John Cromwell’s 1950 film Caged began the “women in prison” genre. Co-screenwriter Virginia Kellogg spent a great deal of time behind bars in an actual prison researching the subject matter of women who find themselves locked up for horrific crimes. In doing so, Kellogg pens a story (along with Bernard Schoenman) that makes the prison staff a million times more terrifying than the inmates themselves. At the center of the story is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), a 19 year old first time offender who is convicted of being an accessory to robbery committed by her now deceased husband. Marie soon learns the harsh realities of prison life as she is introduced to the jail’s sadistic matron, Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson). Evelyn, who runs Marie’s cell block, is utterly incompetent. She rules her cadre of hardened career criminals through fear and intimidation. Her only means of hanging onto her job are her connections with the city’s politicans who are as evil and corrupt as she is. While mean matron Evelyn rules over the inmates with an iron fist, the sympathetic warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is trying to reform the penal system by running a more humanistic prison. With little money to bribe Evelyn and with a baby on the way, Marie is assigned to duties in the lowest rung of the prison facility, the laundry room. As the cruelties of prison life and claustrophobia set in, Marie ultimately transforms into a more hardened inmate. Marie’s life changes for good after a series of catastrophic events- including the removal of her newborn baby, the suicide of a fellow inmate after being denied parole, Marie’s own parole denial and her placement in solitary confinement after a bloody altercation with Evelyn. Seeing no other way out, Marie eventually joins forces with an inmate with criminal connections on the outside and finds an expedient way to freedom. However, freedom comes at a price and Benton knows she’ll be seeing Marie caged within the confines of the prison soon enough.
The film was honored with three Academy Award nominations- Best Actress for Eleanor Parker and Best Screenplay for Kellogg and Schoenman. The final nomination went to the gut-wrenchingly evil performance turned in by Hope Emerson, nominee, (157), as prison matron Evelyn Harper. Emerson, who stands a foreboding 6’2″ tall, towers over the inmates in her pressed prison whites as a growling behemoth. What makes Emerson’s supporting work here so good is that she’s the embodiment of pure evil and a real person as well. Evelyn is mean, nasty and dumb, yet she’s smart enough to work every angle in order to keep her job. Emerson lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Josephine Hull in Harvey. Despite the loss, Emerson hits every mark with precision. With a mix of profound brutality and monstrous greed, Emerson’s Evelyn Harper is a classic celluloid villain who helped define a new genre in film.