Drama about a young woman, Erica, who is wrongly implicated in a crime and sent to prison for five years, where she faces deplorable conditions. With the aid of the warden, she sets out to prove her innocence.
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Al Freeman Jr.,
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Eva Marie Saint,
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Sentenced to 5 years in prison, Erica Hayden is most worried about her unborn child's future. At this prison, they allow the women to keep their children until age 3 but at that point they must be given to a friend or relative outside the prison or surrendered to State authorities who will arrange an adoption. She tries desperately to find someone and the prison doctor even tries to help her out. One person who isn't keen on the arrangement is the new prison warden, Frank Cole, who thinks prison is no place for young children. Her only hope is that she will get parole after three years but when it's refused and her child is taken away without even giving her the chance to say goodbye, the women stage a riot. Written by
Although a running subplot involves two inmates arguing over the heartthrob merits of Troy Donahue (then a Warners contract player), during an outdoor scene in the prison yard Donahue's name has clearly been dubbed over the women saying a different name, suggesting the exterior was shot first and the decision to use Donahue's name a later idea integrated during interior shooting. See more »
Young and pregnant, innocent Shirley Knight has been sent to a women's prison for being the driver of a car in a robbery committed by her boyfriend. Giving birth to her baby in prison, Knight hopes to get parole so she can raise it in a proper atmosphere. She befriends various prisoners, including fellow mother Constance Ford whose young son is loved by all the women inmates. (It seems in this prison system, female prisoners are allowed to have their children with them until their third birthday.) Things get tough when seemingly by the books warden Andrew Duggan falls in love with her and doesn't want her to get paroled. Then, a tragic incident ensues, sending the prisoners into rebellion and bringing on major media attention.
Women's prison films have been a frequent source of subject matter ever since "Ladies of the Big House" in 1932. There have "Ladies They Talk About"; "Condemned Women", the Oscar nominated "Caged" (of which this is apparently a remake of but really doesn't much in common with other than its setting and studio) and "Women's Prison" with an overly dramatic Ida Lupino. Later entries were not nearly as well made, produced on lower budgets with a definite element of sleaze. Just watch 1969's "99 Women" (with an outrageously bad Mercedes McCambridge) and 1983's "Chained Heat" (with a horribly bad Linda Blair). They have a huge camp element, filled with butch wardens or matrons (such as Esther Dale and Hope Emerson), over-the-top dialogue (several of them actually refer to the female inmates as "fish"), and plenty of cat fights. In "House of Women", we get to see Constance Ford ("Another World's" matriarch Ada Hobson) duke it out with matron Jeanne Cooper (matriarch Kay Chancellor of "The Young and the Restless"). There are also two inmates that are obviously tough lesbian characters whom several of the others have nicknamed "Butch".
While the butch presence of a Hope Emerson type matron is missing (Cooper is too feminine to be considered butch), there is still enough sexual tension between these women to drop all sorts of innuendos. Shirley Knight, then at the height of her career (thanks to "Sweet Bird of Youth" the same year) is equally innocent and tough as she adapts to her surroundings. Andrew Duggan does a good job as the warden. Ford gets the most scenes to steal as she goes from strong-but-kind to vengeful when she faces a difficult tragedy. Those who remember her as Sandra Dee's nasty mother in "A Summer Place" and as Rachel's supportive but blunt mother on "Another World" will be riveted every time she is on screen. It is sad her film career never took her further than the types of roles Warner Brothers gave her (even on loan to United Artists, she was very typecast as mental institution nurse Joan Crawford's "right hand man".) Ford is very worthy of the types of roles given at the time to Angela Lansbury. (Look for Ford as a flirtatious millionaire's wife opposite Warren Beatty in "All Fall Down"; Her one scene is unforgettable!)
In summary, "House of Women" is an enjoyable over-the-top drama which allows several actors to really chew up the scenery. While the references to it being a remake of "Caged" are somewhat exaggerated (they only really share an innocent heroine put behind bars in addition to my other comparisons above), it stands on its own as an entertaining camp drama. The script comes off as a bit trite and some of the dialog does not at all seem real, but overall, the film truly is entertaining and a cut above many lesser films of the same theme.
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