“The cheap production values of most WIP films required them to rely on the promise of forbidden spectacles such as sex (‘Love Starved Women!’), violence (‘Rape, riot, and revenge’), and often the pretense of an exposé (“The story of a woman’s prison today’) to attract moviegoers.”
Primarily exploited by the film industry’s low-budget production houses, the women-in-prison film (henceforth referred to as WIP) is unique in its longevity as a marginal genre. Unlike the male prison film (the default of prison pictures), the WIP genre has been marginalized as much as its subject — the criminal woman. “Victimized by callous bureaucracies,” writes Suzanna Danuta Walters. “Physically isolated and preyed upon — these women are most assuredly the marked Other.”1 The male prison picture often dealt with escape from repression; the female prison was inherently tied to ideas of reform, often through the acceptance of patriarchy. Rather than being set free, the incarcerated woman passes from one form of oppression to another.
The cheap production values of most WIP films required them to rely on the promise of forbidden spectacles such as sex (“Love Starved Women!”), violence (“Rape, riot, and revenge”), and often the pretense of an exposé (“The story of a woman’s prison today.”),2 to attract moviegoers. These excesses, often criticized as exploitative, actually worked to intensify the WIP’s social commentary by becoming generic conventions. In the following essay, I propose to explore the way these conventions were utilized to manipulate social commentary within the WIP genre.
“Whenever an art form is highly conventional, the opportunity for subtle irony or distanciation presents itself all the more readily,”3 writes Jean-Loup Bourget. As a genre — a form defined by the nature of its conventions — the narrative presented in the WIP’s development illuminates both the historical depravity of the female inmate and topical ideological conflicts of the times. This essay attempts to track the development of the WIP film in the United States, from the 1920s to the 1970s, in order to determine its approach to social problems and their proposed solutions — from reform to revolution. In doing so, I hope to challenge the common perception of the WIP genre as purely exploitative and to reestablish its legitimacy.
The genre’s marginality could be attributed to both its excesses and the historical representation of women behind bars. Often held to a higher moral standard, a woman who has sinned was viewed as far more depraved than her male counterpart. Reverend James B. Finely observed in 1851, “As woman falls from a higher point of perfection, so she sinks to a profounder depth of misery than man.”4 The separate female institution was born in the 1800s from a need to reform the fallen woman — reform was tied to the institution and patriarchy tied to reform. Domestic trades such as sewing and laundry were taught in order to prepare women for proper reintegration into society.5
The WIP film can be divided into three main cycles, based on Thomas Schatz’s breakdown of genre development.6 The early cycle — the experimental stage — contains less formal interference. The mid cycle — the classical stage — is where conventions have been established, allowing the narrative and medium to reinforce the genre’s social message. With the audience aware of form and thematic structure, these conventions are refined and parodied in the late cycle. Using Schatz’s cycles as a guide, the WIP genre shows a clear progression of social commentary. Values of reform dominate the early cycle (1920s-1940s), existential despair and the failure of reform in the mid cycle (1950s), and community-based revolution in the late cycle (1970s).
Due to space constraints, I have excluded the genre’s development into the 1980s. Although still popular in the form of made-for-TV dramas and straight-to-video releases, it ceased to exist as a cinematic genre. The television medium presented a new, separate set of conventions; the video releases were an “exploitation of exploitation,”7 almost spoofing the genre in a showcase of extreme sex and violence. Also, most foreign entries will not be explored as they represent different sets of values, mores, and social problems. Creating a clear structure of the genre’s social narrative within the confines of this essay necessitates the detraction of those.
The Early Cycle: 1922-1949
Female morality has been a problem since the early days of cinema. Born in an age of reform, the “social problem” film was highly popular prior to the First World War. “Motion pictures are going to save our civilization from destruction,” cried a hopeful film viewer.8 One type of problem film to spar with the criminal woman was the vice film, involving the sexual exploitation of women — prostitution rings, or more popularly, white slavery. Films such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and Traffic in Souls (1913) attacked the symptom — the victimization of women — not the institution.
The 1920s were a turning point in the U.S., after the war and before the Depression. “Sexual expression was moving beyond the confines of marriage,” write John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. “Not as the deviant behavior of prostitutes and their customers, but as the normative behavior of many Americans.”9 Following World War I, the crime of prostitution, which had inspired sympathetic treatment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, became vilified as a great social menace. “The greatest destroyer of man-power . . . is venereal disease. The greatest source of venereal disease has been prostitution,” explained an officer at the Sanitary Corps.10 A variety of new moral problems accompanied these changes. Aligned with the ideological conflict between the patriarchal order and the new sexual mores, the female convict made her debut. According to Hillary Neroni, “The violent woman appears at moments of ideological crisis, when the antagonisms present within the social order — antagonisms that ideology attempts to elide — become manifest . . . Such an ideological crisis occurs when strictly defined gender roles — roles that give a logic and a sense to sexual difference — break down.”11
In 1922, Cecil B. DeMille tackled the mores of the Jazz Age in his silent offspring of the social problem film Manslaughter. Young Lydia Thorne (Leatrice Joy) rejects domesticity in favor of a hedonistic lifestyle. Her reckless behavior lands her in prison. Manslaughter is the earliest (available) example of an American film to dominantly feature women in prison.
