Genre: Drama, Crime
Director: Lewis Seiler
Stars: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore
Sensational scandal rocks women’s prison.
So we have this eponymous women’s prison full of your usual sort of characters. Two new girls show up to the prison. First is Helen Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) who is your typical incorruptible and innocent girl. the other “new fish” is Joan Burton whose a familiar face in prison but takes an immediate liking to Brenda, sticking up for her new friend and showing her around the place. The superintendent of the woman’s prison is Amelia van Zandt (Ida Lupino) a cruel woman who hates every single prisoner in her care. Our introduction to the prison is the same cliched introduction to ANY woman’s prison – we start with an older prisoner scrubbing the floors and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as if that’s something I’ve never seen before. The guards call all the women “tramps” and its seriously a word one gets sick of hearing after awhile. There’s also the prison doctor (Howard Duff) who is the typical voice of reason and most of his dialogue consists of telling the prison management “You can’t treat these girls this way blah blah blah.”
The film’s tagline, in fact it’s entire synopsis, promises “Sensational scandal rocks women’s prison.” Does it deliver on that? Well there is scandal but I really wouldn’t call it sensational; campy and stupid, sure, but not sensational. First of all there is Helen Jensen’s problems with the superintendent. Though Amelia van Zandt is cruel to every inmate she seems to take a special hatred towards Helen. Why? The movie doesn’t say. She keeps locking her up in isolation and it takes a toll on the poor girl’s health. The doctor keeps trying to defend Helen and Amelia keeps trying to tear her down. When Helen’s husband asks after his wife’s possible parole, Amelia tells him: “You’re wife’s psychotic – she will never be leaving here.” Why does she does this? Again, there’s no clear motivation as to why any of these poorly constructed characters do anything. Since the film makes such a miserable effort to get its audience emotionally vested in these characters – this “scandal” fails to become sensational and is, overall, just aggravating.
The other scandal involves the character of Joan Burton and her husband Glen Burton who is a prisoner IN THE SAME PRISON! Seriously – a co-ed prison. Whose stupid fucking idea was that? The men’s ward and the women’s ward are only separated by a wall and Glen just goes under the wall easily to bang his wife all night long. In fact, Joan ends up pregnant and Amelia is determined to find out how these two are seeing each other. Instead of actually preventing the married couple from having their little trysts, she just tortures Joan to DEATH. The doctor keeps up with his weak moral objections but this doesn’t stop Amelia and Joan still dies. Again – there’s no development to these characters, no reasons behind their stupid motivations so why should I care that a pregnant woman gets tortured to death. Okay, I realize that “why should I care about a pregnant woman being tortured to death,” is kind of a dick thing to say – so I won’t be as general: “Why should I care that THIS fictional pregnant woman gets tortured to death?” Better?
So of course the women riot and take over the prison – predictable. Is it a “sensational scandal.” Not really because the events leading to these are completely unrealistic. The insane tortures of a mad superintendent – I’m not buying it. A pregnant woman being tortured to death, a husband and wife having sex in prison, this is all a bunch of contrived bullshit. The ending is even more contrived as well. Every moment of this film is an eye-rolling “you’re shitting me, right?” kind of moment. While Woman’s Prison does have its campy moments, this movie is,for the most part, unwatchable.