Easy. For starters, make your women convicts the least hard-boiled, least menacing bunch of cons you can imagine. The inmate population are really a merry sorority once you get to know them, and once you get over your own terror at the prospect of exile from home and hubby. We actually get off to a strong start as we follow Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) into the can. She's no criminal, but she happened to kill a kid while speeding. She can't take the confinement and isolation, and spends her first night on a non-stop crying jag until the guards have to put her in a straitjacket and dump her in a padded cell.
"I'd know those legs anywhere!" Juanita Moore welcome Jan Sterling back to stir. Below, the hand won't look as good as those legs after this stunt.
Dr. Crane: May I tell you what's wrong with you?...You dislike most of the women here because, deep down, you're jealous of them.
Van Zandt: That's absurd.
Crane: You're feminine, attractive. You must have had opportunities to marry. Maybe you even cared for somebody once in your cold way.
VZ: How dare you!?
Crane: But possibly he turned to someone who could give him what he really wanted: warmth, understanding, love. There's hardly a woman inside these walls who doesn't know what love is.
VZ: Yes, and that's why most of them are here.
Crane: Exactly. Even the broken wrecks have known some kind of love, and that's why you hate them.
The film goes on to confirm this laymen's analysis when Van Zandt is cornered inside the padded cell by a vengeful male con during a riot. Threatening him with reprisals against his wife, not knowing that she's already dead, the warden cracks and raves "I hate them all! I hate them all!" before Dr. Crane calls for the straitjacket. Maybe I'm being politically correct, but there's something ugly about this. There've been evil and sadistic male wardens in prison films, and some of that evil sadism may well be blamed on sexual or social dysfunction, but the way Women's Prison goes about it you're invited to assume that something's wrong with Van Zandt just for being a warden instead of somebody's wife. Having to perform this role seems like a penance for Lupino, an almost unconscious punishment of her by Hollywood for being uppity enough to become a producer and director. However, if you resist reading too much into the role, you can probably get some campy pleasure out Lupino's chic villainy, whether she's slapping the daylights out of a pregnant con or virtually climbing the walls of that padded cell.
Above, Lupino lays the smack down on Audrey Totter. Below, disguised escapees (l-r) Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore and Vivian Marshall threaten revenge.
Columbia pitched Women's Prison as a racier film than it really is, and the film presents itself as a kind of social problem picture denouncing the persistence of co-ed prisons -- the sexes are segregated but are all in the same compound. Today, Sony pitches it as a film noir, but despite its dark and shadowy moments it falls short of the genre standard. For a film set in prison there's little sense of criminality or guilt in it. The women prisoners are somehow too good to be true, and that's a no-no for noir. But since Sony is also sort of selling the Bad Girls collections as camp (why else advertise Cleo Moore's limitation as an actress?) Women's Prison would seem to belong. It's definitely a document of its time, and its certainty that it will shock audiences is one of its more charming features now.