The women’s prison in Manslaughter proves an affirmative experience, reforming a woman from decadence to humanity, teaching her the meaning of freedom. It introduces the duality of the fallen woman — as her future husband says, he loves the girl he thinks she could be, not the girl she is. It sets up the tension between imprisonment and reform — stripping girls from their clothes and makeup, taking away their femininity, turning them, as they cry out, into “animals.” As Lydia matures from a flashy flapper to a humble humanitarian, we learn that true femininity is not external but internal. She reunites with her lover, whom she could only dedicate herself to after denouncing her previous lifestyle.
Seeking authenticity, Manslaughter‘s screenwriter, Jeanie Macpherson, committed herself into a women’s prison in Detroit. The experience proved traumatic. She asked to be released after three days. Upon her return she made a statement that shed light on the origins of the WIP’s deterrence from realism: “I have plumbed the utmost depths of human degradation. I have seen women’s souls stripped naked . . . I wouldn’t go through that experience again for any amount of money. But I wouldn’t sell it for an even greater sum.”12
Bordering between moralistic and exploitative, DeMille often passed off highly violent and sexual imagery as social criticism. In Manslaughter, he juxtaposes sequences of modern jazz parties with huge spectacles of Roman orgies. In 1932 he commented on his tour-de-force of Roman violence, Sign of the Cross: “Do you realize the close analogy between conditions today in the United States and the Roman Empire prior to the fall?”13 Just as later promoters of exploitation films needed a moral excuse for their indulgence in excesses of the flesh, so did DeMille.
DeMille’s 1929 silent The Godless Girl promised to reveal “flogging . . . solitary confinement, stringing up by the thumbs, piercing under the fingernails, shackles, water cures, ice-packed blankets, semi-starvation, dirt and exposure in semi-hygienic conditions.”14 The film told the story of an atheist girl, imprisoned for the death of a classmate in a riot she incited. In the spirit of exploitation, under the guise of an exposé, DeMille originated the reformatory girl film. An evident shift in social concerns occurs between Manslaughter and The Godless Girl — the first exploited sex and criticized social mores; the second exploited violence and turned its critique toward the institution.
The movies of the early cycle were fairly straightforward in their message: conforming to domesticity facilitates reform. They do not exist as a uniform genre, instead setting up the building blocks later to be expanded on during the mid cycle. The formation of the WIP as a genre begins in the 1930s, deriving from such popular genres as the gangster film and women’s picture. DeMille’s moralistic concerns of the 1920s gave way to actual criminals. Revolving around guilty women, they reinforced the notion that their crime, as well as their reform, is tied to men. In Ladies They Talk About (1933), directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is imprisoned for assisting her boyfriend’s gang in a bank robbery. The prison has no reformative effect on Nan; it only makes her bitter and vengeful. Variety thought it seemed like “a great retreat, the sort of place where a lot of gals might like to spend a vacation until something or other blew over.”15 The New York Times encouraged the inmates’ “ingenuity in giving an intimate domestic touch to the prison.”16 True reform comes in shape of a man — Nan’s love interest. Indirectly, her imprisonment leads her to reform through marriage.
The institution needed a reformer. It found one in Ann Vickers, the 1933 John Cromwell melodrama based on a book by Sinclair Lewis. Ann, an independent, career-driven woman, has no time for love. She represents the clash between the masculine attributes of independence and the feminine urge for domesticity — as one lover tells her: “I never met a woman who’s man enough to boss me and still sweet enough to cuddle.”17
Ann represents the reformers of the early 20th century — progressive-era women, usually single, divorced, or separated.18 Similarly to the reform movement in real life, her success is punctuated with failure. Resistance to change costs Ann her job. The film’s social commentary is diluted by Ann’s personal “reform” — from independent woman to mother and wife. She encompasses the interior conflict of the female reformer, a split between “the feminine woman, whose goodness includes the desires of the flesh, and the career woman, whose evil includes every desire of the separate self.”19 Ann sums up her journey before her husband and child: “You and Matt brought me out of the prison of ambition. The prison of desire, of praise and success for myself.”20
By the 1930s the reform movement effectively failed. Tensions between the reformers’ ideals and prison politics prevented their long-term coexistence. “Many of the worst features in the historical record can be attributed to the contradiction inherent in ‘prison reform’ — a term that implies that an institution designed to deny individual liberty can be made more palatable,”21 writes Estelle B. Freedman in Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women Prison Reform in American, 1830-1930. The sexual stereotyping of women and domestic training remained the same in female prisons for most of the 20th century. The reformer became a staple of the WIP film.
