Women Without Names (1940, USA)

This story seemed a little familiar, and it took me some time to work out that it is a reworking of Ladies of the Big House (1931), both films based on the same play by Ernest Booth, written while he was serving a sentence in San Quentin. In all, Booth served around 30 years in prison, so he knew more than most about the caper… but less about women’s prisons, one would imagine. And even less about happy endings, you’d think, but he knew enough about successful theatrical formulae to make sure his story had one. 

There are a few critical departures from the story of Kathleen McNeil in the earlier film. In this one, sweet Joyce King (Ellen Drew), who was formerly married to fraudster and jailbird Walter Ferris, falls newly in love with an engineer, Fred MacNeil (Robert Paige), who is passing through her town and flirts outrageously with her at the diner where she works. In a whirlwind romance they marry and are about to head off to Tennessee, where Fred has secured a job, but first drop into her home to pick up some things.

Her apartment, which should be empty, is unexpectedly crowded. Ferris, newly released after more than three years in prison and having never got over her, is there waiting to see her, as is his girlfriend, Peggy Athens (Judith Barrett), resentful of his continuing devotion to his ex-wife, and Detective Sergeant Reardon who, knowing that Ferris is still “crazy about” Joyce is waiting in the shadows, ready to rearrest him. Before Fred can carry Joyce over the threshold, Reardon confronts Ferris and tries to arrest him at gunpoint. There is a struggle. Reardon is shot, fatally. On hearing the shot, Fred and Joyce race in, followed quickly by other residents of the apartment block, who see only the dead policeman and Fred holding the murder weapon. The newlyweds are vigorously prosecuted by the Assistant District Attorney, John Marlin (John Miljan), and both are found guilty of the murder; Fred is sentenced to hang and Joyce is put away for life.

Joyce is naturally distraught and consumed by anxiety in awaiting the result of an appeal. An African American prisoner, Ivory (Louise Beavers), protectively takes great care of her, and all the other women are sympathetic… until Peggy joins her in prison and is distinctly nasty towards her. It’s a little strange; you might think that Peggy would be quite happy for Joyce to take the rap for the murder, and not draw too much attention to her connection to the real shooter, Ferris, of which Joyce is unaware. But her view is, “If it hadn’t been for her, we’d have been happy.” She starts a fight with Joyce, for which Joyce is blamed and is sent to the cellblock, losing her dormitory privileges. Peggy says nothing. The other women are appalled, and send her to Coventry. After a while, it becomes too much for Peggy, and she confesses to the Head Matron that she started the fight. Joyce is given the choice to decide whether Peggy should be sent to the cellblock, but she elects not to have her attacker punished.

That act of kindness is critical; Peggy starts to see what Ferris saw in his ex-wife. Joyce’s appeal has been lost and Fred is due to hang in the next day or two. Meanwhile, John Marlin’s campaign to be elected DA is flagging, and his team decides on a stunt to give him a boost: with the help of prison guards they organise a brief meeting between Fred and Joyce on the eve of his execution, with newspaper photographers there to record their embrace. The Star Express runs the photo under the headline ‘Our Prisons Pamper Killers’ and with Marlin’s commentary on the laxity of prison administration and the waste of public monies. The warden promptly suspends the guard and the matron who facilitated the unseemly ‘human spectacle’.

Discussion amongst the prisoners about the article prompts Peggy to come clean to avoid an innocent man being sent to the gallows. She confesses her role in the crime to Joyce and to the Head Matron, who tells the Warden who tells the DA – who orders Marlin to make some preliminary investigations and immediately remove both Joyce and Peggy from the prison for further inquiries if there is any substance to Peggy’s account. Marlin is unhappy; he still has several speeches to make ahead of the election and it is definitely not in his interests to have the verdict overturned. He speaks to the women (alone) in the warden’s office, but claims not to be persuaded that there is any material evidence that casts doubt on the verdict. He refuses to take the matter further.

Joyce takes the matter into her own hands. She grabs a gun which the warden has carelessly left on show in an open drawer, and takes Marlin at gunpoint (and Peggy) out of the prison. On the way out they pass a group of other prisoners, to whom the tip of the gun protruding from under her coat is just visible. The prisoners pounce upon the prison snitch, Millie (Fay Helm), and tie her up, but she is found by staff and, on the warden confirming that his gun is gone, the escape alarm is sounded.

With the police bulletin warning of the two escapees being heard over the radio of the car in which they are travelling, the women ditch the driver and Peggy takes the wheel – but crashes at high speed. The escapees manage to get out of the wreckage, not caring about Marlin who remains trapped inside, and hotfoot it to the office of the editor of The Star Express. With the assistance of the editor, they organise a sting; Peggy asks to see Ferris urgently and he is trapped into admitting his role in the Reardon shooting. The police pile in through the window and soon Mr and Mrs MacNeil are en route to Tennessee. Happy days!

This is one of those neat little prison movies at just 62 minutes. Marlin’s campaign manager threatens to expose the prison as a ‘boarding school’ – and it does have that feel. Other than the friction between Peggy and Joyce (and everyone’s distaste for the stool pigeon, Millie), all the prisoners seem to get on, both the warden and the head matron are fair and decent people, a prisoner known as the Countess reprovingly tells Peggy (who has just let Joyce take the blame for the fight she started), “That was rather rotten, I’d say,” and there are songs around the piano and games of bridge in the recreation room. All very jolly. Unless you’re innocent and your husband, who is also innocent, is about to be hanged.

Maybe neatness gets the better of things at the end, with there being no consequences, apparently, for Joyce escaping, or holding Marlin hostage with a stolen gun, or for abandoning him in the car wreck. And it’s not clear what happened to Peggy. Maybe the film’s convenient conclusion accorded with Ernest Booth’s (or the audience’s) idea of justice. Or maybe it was just sloppy. Either way, it’s a watchable 40s flick, even if I can’t quite get over the MacNeils’ timely luck in having Peggy land in prison… and her 180º turnaround.





Posted on July 11th, 2020 at 4:48 pm. Updated on July 11th, 2020 at 4:48 pm.

#271 in the Top 500

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