I was prompted to look for this film (I found it online) after a comment on my post about Benedetta. It was suggested to me that the idea of a ‘nunsploitation’ picture was closely related to the women’s prison film, a genre that began to develop particularly in the 1950s as the American film industry – and film audiences – began to change. Films about women in prison offered an emotional hotpot of female only communities placed under pressure. Such films can be traced back to the silent era, gradually developing in pre-code Hollywood but then being restricted to approved stories of rehabilitation during the studio period. In 1950 Warner Bros released Caged and United Artists released So Young, So Bad. These two studio releases signalled the start of a move towards harder narratives and the establishment of a more defined genre repertoire. Women’s Prison in 1955 was one of the first films to focus entirely on the prison community with all the criminal activity and judicial procedures prior to incarceration being omitted.
My choice of this title is simply because it is Ida Lupino’s last cinema release for a major studio in which she takes the lead role. She would continue acting in TV dramas and independent cinema releases until the late 1970s but at this point, still aged only 37, she remained able to command the screen and to ‘carry’ the film. Why was the only recognised female director in Hollywood at the time prepared to star in a ‘women in prison’ picture? The answer is simple economic necessity. The attempt to distribute the films produced by Filmakers, the company owned by Lupino and her second husband Collier Young, was proving unsuccessful and in January 1955 it moved to find another major distributor for future product. It was also in trouble with the Screen Actors Guild because it had sold a film (Never Fear, 1950) to television without paying residuals to the actors involved. Lupino needed to find extra income. Women in Prison was made by an independent, Bryan Foy Productions, but it was distributed by Columbia. There was a strong supporting cast with Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter as the featured inmates and Lupino’s then husband Howard Duff playing opposite his wife as the potential good guy. Lupino herself was the manic and sadistic superintendent of the women’s half of a state prison in which the overall governor ran the men’s half. The two communities were physically separated but the possibility that an inmate could cross over to the ‘other side’ would become an aspect of the plot. The writers Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur were experienced in a range of genres as was director Lewis Seiler and DoP Lester White. Ida Lupino could at least be confident that these guys knew what they were doing.
Wikipedia has an interesting page on the ‘Women in Prison’ genre and unsurprisingly there is a scholarly interest in the genre from feminist film academics. Women’s Prison arguably brings together several familiar elements of the developing repertoire and establishes a new direction for the genre which takes off in the mid 1950s and then rapidly expands in the 1970s. Ida Lupino herself appeared in a TV movie in 1972, Women in Chains in which she is the lead, again as a tyrannical chief warden. Women in Prison opens in a classical manner with the arrival of two young women as new prisoners. Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) has been inside before for passing fake cheques and she knows what to expect. Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) is a middle class woman convicted of manslaughter having caused the death of a child in a road accident. She is already traumatised and clearly unlikely to get through the brutal treatment in which, as a new inmate, she is to be kept in solitary for the first few days. Brenda will attempt to support Helene but we are quickly introduced to two other characters who will also be central to the narrative. Cleo Moore plays the voluptuous 1950s young woman found in many exploitation films of the period and Audrey Totter plays the wife of a convicted criminal who has refused to betray her husband and has been convicted of possession of a weapon. He is being held in the adjacent men’s prison and the plot involves his attempts to to get into the women’s prison and visit his wife. There are two other notable supporting players. Juanita Moore, one of the few African-American players to feature in a variety of roles in Hollywood in the studio period (i.e. not only as a music star or as a servant) is part of an all-black quartet in one of the cells. This segregation is not commented on. Moore would have her biggest role as the mother in Douglas Sirk’s hit melodrama Imitation of Life in 1959. Vivian Marshall plays a stripper who is able to perform impersonations of film stars and this will also provide a key plot device in the film.
The whole cast of inmates performs well as an ensemble which also includes the female warders, one of whom is played by Mae Clarke (who had a grapefruit pushed into her face by Jimmy Cagney in 1931’s Public Enemy). This leaves the central tussle between Lupino’s Amelia van Zandt as the superintendent and Howard Duff as the prison doctor who appears to be both general physician and psychologist. He will attempt to stop the harsh treatment of Helene but will be overruled by the superintendent. Lupino is genuinely terrifying as the sadistic van Zandt. She wears tight-fitting costumes complete with a studded leather belt to which are attached her master keys. By contrast all the female inmates are dressed in drab and poorly fitted uniforms. This would change in later examples of the genre with the opportunity to show prisoners in skimpy costumes and stages of undress being exploited as the production code was eased in the 1960s. Women’s Prison concentrates on the ensemble and the interweaving stories which build to an ultimate confrontation with van Zandt.