Nick Grinde’s Convicted Woman (1940) confronts us with the wrongly accused woman. Betty Andrews (Rochelle Hudson) is sent to prison for a department store theft she did not commit. Comprised of old matrons, the prison staff is occupied with maintaining discipline by administering punishment. When a woman reformer, Mary Ellis (Frieda Inescort), arrives at the prison, she is greeted with skepticism by both the resistant staff and the hardened inmates. Mary allows the women to regain their individuality by letting them exert their external femininity (through makeup, nice clothing, and interactions with men). Betty, hardened, without faith in the system, leads the opposition but softens up when a male reporter enters the picture. Her eventual reform is due to a combination of her love interest and the new, feminine, prison. The simplistic solution was ridiculed by the New York Times, suggesting that “the State should provide antique pineapple poster bed . . . a mess-hall like a Madison Avenue tearoom, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays . . . and finally an annual spring dance, with a stag line made up of handsome cops and friendly newspaper reporters with dimples.”22
Ladies They Talk About was remade in 1942 by Robert Florey as Lady Gangster. It makes some critical changes to accommodate the production code’s stricter demands. Dot (Faye Emerson) is sent to prison after being caught as an accomplice in a bank robbery. Unlike Nan in the original film, Dot is not a known felon, nor does she use sex to manipulate men. She is portrayed as a victim thrown into the prison institution. Inside, she doesn’t show the same aggression that Nan shows toward her fellow inmates. Both Convicted Woman and Lady Gangster portray an institution closer to a kindergarten than a prison. The matrons tower over the inmates, who act like children toward each other. Historically, female inmates have been treated like children — referred to as “girls” rather than “ladies” or “women.” Estelle Freedman observes, “beneath it all is the view that women and children are inherently dependent, while men retain a degree of adult status.”23 In the coming mid cycle, the further stereotyping of the matron as evil enforcer worked to contrast the changing depiction of the inmate as a grown woman to saturate the depravity of their habitat.
The Mid Cycle: 1950-1968
The WIP genre proliferated during the 1950s, possibly due to social changes in post-WWII America. With the men off to Europe, women migrated away from home, looking for work, gaining newfound freedoms, and losing the influence of family and community.24 Reform remained a strong element, but the mid cycle showed awareness of the social tensions involved, highlighting reform’s failure rather than supporting its values. Even in films where reform was successful, the visual form and narrative extremities frame it as ironic. This cycle stresses an existential depression and despair. An almost prophetic review in the New York Times for the 1939 picture Women in Prison, directed by Lambert Hillyer, proves this change inevitable: “If these gang and prison melodramas keep up, and they’re bound to, we’re dreadfully afraid that someday the lady with the sword and scales just won’t be able to put forth that extra spurt at the finish. And then the villains will triumph, and who knows what will happen to the morals of our youth?”25
Commonly regarded as the film that established the WIP as a genre, John Cromwell’s Caged (1950) combined elements from previous films, fashioning them into a replicable formula. Unlike WIP films before it, Caged was confined to the institution. It offered no representation of life out of prison, establishing the “outside” as a desired mythical place. The film begins with Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) arriving at the prison and ends with her release. For the duration of the picture, the audience is confined with her. The viewer of the WIP film experiences the prison through the eyes of the new inmate. The reformer, in this case the head warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), functions as the viewer’s conscience. In Caged the reformer is helpless against the vicious, politically appointed head guard, Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson).
Marie has been sentenced as an accomplice to a robbery her husband committed. The loot amounted to five dollars. As the film progresses, Marie is gradually stripped of her femininity, from the external — losing her makeup — to the internal — losing her newborn baby. The prison masquerades as an agent to return women to domesticity, but in practice turns the good girl bad by masculinizing her. The serious maternal dilemma began with Caged (although signs of it already show in Marion Gering’s Ladies of the Big House, 1931) and repeated itself throughout the cycle, reminding viewers that “women in trouble pose a more serious threat to the ‘order’ of life because in essence they give us all life; they are the core of existence.”26
Harper, who is as butch as they come, teases the girls with her biggest advantage over them — the ability to exercise her womanhood. Her final act to masculinize Marie Allen is shaving off her hair, a symbolic rape that results in a look remarkably similar to the title character in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Despite trying her best to resist bad influences, Marie repeatedly gets knocked by the system. Desperate, she opts for a life of crime as the only solution. Her eventual release is shadowed by the sure promise that she will return.
