Chicago’s Music Box Theater is currently running its sixth-annual noir festival, primed with several domestic and international titles. One of the more curious pictures on their programming, the subject of this piece, is John Cromwell’s 1950 film Caged. In a festival featuring the established presence of global auteurs like Akira Kurosawa, Luchino Visconti, and Jean-Pierre Melville, this small female prison drama from a prolific but largely unacknowledged director seemed out of place. But the film is a startlingly poignant piece that bares some striking similarities to Netflix’s streaming success, Orange is the New Black. The points of recognition are very obvious, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine Netflix’s flagship show existing were it not for the groundwork laid out by Caged.
The similar narrative threads between Caged and Orange is the New Black (henceforth known as Orange) converge when analyzing the character arc of its lead characters. Caged’s Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) and Orange’s Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) are first introduced as deer-in-headlights - white women of modest privilege whose dedication to their significant other have led them to incarceration. Both women are domesticated, in that both serviced their lover’s criminal intent and paid with time beyond bars. And both women are inherently feminine. They each possess a particular softness, perhaps best realized in Caged, where Marie, following a line of questioning, is left to take a mug shot. Clearly distressed, she asks if she may have a comb. The prison guard replies with a loaded remark: who is Marie to impress if there are no men around?
Orange positions Piper in a similarly distressed social circumstance. Piper’s fiancé accompanies her prior to her imprisonment and serves as her emotional anchor for a portion of season one. This is until her accomplice and former lover Alex (Laura Prepon) is found to be incarcerated in the same prison, a proposition that is one of Orange’s attempts to steer its narrative away from Caged. Beyond this, however, both Caged and Orange foster the general idea that prison hardens the softest of people, and not in the civil law-abiding kind of way. Despite over sixty years between them, both film and show contend with the same principle themes: sexual frustration, revolving door prisoner politics, and the loss of identity.
It’s the manner in which Caged and Orange contend with their sexually-charged material that shows the greatest dichotomy. And it’s for obvious reasons. Caged, a film released during the Production Code era, was limited in its capacities to overtly explore sexuality, visually or narratively. Though interestingly enough, it perhaps makes the most overt remark about sexuality, in that one of the many prisoners in the film is an incarcerated sex worker; for all of its murders and counterfeiters, no character in Orange fits that description. Regardless, Caged delicately, and sometimes humorously, acknowledges the fluid sexual politics of women confined with each other but makes very few gestures - at least not to the explicit point that Orange does - to reaffirm a sense of lesbianism.
Rather, and quite cleverly, the film opts to have certain characters function as male proxies. For example, the prisoner ringleader Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick) casually employs a male gaze on only the most feminine of characters in the prison, offering to function as a liaison to the outside world to insure early parole. Or there’s the butch prison matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who so often possesses a domineering authority over “her girls”. In one of the film’s most deliciously awkward scenes, Evelyn check on the girls in a dress, letting them know that she has a date for the night. She revels in their stares as she offers the explicit (for the Production Code era) details on her upcoming sexual rendezvous. Elsewhere, there’s the prison warden, who functions as the generous caretaker to the women in the prison. She’s critical in insuring that Marie’s newborn child (she enters prison two-months pregnant in another reaffirmation of her femininity) is safely delivered. Making all the arrangements for the delivery and pacing back and forth in the adjoined room where the delivery is taking place, the prison warden ascribes to a paternal role without overtly implying a lesbian relationship between the two. From the manipulative, domineering, and generous, their female characters operate as male proxies, though the lesbian subtext is thinly veiled in suggestion.
There’s nothing suggestive about Orange, and it’s a large part of the show’s appeal. Even Piper, whose white privilege insinuates herself as being uptight among prisoners, is reconditioned by her environment. And I don’t say this to suggest that it fuels her sexuality, but rather that she must operate by a new set of principles given her new environment. Keep in mind that the disparity between the explicit Orange and the more somber Caged is reflective of a similar environmental shift: a 60-year gap, a shift in mediums from film to a streaming service, and two generations in between. Still, Orange commendably takes the suggestion of its foremother and ramps its pervading meaning to 11 - there is no room for homosexual suggestion in the cold interiors of Federal Prison.
One of the more interesting sociopolitical similarities between Caged and Orange stems from the fiduciary crisis of both prisons. The threat of cutbacks and belt-tightening is nothing new, but how it effects the day-to-day operations of the prisons is especially interesting. Both prisons house less than admirable figures of authority. In Orange, it’s basically every other male character roaming the prison, from guard and philanderer George Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) to the temperamentally unbalanced counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney). And Caged has its aforementioned matron cum barber Evelyn. All of their positions have been subject for review by the virtuous wardens (though season 2 of Orange did make it tough to side with Nick Sandow’s Joe Caputo). Yet their positions are maintained or reinstated due to budgetary concerns - inmates are imprisoned with those who either sublimate their deviant behavior or abuse them into deviance. All this reaffirms an echo chamber that is critical in both Caged and Orange - the broad but absolute concern of the loss of identity.
Caged has a brilliant opening exercise where the inmates sound off their names every morning. The repetitious exercise is played through montage as the days and weeks roll on, with no discernible difference in the prison surrounding or its occupants. It’s not until you begin to see the soft-focused features of Marie diminish do you see the ramification of time. Given its serialization, that same passage of time might be lost in Orange, but the show does acknowledge this passage of time and Piper is critical in presenting that to the audience. Like Marie, Piper enters prison with her more feminine features intact. But as time wanes on, and as she is exposed to more and more time in solitary confinement (another aspect that Caged touches upon), Piper’s penchant for cruelty are more apparent. To survive, she must be crueler, meaner, and more deliberate in her actions. The season one finale was an explosion of this pent up prison fury as well as an open reminder of how far the once soft features of Piper Chapman have become weathered in the wake of hard time. Who she was is gone.
A similar transformation occurs for Marie. Due to the nature of the film, her traumas are more greatly emphasized: her newborn child is put up for adoption despite the initial promise that her mother would care for it, the head matron perpetually abuses her, a kitten she finds on the outskirts of prison is slain, and her head is shaved in an act symbolic of rape. Eleanor Parker’s performance is vital in conveying the subtle shifts in her characters behavior, from a well-adjusted albeit weak member of society to a morally questionable deviant attempting to take the reins of her misappropriated agency. When one’s identity is wounded, we revert to a polar opposite as a means of reaffirming ourselves within society. Otherwise, we might be completely lost.
Both Caged and Orange are essential works in their medium. Caged’s mostly female cast would be a surprise in today’s culture - it’s a miracle that it came out during the 50s. Orange, meanwhile, asserts itself in another miraculous way: this is a popular television show that predominantly features minority women as central characters. The whitewashed Caged is its single transgressive foible, yet in a Production Code era, what it did get away with is nothing short of amazing. This forgotten American masterwork, in the wake of the cultural prominence of Orange is the New Black, is ripe for revisiting.