StinkyLulu does love them prison stories. Men's prisons. (Oz!
) Women's prisons. (Prisoner Cell Block H!
) Real prisons. (Scared Straight!
) Metaphorical prisons. (Gilligan's Island!
) Prison stories just have all of StinkyLulu's most favorite narrative elements all mixed up in one crazy cocktail: vast idiosyncratic ensembles; life and death dramas of corrupted innocence; vivid villainy; race/sex/class/power dynamics writ large; insinuations of queerness floating as a haze in the air; stylized slang talk; and -- of course -- all those shower scenes. Yes, oh yes, StinkyLulu just loves them prison stories. All of which meant that -- when getting ready for StinkyLulu's very first encounter with the film that (arguably) invented
the "women in prison" genre -- StinkyLulu got, well, just a little excited, especially for that film's most legendary performance: the malevolent prison matron played by...
approximately 23 minutes and 47 seconds
roughly 25% of film's total running time
Hope Emerson plays Evelyn Harper, the viciously corrupt, bullying guard at the women's prison into which the "innocent" Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker in a nifty, high-style performance) is tossed.
The most gratifying prison stories build along two complementary, cathartic arcs: escape and vengeance. The "getting out" part of the story typically frames the whole narrative -- beginning with a central character arriving to the prison and culminating with their il/legitmate release -- but, in between this arrival and departure, it's the "getting back" part of the story that typically focuses the action. And to that end, every prison movie has to have at least one supervillain, who -- in a typically exultant redemptive climax -- eats it. Sometimes the warden's the villain, sometimes it's another prisoner, sometimes -- as in Caged
-- it's a guard. And Emerson's Harper more than delivers the prison movie's necessary full-throttle villainy for Caged
. She's plain mean. Indeed, by the end of the film, it's clear that Emerson's Harper has no redeeming features whatsoever, with even the film's other baddies (like Lee Patrick's delightfully dykey mistress of vice, Elvira Powell) starting to steer clear. But the prison movie supervillain's task is to provide enough spectacles of villainy to keep the audience on the side of the "good" prisoners, and, here, Emerson's Harper definitely delivers.
It's worth noting how, in Caged
, Hope Emerson joins the ranks of a special category of actresses at the edges. Thick limbed, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a nasal bark of a voice, Hope Emerson was quite a human specimen. (In the 1950 Smackdown
, Ken aptly likened Emerson's figure to that of Foghorn Leghorn
's costume and camera work do Emerson no favors either -- there are times when it seems that Emerson might just have the biggest ass in all of cinema.) But Emerson ultimately emerges as one of those fascinating performers that come along from time to time -- like Zelda Rubinstein
or Darlene Cates
-- who get cast expressly (sometimes jokingly) for their physical extraordinariness but who nonetheless are capable of delivering vivid, effective, enduring performances. Which is what Emerson does in Caged
For, in order to make Evelyn Harper an effective prison movie supervillain, Hope Emerson didn't need to do all that much but simply be real big, real ugly and real mean. And it's true that Emerson's barking, bullying behemoth of a performance is marked by little shading, nuance or idiosyncrasy. But with forthright clarity, Emerson’s Evelyn Harper emerges as both monster and person, both the malevolent embodiment of pure cruelty and a petty, greedy woman working the few angles available to her. Emerson’s Harper is real big, real mean, real dumb, but – somehow – eerily real.
And that’s what StinkyLulu so loves about this performance: Emerson's Harper is clumsy, grasping, dumb as a post, giddily cruel -- all without some idiotic, redeeming "human glimpse" into the character's private pain. It sure ain't the most sophisticated, actorly performance in the bunch; indeed, rarely has such cinematic villainy been so so crass, so plain, so unenigmatic, so unremarkable. And perhaps precisely because neither Emerson nor Caged
make it clear whether Harper was born so mean, achieved such meanness, or had such meanness thrust upon her, Hope Emerson's performance in Caged
stands out as an early, post-WWII portrait of what came to be called "the banality of evil"
...as remarkable for what it is (vivid, uncomplicated, genuinely scary) as what it is not (arch, theatrical, amplified). Emerson's Harper just is what she is: simply, profoundly, brutally, vividly mean. Starkly evil and glaringly human.
And, as a result, Emerson's Harper endures as iconic prison supervillain - often imitated, rarely matched, never surpassed - just crazy good.
Labels: 1950, supporting actress