A comparison of press reviews reveals how WIP has been solidified as a genre with its own conventions. In 1931, a review for Ladies of the Big House praised the “human highlights that give it compelling interest,” which were an early form of WIP stereotypes, as “the foreign woman who is terrified at the prospect of her impending baby born in jail . . . the stinking stool pigeon . . . the stalwart hard-faced matron . . . the Countess with drawing room manners . . . the hardboiled gang girl types …”27 In 1950, a review criticized Caged for being “cliché-ridden” and ran down a kitchen list of its stock characters.28 These stereotypes, developed through the early cycle, became law with Caged — part of the genre’s contract with its audience. The stereotype becomes a facilitator of confrontation — they turn the mirror on aspects of our society that are naturalized and toned down in more “respectable” films. In her essay “Exploitation and Feminism,” Pam Cook argues in favor: “If we attempt to deny the reality of the stereotype, to bypass the forms of the language of the dominant class, we place ourselves outside the historical struggle in the realms of the ideal world of narcissistic identification.”29
As a genre convention, the stereotype becomes a tool for subversion. The evil matron, Harper, towers over the inmates like a giant among a group of kids. But unlike, for example, Lady Gangster or Convicted Woman, for the first time the inmates are depicted as mature women, which intensifies the reality of their abuse — they are not children in need of discipline, but women in need of humanity. This is made possible thanks to the already established cinematic relationship between female inmates and guards.
Following in Caged‘s footsteps, Lewis Seiler’s Women’s Prison (1955) is a collage of stereotypes, from the wicked head matron (Ida Lupino), to the wrongly accused woman, the pregnant one, the crazy, the kind doctor, and the blonde bombshell. As opposed to Caged, the main character does reform thanks to the help of the prison doctor (Howard Duff). Only the presence of a male character could facilitate reform, showing the failure of women in that field. Freedman notes that the presence of male doctors in prisons contradicted “the theory, that women’s problems, whether medical or emotional, could best be treated by members of the same sex.”30 In Caged, the female reformer ultimately fails, although she sticks around determined to do her best; by Women’s Prison, the female reformer no longer exists.
The most popular form of WIP in the 1950s was the reformatory schoolgirl film, a reflection of the decade’s boom in juvenile delinquency and the mass hysteria it inspired. Boys generally committed more violent crimes; girls were detained for moral crimes. While a declining Hollywood attempted to produce family entertainment, the only ones to fully capitalize on the teenage market were the independents — the so-called exploitation industry — blasting drive-in screens with tales of teenage monsters, juvenile romance, rock ‘n’ roll, and delinquents. These films exploited not just teenage interests but the essence of being a teenager. The violent nature of male delinquency allowed it to be “legitimately” exploited in its urban habitat. Female delinquency, primarily viewed as sexual, posed a challenge to censorship. The reform school allowed for a way to exploit female juvenile delinquency by containing it, avoiding the visual representation of their crimes.
In Bernard Vorhaus’s So Young So Bad (1950), a psychiatrist, Dr. Jason (Paul Henried), enters a girl’s reformatory to encounter a “human wall” — an institution that values discipline over reform. Since women have failed as reformers, Dr. Jason arrives to help run the place. The female reformers are represented by Ruth (Catherine McLeod), a social worker in the institution who gave up on reform in favor of compromise. Loretta (Anne Francis), a pregnant delinquent, complains that the female reformers “talk like a public library but sooner or later they find out they’re really women.” Only when Ruth and Dr. Jason become lovers does she change her stance and join his fight.
The iconic evil matrons involve themselves in beatings, the clipping of girls’ hair, and the killing of animals (all features in common with Caged). The girls do reform through the acceptance of motherhood and femininity, but the cruelties they experience bring great discomfort. A disturbing feeling resonates despite the film’s happy ending. In his essay “Progressive Hollywood? So Young So Bad,” Tony Williams suggests the positive resolution might be nothing but a commercial necessity. Williams notes that the later blacklisting of director Bernard Vorhaus and screenwriter Jean Rouverol suggests a more complex social commentary against tyranny and fascism.31
Both So Young So Bad and Caged were written by women who extensively researched reformatories and prisons, respectively. Virginia Kellogg spent two months incarcerated as a special inmate for Caged; Jean Rouverol visited numerous reform schools to script So Young So Bad. The great resemblance in themes and images between the two suggests an emotional truth. They create an alternative, highly stylized world of stereotypes without jeopardizing the integrity of the material.