I found the film very entertaining and Variety‘s reviewer seemed to share my view. The January 20 1955 trade show screening report concludes that this film is a “good entry in the programmer market”. This raises the question of the ‘B’ picture designation. Ida Lupino has been tagged with the designation of a ‘B’ picture director and, in the 1950s, a ‘B’ picture actor. The film scholar Annette Kuhn published a book on Lupino’s directorial work in in film and TV which was given the title ‘Queen of the Bs’. I’ve not read the book but I suspect that the title has been applied by other commentators rather glibly. I think that Variety‘s comment here refers to the studios’ double bill practice in the early 1950s. Columbia distributed Women’s Prison as an 80 minute feature which could be paired with one of several other Columbia pictures, but it was also promoted in the trades alongside Columbia’s A releases. Variety shows the film being booked with films such as Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954) with Glenn Ford and The Violent Men (1955), a Western also with Glenn Ford. Masterson of Kansas (1954), also a Western, was another picture from the previous year which was paired with the prison film. Women in Prison was the lead on these double bills and was performing well in cinemas. Box office for the film was ‘good’ in New York, ‘sock’ in Philadelphia and ‘sturdy’ in Chicago. Cleo Moore was recognised as a draw when she made a personal appearance. Columbia also had a Korean War picture, Bamboo Prison (1955) which was in a double bill with Women’s Prison and the this did very well in Philadelphia. In New York the film did good business as part of a vaudeville programme. In several locations Women’s Prison lasted two or three weeks.
Generally the film is referred to as a melodrama in the trades and there is also a sense in which it is viewed as a ‘social problem’ melodrama. Although the closing sequence presents exciting action, the real thrust of the narrative is for the women to expose the incompetence and and dangerous behaviour of the superintendent towards the inmates. The promotional material for the film hints at more in terms of sensationalist exposure than is actually delivered. What we get is a well-made drama and a worthy entry in Lupino’s long list of credits.
I’d like to acknowledge the detailed blog post by ‘Monster Girl’ (Jo Gabriel) on Women’s Prison which is well worth a read and offers a woman’s perspective on the genre. Here’s an early scene from the film when the two new inmates meet Juanita Moore who explains that she’s called Polyclinic after the hospital she was born in!
Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.
Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.
Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.
The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.
The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).
In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.
The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951) (DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.
But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.
The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.
Basil Dearden is renowned as a director of ‘social problem’ films (see his Sapphire); though I remember the late Victor Perkins complaining about his abilities as a director. Violent Playground focuses on juvenile delinquents (what’s happened to them?) and draws upon Liverpool police force’s pioneering use of a ‘juvenile liaison officer’. That’s the reluctant Stanley Baker who, of course, falls for the sister of prime delinquent (David McCallum).
The location shooting is effective but it’s striking that there’s only one Scouse accent on show (a very young Freddie Starr) though the focus is on an Irish family. The staging of the siege at a primary school at the film’s climax, though, is farcical. The high drama of the scene is constantly undermined by PC Plod behaviour and John Slater’s weatherworn face, for example, never changes expression whether he’s facing a crazed gunman or asking for a cup of tea. Peter Cushing appears as a priest casting reassurance about him even as he’s been pushed off a ladder.
Baker’s his usual intense self but his modernity, as a male role model of the era, is strikingly compromised in a scene where the youngsters are driven into a trance like state by the ‘moronic’ rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. Rarely has a scene encapsulated the older generation’s inability to understand the zeitgeist; the transformation of youth into zombies, complete with violent tendencies, dramatises the filmmakers’ incomprehension of what we now to be one of the most significant cultural influences of the 20th century. Baker’s as dumbfounded as the filmmakers but his desire for the sister makes him an understanding character.
As in Sapphire, the film is an excellent example of the mores of the time. It includes named ‘Chinese’ characters and black faces are purposely included to show the multicultural basis of the community. This shows Dearden and his filmmakers to be more in tune with the zeitgeist than the current Conservative candidate for the mayor of London who thinks multiculturalism is a bad thing. Fancy being more outdated than a middle-aged ’50s filmmaker!
