possibly intentional timing of Women’s spring-of ’62 theatrical release — only about a month after the movie that would eventually earn Knight her second career nomination; Sweet Bird of Youth. In fact, it’s possible that everyone involved here had a more scintillating project going at the time. A mere two days after Women launched as bottom-of-the-bill fodder, its director Walter Doniger also graced theaters with the opening of Safe at Home! — where his workday included helming the wannabe snappy scrabble-game banter that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris tried sharing with foil William Frawley. You can still imagine Doniger saying, “Hey, Bill, will you stab me with that fork over there?”

Women’s premise actually has some promise. It’s the only movie of its kind I can think of that exploits the mass maternal instincts of its inmates as a major plot point. This is because — until they’re old enough for adoption — a slew of convict toddlers reside in their own wing, even though a cuckolded male warden played by Andrew Duggan (at that time, the hardest working man in Warner Bros. show business) is unambiguously vocal about his opposition. The other intriguing plot point is Duggan’s eventual employment of Knight as a domestic in his home, where she or may not be unwillingly sleeping with him. The movie is kind of cagey about this — though during the climax, she sure seems to know where in his bedroom he keeps a revolver.

We also get a dipso in-house doctor played by Jason Evers, who was also male lead in the same year’s "Mystery Science Theater" immortal The Brain That Wouldn’t Die; Margaret Hayes (from Blackboard Jungle) as a pearl-necklaced staffer whose perfect hair always looks just so; Constance Ford, who specialized in playing frigid wives, as a gone-bonkers mom; Barbara Nichols as her standard intellectual; and Jack Webb regular Virginia Gregg as a parole officer whose life is imperiled by the cons, even though she’s a conscientious straight-shooter in hearings. And speaking of straight (or not), there’s a totally unexpected scene — for 1962 — where the cellblock’s designated lesbian defaces another con’s glossy of Troy Donahue by affixing an inky mustache and beard. Whereupon, the photo’s owner is pretty open about accusing this assailant (or her genetic proclivities) of not appreciating Troy’s appeal. Well, film critics of the day didn’t, either.

On the histrionic meter, Caged is actually a little more over the top than Women — but its emotions are barer, its view of prison life less lily-livered and its political tone more knowing and less sentimental. Women is of interest merely as an exercise in “career catch-up.” One wonders if its ‘B’-movie nature (and stigma) had anything to do with Knight’s almost exclusive TV work (stage aside) for the next four years. At which point, she came roaring back with a superb later-‘60s run with The Group, Dutchman, Petulia and Francis Ford Coppola’s way ahead-of-its-time The Rain People.

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