The majority of 1950s reformatory films practiced pure exploitation, often mixing genres in order to attract larger demographics. Edward Bernds’s Reform School Girl (1957) added male delinquency to the mix; László Kardos’s The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957) merged the reform school with the horror film; Mamie Van Doren starred in Howard W. Koch’s Untamed Youth (1957) and Charles F. Haas’s Girls Town (1959), combining reformatory with the teenage musical. Untamed Youth was particularly ambitious, attempting to capitalize on the scenery (prison farm), rock ‘n’ roll (Eddie Cochran), and even Calypso.
Bernard Girard’s The Green Eyed Blonde (1957) is one of the more interesting examples of the reformatory film. Produced by Warner Bros., the film was written by Dalton Trumbo under the guise of Sally Stubblefield due to his blacklisting. It attempts to make a “safer” product out of an exploitation formula. As a result, it highlights the tension between the mainstream and independent industries. The Green Eyed Blonde opens with the admittance of Betsy Abel (Susan Oliver) to the reformatory. She bore a baby out of marriage and refuses to point out who the father is. She completely rejects the baby’s existence. When the other girls find out Betsy’s drunken mother intends to give the baby up for adoption, they kidnap him and raise him in their dorm room. The girls can’t resist their maternal instincts, through which they also reform. The matrons are tough and unlikeable, but not sadistic. The female reformer is present, but her effect on the plot is minimal.
Because of its inherent subversive nature, the reformatory concept doesn’t lend itself easily to mainstream exploitation. The Green Eyed Blonde unsuccessfully tries to mediate between the two. More polished than that of So Young So Bad, the cast of girls still looks youthful enough to cause genuine concern. Betsy is expected to accept her baby in order to reform, but the infant is also the result of the “crime” she was detained for to begin with. Despite the sugar-coated resolution, Betsy pays a debt probably owed by her male counterpart and her abusive mother.
The warden in The Green Eyed Blonde has a problem; she needs to administer but also to discipline. She explains: “Can’t you see it’s helpless? We have them with us for a couple of years and then we send them right back to the same environment that brought them here in the first place.” The mid cycle engages the viewer in a discussion about the different perceptions of crime and punishment — the biological and the environmental.
The biological approach, popularized by the Italian philosopher Lombroso in 1895, maintains there are physiological reasons for crime. Lombroso compared the female criminal to the savage woman by breaking down her physical traits, which, according to him, featured “an excess of male characteristics.”32 Starting in 1900, female reformers publicly opposed Lombroso’s theory. They pointed out the problem of differentiating the standard upon which women and men are judged.33 In 1911, the reformer Mary Conyngton suggested that the majority of women prisoners were “victims of poor birth, poor environment, poor training, and bad association.”34 The biological approach requires punishment; the environmental requires retraining. This tension threatens to tear the system apart. In Women’s Prison, for example, superintendent Ida Lupino rejects the environmental approach: “Frankly, I’m not impressed by backgrounds. This is a prison.” In So Young So Bad, Dr. Jason and the head warden have the following exchange:
Warden: “Look, I’ve had a lot of experience in penal institutions. Believe me, your whole approach is impractical”Dr. Jason: “You mean you can’t change human nature.”Warden: “Most of these girls will be arrested again before they’re out of here a year. Why be sentimental about congenital criminals?”Dr. Jason: “It’s in their blood, of course!”Warden: “Teach them to respect authority.”
Very few WIP films were produced in the U.S. during the 1960s. In a decade marked by the sexual revolution, independent films (by then the major exploiters of WIPs) were occupied with bikers, hippies, and LSD. The cinematic outlaw transformed into an individual who can’t be contained within any social institution. The WIP immigrated to Europe but circled back to the U.S. in a revisionist mode in the 1970s.
The Late Cycle: 1969-1974
With the WIP’s conventions established, the late-cycle films were able to consciously refer to and parody them. Reform was ridiculed by ideas of revolution — both violent and sexual. Women were a force to reckon with. Following the sexual revolution, sex was accepted as a legitimate component in people’s lives, “unbound by older ideals of marital fidelity and performance.”35 The late-cycle WIPs subverted the genre’s conventional attitude toward sex, which was read as a power to their advantage rather than the source of their condemnation. These women could not be mistaken for innocent victims of domestic oppression. Jess Franco’s 99 Women (1969) presents an important shift in the development of the genre’s narrative. It is the only foreign production discussed here. With the absence of major American WIP productions during the 1960s, it fills in the evolutionary gap between the mid cycle and the late cycle.
