Sunday, April 21, 2013

DVR Diary: HOUSE OF WOMEN (1962)

They should have called it House of Women and Children. Nothing quite kills the buzz of a women-in-prison picture like a bunch of toddling brats, but the maternal bond is a big deal in this latter-day social-problem picture from Warner Bros., credited to Walter Doniger but mostly shot by writer Crane Wilbur. It worried me at first to see stock footage from (I believe) the pre-Code prison picture Ladies They Talk About over the opening credits, but Doniger and Wilbur were able to assemble a respectable number of she-cons for a B picture, just not as many as were available to a studio director thirty years earlier. The story here is that Erica (Shirley Knight) is doing five years as an accomplice to robbery -- we later learn that she was essentially innocent -- but arrived in the clink without the authorities knowing she was pregnant with her dead husband's baby. When the compassionate, alcoholic prison doctor (Jason Evers) discovers this, Erica expresses her hope that she'll lose the baby. Little does she known that a women's prison is practically a government-run nursery. She'll get to keep her little girl until the child turns three, and she'll be up for parole shortly after that birthday. If she plays her cards right, she should be able to keep her baby once she becomes a free woman. One factor complicates things: the male warden (an unusually mustachioed Andrew Duggan) is a misogynist who dislikes the idea of babies in prison, yet falls for Erica when she works as a maid at his home as a trustee. The warden's bitter because, back when he ran a men's prison, his wife ran off with a parolee. Not trusting Erica to be faithful, or even to think of him, once she's free, he works to deny her parole, not long after her daughter has been taken away while Erica was planning a big birthday party for her with all the convict mommies and their kiddies. Add to that somebody else's unsupervised brat taking a dive off a roof and we're gonna have ourselves a riot....

The women are all quite demure if not chic in their prison dresses, their semi-sensible shoes and their thoroughly styled and sprayed Sixties hair -- except for the token pants-wearing "butch" whose idea of harassing a straight con is defacing her photo of Troy Donahue. Action takes second place to melodrama here, which is probably for the best given the big action scenes we get. The most memorable of these is the riot that breaks up that aborted birthday party. While Erica faints to retain her innocence, her convict pals turn on the guards, throwing chairs, presents and the birthday cake at them. Whoever directed this scene breaks it down to a bunch of sight gags, whether they intended them to be funny or not, intercut with shots of crying or inert children. For this kind of picture an earnest speech is part of the camp value and we get one on the disadvantages of the parole system from one of Erica's friends (Barbara Nichols), an ex-stripper who refuses parole because it hardly qualifies as freedom when she can't associate with her friends and "can't die without asking permission." Overall there's too much playing for pathos and too many damn kids laying around for House of Women to rise to guilty pleasure level. This has to be one of the last WIP pictures before changing production standards allowed more honest sleaze, and it proves that the change was probably overdue when it came.

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