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Condemned Women

Condemned Women(1938)

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teaser Condemned Women (1938)

Condemned Women (1938) was not the first film to deal with a women's prison--past examples had included Manslaughter (1930), Ladies of the Big House (1931) and The Bridge of Sighs (1936)--but trade paper Variety declared that the female angle gave this tale "freshness and novelty." In fact, Condemned Women was one of a trio of such films to open in a span of four months. Released by RKO, it opened on March 18, 1938, about two weeks after Republic's Prison Nurse and three months before Paramount's Prison Farm. All three movies feature stories of doctors or nurses in love with prisoners (as does PRC's Buried Alive, released in 1939).

Here, the prisoner (a former nurse) is portrayed by Sally Eilers, in stir on a shoplifting charge, and the prison doctor is played by Louis Hayward. Their love helps to reform her, but the rest of the prison population includes some rough cookies--especially a schemer played by Lee Patrick who organizes a breakout, leading to disillusionment, chaos and murder.

The film was received as a speedy, exciting little melodrama in 1938, with The Hollywood Reporter declaring, "There is a vitality and freshness to this minor prison play that lifts it out of the rut, galvanizes it with pulsing life, and gives it a powerful tug on the emotions." Sally Eilers drew particular attention, with critics noting her "fine conviction and quiet intensity" and calling her performance "skillfully modulated and evolved." Eilers, whose real name was Dorothea Sally Eilers, had become a star with her sensational turn in Bad Girl in 1931, and she remains a strong fan favorite today among classic movie fans.

Louis Hayward, born in South Africa but raised in London, had recently made a strong impression in Anthony Adverse (1936) and would soon score a big hit in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). A few months after the release of Condemned Women, he married actress Ida Lupino.

Also in this film, as the sweetly innocent Millie, is lovely actress Anne Shirley, who had been acting in movies since the age of four. Born Dawn Evelyeen Paris, she became a star in 1934 with Anne of Green Gables; three years later, she was Oscar-nominated for Stella Dallas (1937) and married the actor John Payne. She was nineteen at the time and had appeared in more than thirty films. But despite her popularity, Shirley retired just a few years later, in 1944 at the age of 26. Married twice more, she raised two children and lived to the age of 75. She once said, "My mother wanted me to be a star so she could say she was Anne Shirley's mother. Well, I became one and now we're both happy. They were wonderful years but I did it all for her. To tell you the truth I never think about my career except that I often feel grateful that it has brought me such a good life."

Condemned Women was written by Lionel Houser, a former newspaper reporter who based his tale on actual events. He had covered numerous prison riots, including the Folsom Thanksgiving Day riot of 1927, and he had written journalistically on the conditions of women's prisons. He and director Lew Landers visited the women's prison at Tehachapi for further research.

According to a news report of the time, the Hays Office successfully demanded some changes in dialogue for a prison fire sequence. As written and shot, the film originally had convicts shouting "Fire!" as they raced around trying to escape. The word was repeated eleven times. But the Hays Office demanded that all eleven instances be removed. The reason was that at a screening of another recent film, a moviegoer had fallen asleep only to be awakened by the sound of "Fire!" coming from the screen. He thought it was real and ran up the aisle, shouting "Fire!" in the crowded theater. This caused a panic, and several people were injured as they evacuated. When it happened again at another screening of the same film, the Hays Office decided to ban that use of the word. RKO deleted the dialogue and replaced it with such phrases as "Save us, we're trapped," "Please let us out," and "You can't let us die in here."

By Jeremy Arnold

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