99 Women raises the levels of excess and eccentricity of the genre’s characters. A negative New York Times review complained, “These unlikely inmates wear the shortest shifts ever seen in any prison movie.”36 The characters are extreme versions of the usual stereotypes — if the matrons in previous films alluded to fascism, the one here is clearly a Nazi, sporting a copy of La Europa de Hitler on her bookshelf. The inmates are hypersexual, leading to soft-core lesbianism, which mid-cycle films were only able to vaguely allude to due to censorship. 99 Women was also the first film to displace the prison from its urban habitat into a jungle-like locale (a prison island, in this case).
99 Women stresses the final and absolute failure of reform. A female reformer, Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell), arrives at the prison to find a corrupt, vicious institution. She encounters resistance from both staff and inmates. The warden, Ms. Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), disapproves even of medicine: “This is a place where we perform punishment for crimes, not operations for ulcers.” The staff is so sadistic that the inmates view the reformer as a hopeful miracle worker. In a conventional genre plot device, the inmates riot against their oppressors, ignoring the reformer’s advice that it could only worsen their situation. The revolt fails, leading to the final solution: “The argument for a return to a policy of unrelenting discipline seems to be overwhelming.” The reformer is sent packing.
The difference between the failures of reform in 99 Women and Caged, for example, is that although Marie Allen turns to a life of crime, she is still released. In 99 Women no one leaves — they are stuck. The reformer’s dismissal rids us as viewers of our conscience, allowing us to take the prisoner’s side in rebellion in the upcoming films, where the idea of reform is rendered laughable. As she departs the island, Leonie blames her failure on the one excess lacking from these films: “I seem to be a victim of a disease that does not flourish within prison walls. I suffer from an excess of humanity.”
The 1960s culminated in a series of violent events — Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Black Panthers’ activities, the Manson murders, the Rolling Stones Altamont concert that ended with a homicide and three accidental deaths, the Vietnam War. Independent cinema gradually turned bleaker, more sexual, and eventually, to compete with hardcore pornography, more violent. Inspired by the women’s liberation movement, producers exploited “the topicality of feminism in the early 1970s and the volatile emotions that surround it to attract an audience of male and female filmgoers.”37
Roger Corman was the most prolific producer of WIP films in the U.S. Early in his career, he directed the low-budget WIP film, Swamp Women (1955). In the 1970s, his production company, New World Pictures, was the home for the major entries of the late cycle. Of the films discussed below, only Sweet Sugar wasn’t his production. Corman recognized that “the films which did best for New World were those in which the women decided their own destinies, and the super-assertive woman figure was developed as a response to a market demand.”38
Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1971) established many of the genre’s new conventions. The film’s foreign locale — it takes place in a remote banana republic — allowed filmmakers to criticize the establishment but at the same time “not draw criticism for attacking an American social institution.”39 The Big Doll House further parodies old genre stereotypes — most visibly in shape of the caring prison doctor, the pathetic face of reform. The doctor is easily lured by the feminine warden, blind to the real condition of the girls, and ends up kidnapped by them in their escape. Reform isn’t even an option. It’s the last time the narrative will call for it. The Big Doll House proposes a solution in revolution — escape.
Following The Big Doll House, Jack Hill’s The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Joe Viola’s The Hot Box (1972) bluntly express the revolutionary angle, not only by the inmates’ collective uprising but by the inclusion of actual revolutionaries in their narrative. In The Big Bird Cage, revolutionaries help the girls break out of prison to recruit them as an army; in the The Hot Box, revolutionaries kidnap and imprison American nurses so that they can help their cause. These revolts, however, amount either to failure or to partial success, and involve many casualties.
Some of the new conventions were directly related to commerce. The banana-republic film was frequently shot in the Philippines, due to lower production costs. The nudity was mandatory for the films’ promotion. Sex and violence were no longer a taboo to avoid but a commodity to exploit — becoming a convention. The crime of prostitution turned from the most embarrassing crime (“common prostitutes,” as they are referred to in Caged) to the least of crimes. During the first act of The Big Bird Cage, future inmate Terry tells her male captor: “You can’t rape me, I like sex.” New stock characters were added, such as the lesbian, the strong African American woman, and the junkie (usually the same as the stool pigeon).