It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.
Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.
Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrea and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.
Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well-known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.
The final screening in the Ida Lupino retrospective again proved to be a fascinating production and an absorbing film. I’m indebted to the excellent detailed study of Lupino’s work on the Cinema Scope website by Christoph Huber for some of the insights explored here. After The Hitch-Hiker was a sleeper hit (earning over $1 million dollars) Lupino was persuaded by her partners at The Filmakers, against her best instincts, to end the link with RKO and distribute The Bigamist independently. Although by all accounts they promoted the film well, it failed at the box office and sent The Filmakers into a decline it never recovered from. That’s a shame because The Bigamist is definitely worth seeing and we were able to watch a 35mm restoration by UCLA. I understand that some of the other films from The Filmakers are now in the public domain and only exist on poor quality video transfers.
The Bigamist is an example of how Ida Lupino managed to bring elements of film noir to bear on a social issue/problem film. The plot involves a couple, Harry (Edmond O’Brien) and Eve (Joan Fontaine) who want to adopt a child. An agency is pleased to help them and Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) sets out to investigate whether the couple will be good parents. Jordan is a complex character drawing on Gwenn’s signature role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. He appears avuncular (he was 75 when the film came out) but also sharp as a tack when it comes to checking out a prospective parent. He follows Harry, a travelling salesman, from San Francisco to Los Angeles where he corners him and extracts a story, told in flashback in the best film noir style. Eve is the wife and Ida Lupino herself is Phyllis, the woman in another city who Harry turns to from loneliness. I don’t really need to say any more, except that Lupino handles the narrative with great skill and cleverly allows for an ‘open ending’ when the two women meet after the court hearing.
What I found fascinating was that Lupino injects a real sense of disturbance through Mr. Jordan’s investigation. Innocent actions by Harry can take on different meanings and eventually he will be ‘betrayed’. Lupino plays her part very well and she gives it a tone of the innocent young woman caught up in a film noir story. She knew all about that from her own acting career. She was 35 when she made the picture but feels younger. Having said that she has a mature woman’s playful response to Harry’s attempted pickup. Joan Fontaine is also well cast as Eve, unable to have children, super-efficient at building a business with Harry and concerned about her own parents. Harry’s actions are stupid perhaps, but not malicious. He tries to do his best for both women and that’s why it is oddly satisfying that we are denied a ‘resolution’. In the central role, Edmond O’Brien is very good indeed.
The Bigamist looks good and that’s probably down to the partnership of Ida Lupino as director and George Deskant as cinematographer. Deskant had been behind the camera at RKO since 1946 and he’d worked with Lupino, shooting On Dangerous Ground (1951) and another title from The Filmakers, Beware, My Lovely (1952). After The Bigamist he moved into TV – like Lupino herself and I think he must have shot several of the many TV episodes Ida Lupino directed. I suspect too that others from The Bigamist crew followed her into TV. Christoph Huber adds another twist, reporting that Lupino and Deskant decided to use a different camera crew for Eve’s and Phyllis’s scenes. I confess I’m not sure what this achieved. The other strange set of links about The Bigamist concerns Collier Young. His marriage to Lupino had ended in 1951 and in 1952 he married Joan Fontaine. Ida Lupino thus found herself directing her ex-husband’s new wife in a film he produced and for which he provided the original story and even took a bit part in a scene featuring Lupino. The landlady of the apartment house where Phyllis lives is played by Joan Fontaine’s mother Lilian. In one sense it sounds like a bewildering experience for Lupino yet I think it demonstrates how organised and disciplined she must have been. The result is a tight 80 minute feature with not a frame wasted. It’s not surprising that Ida Lupino was so prolific in directing episodes of TV series from 1956 until the late 1960s (during which time she also acted on TV). One other aspect of The Filmakers work that is interesting is an early embracing of product placement in The Bigamist – a clever way to make some extra money. I didn’t notice it until I found it mentioned in a useful Cineaste piece by Dan Georgakas (Vol XXV No. 3 June 2000).
I’m now on a search for more Ida Lupino films – those she directed and those she acted in. Thanks Glasgow FF!