In Sweet Sugar (1972), the subverted character of the doctor — now a part of the evil pact — is a former Nazi. He performs medical experiments on the girls in an attempt to cure frigidity, administering them with a drug to make them climax. The male guards in Sweet Sugar are vulnerable because they are driven by sex. Fascination with the female orgasm leads to the downfall of men. They use femininity to their advantage, manipulating the guards to assist in their escape. Once used to domesticate them, their femininity bcomes a weapon useful in regaining their freedom. Ironically, as the WIP genre grew more exploitative, it became more empowering to women, allowing for the “climatic images of women taking up arms to end their oppression.”40
Through its excesses, the late-cycle WIP engages in a visual conversation about the holder of the gaze. Marie (Maria Rohm), the protagonist of 99 Women, is forced into an act of lesbianism, performed by the stool pigeon at the order of the male prison-governor, Santos (Herbert Lom). The camera shifts visually between points-of-view — Marie’s experience is that of a violent rape; Santos, as spectator, sees an eroticized act. In The Big Doll House, girls are tortured and executed in front of a sadistic masked villain, Mendoza, head of the “secret police,” assumed to be male. The inmates eventually unmask Mendoza, to find out that he and the warden are the same person — under the feminine guise, the female could also be the voyeur — objectifying, not objectified. Judith Mayne wrote in Framed: Lesbians, Feminists, and Media Culture: “The WIP film does not just portray the ‘objectification’ of the female body as it has been theorized in feminist film studies; the genre is also predicated on the possibility that women observe other women.”41 Linda Williams, in her essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” suggests this voyeurism is an inherent part of us as film viewers: “The categories of fetishism, voyeurism, and sadism and masochism frequently invoked to describe the pleasures of film spectatorship, are, by definition, perversions. Perversions are usually defined as gratuitous sexual excesses . . . What is film, after all, without voyeurism?”42
Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island (1973) subverts the traditional pessimistic outlook of the WIP film, offering an optimistic end for its misfits — reforming not the individual criminal but society itself. Set in the near future, the film shows the U.S. having given up the death penalty in favor of disposing first-degree murderers on a distant island, where they are to spend the rest of their lives — the “final solution.” The criminals (men and women) create a society based on sexual hierarchy. Women are to serve men as housewives and prostitutes. One girl complains when she has to cook for the men: “I’ve got tits so I have to play Betty Crocker.” By the end of the film a group of rebels overthrows the existing regime, restructuring society on the island as one of equal opportunity. Dr. Milford (Tom Selleck), the island’s physician and an inmate himself, is given the chance to return to civilization. He chooses to stay. Rothman affirms that this new society might actually be better than our own: “Terminal Island is a film that rejects this deterministic view of human nature. The future there is dangerous too, but the possibility of change, including change for the better, survives.”43 In structuring a better society, Terminal Island solved the problem of the remote locale.
The late cycle peaked with Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974). Demme returned the prison to the American urban jungle, making clear that the torments suffered by prisoners were, in fact, happening in the U.S.44 Conscious of the genre’s conventions, history, and form, Demme comments on its traditions and social implications. He shows an abundance of nudity but eliminates eroticism. Images of women’s bodies are not presented in a sexual context, subverting one of the biggest conventions of the late cycle. Demme teases his viewers — a scene opens with a close-up of Pandora (Ella Reid), moaning in ecstasy. The camera pulls back to reveal Pandora engaging in a passionate game of craps, shaking dice. McQueen (Barbara Steele), the warden, crippled and masculine, exerts her femininity only in her dreams. Oppressing her own nature, she views sex as the primary reason for crime. McQueen tries to assert the value of the prison: “We punish here, as well as correct.” Thomas Schatz notes, in the late-cycle of a genre, “we no longer look through the form . . . we look at the form.”45
Keeping with the trend of optimism in these late films, Caged Heat ends with a successful escape, in which, for the first time, there are no inmate casualties. Our heroes all break out, and only the sadistic staff meets a violent end. It is the final victory of revolution; the solution to the urban dilemma. Suzanna Danuta Walters concludes in Caged Heat: The Revolution of Women in Prison Films: “The obvious self-consciousness concerning the genre it both reproduces and spoofs is both funny and cinematically revealing . . . Women are liberated, kill all the bad guys, and the heroine is not married off or reunited with a male savior.”46
Today, the process of genre development takes a fraction of the time it once did. A genre is established within one or two hit films, immediately imitated by countless productions during a short period of time, followed by extensive parodies that bring about the genre’s demise. This accelerated progression leaves us devoid of genre’s most powerful tool — conventions. The rich history of the WIP genre serves as a case study for the importance of genre development for the film industry.
Schatz separates genres between those of order and integration. The genre of order features a male hero, unstable space, violence, and themes of redemption and self-reliance. The genre of integration is female dominant, ideologically stable, and emotional, featuring themes of integration-domestication and maternal codes.47 The WIP genre started out as one of integration, supporting ideas of domesticity, helping women regain stability. In later years it shifted to one of order, detaching women from the patriarchal institution. By changing the female-heroine’s narrative from that of integration to that of order, the WIP created unique images of women who “fight back and (often) emerge stronger, tougher, united in female opposition to male brutality.”48
The WIP films confront the viewer with the criminal woman — depraved and hidden from society — not in the context of the Other’s crime but through our own brutality and inhumanity as a society. These films, particularly in their exploitative modes, “do not tell us so much about the Other as they do about the fears and anxieties of those who made and saw the movies.”49
- Walters, Suzanna Danuta, “Caged Heat: The (R)evolution on Women-in-Prison Films,” in Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies, ed. Martha McCaughey and Neal King (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 106. [↩]
- Promotional material for Swamp Women. 1956. Favorite Films. Directed by Roger Corman; Caged. 1950. Warner Bros. Directed by John Cromwell; Caged Heat. 1974. New World Pictures. Directed by Jonathan Demme. [↩]
- Bourget, Jean-Loup, “Social Implications in the Hollywood Genre,” in Film Genre Reader II, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas, 1995), 50. [↩]
- Finely, James B., qtd. in Freedman, Estelle B., Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women Prison Reform in American, 1830-1930 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 18. [↩]
- Ibid., 31. [↩]
- Schatz, Thomas, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1981), 41. [↩]
- Morton, Jim, “Women in Prison Films,” in Incredibly Strange Films, ed. Jim Morton (San Francisco: Re/Search Publications), 152. [↩]
- Brownlow, Kevin, Behind the Mask of Innocence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), xvii. [↩]
- D’Emilio, John. and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 241. [↩]
- Freedman, Estelle B., Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women Prison Reform in American, 1830-1930 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 146-7. [↩]
- Neroni, Hilary, The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 18. [↩]
- Higham, Charles, Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 94. [↩]
- Ibid., 216. [↩]
- Ibid., 183. [↩]
- Char., “Ladies They Talk About,” Variety, vol. 109, no. 12 (New York: Feb 28, 1933) P. 15. [↩]
- A.D.S, “A Woman Bandit,” sec. Amusements, New York Times, Feb 25, 1933, P. 20. [↩]
- Cromwell, John, dir. Ann Vickers. RKO, 1933. Film. [↩]
- Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers, 109. [↩]
- Thornham, Sue, Passionate Detachments: An Introduction to Feminist Film Theory (London: Arnold, 1997), 7. [↩]
- Cromwell, Ann Vickers. [↩]
- Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers, 153. [↩]
- B. R. Crisler, “Convicted Woman” New York Times, sec. Amusements, Feb 26, 1940, P.11. [↩]
- Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers, 154-55. [↩]
- D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 260. [↩]
- Nugent, Frank S. “The Screen: At the Rialto,” New York Times, March 1, 1938, P. 19. [↩]
- Gonthier, David, Jr., American Prison Film Since 1930: From The Big House to Shawshank Redemption (UK: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 46. [↩]
- Rush, “Ladies of the Big House,” Variety, vol. 105, no. 4 (New York: Jan 5, 1932) P. 19. [↩]
- “Bleak Picture of a Women’s Prison,” New York Times, sec. Amusements, May 20, 1950, P. 8. [↩]
- Cook, Pam, “Exploitation Films and Feminism,” Screen, vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer, 1976), 123. [↩]
- Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers, 71. [↩]
- Williams, Tony, “Progressive Hollywood? So Young So Bad,” Senses of Cinema (December 2004). <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/34/so_young_so_bad.html> [↩]
- Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers, 112. [↩]
- Ibid., 113-115. [↩]
- Ibid., 122. [↩]
- D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 327. [↩]
- A. H. Weiler, “’99 Women,’ Prison Inmates in Miniskirts,” New York Times, May 22, 1969, P. 52. [↩]
- Jenkins, Henry, “Exploiting Feminism in Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island,” in The Wow Climas: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture (New York: University Press, 2007), 104. [↩]
- Cook, “Exploitation Films,” 125-6. [↩]
- Clark, Randall, At a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The History, Culture, and Politics of the American Exploitation Film (New York: Garland, 1995), 85. [↩]
- Jenkins, “Exploiting Feminism,” 113. [↩]
- Mayne, Judith, “Caged and Framed: The Women-in-Prison Film,” in Framed: Lesbians, Feminists, and Media Culture (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 117. [↩]
- Williams, Linda, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Film Genre Reader II, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas, 1995), 146. [↩]
- Rothman, Stephanie, “A New Beginning on Terminal Island,” in Omni’s Screen Flights / Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Danny Peary (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 138. [↩]
- Clark, Randall, At a Theate, 86. [↩]
- Schatz, Hollywood Genres, 38. [↩]
- Walters, “Caged Heat,” 116. [↩]
- Schatz, Hollywood Genres, 35. [↩]
- Walters, “Caged Heat,” 122. [↩]
- Schaffer, Eric, “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 13. [↩]