Poor Olivia de Havilland. By the late 1950s, she had the misfortune of being an aging star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Rather than the entertainment industry seeing her as a national treasure, she and other middle-aged actors and actresses were seen as no longer relevant in an age in which Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe were now the biggest box office draws.
Hollywood’s fading stars would’ve fell into obscurity forever had the weirdest thing not happened. Just as all seemed lost, Hollywood’s forgotten actors suddenly experienced a reversal of fortune. When the major studios, casting directors and A List film makers stopped calling, the B movie studios and low budget productions came running. Before long, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ray Milland, Vincent Price and so many other actors who’d been written off as relics from a bygone era found themselves in high demand again, but this time in the world of low budget sci-fi, horror and exploitation.
After her peers made the leap to low budget schlock and experienced major comebacks, it was now de Havilland’s turn. She starred in not one but two low budget schlocky films in 1964–Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Lady in a Cage. In the latter, she played Cornelia Hilyard, a glamorous invalid who has a cage-like elevator installed in her house to get around because of a hip injury. Right after her son leaves home for an extended trip, the power accidentally gets tripped as she’s making her way to the second floor in the elevator. She then gets trapped in between floors and is unable to get out.
No sooner than this happens, an alcoholic bum and a floozy acquaintance, Sade, (Ann Southern) break into her house. Cornelia begs them to help her but they couldn’t give two craps. All they know is that they’ve found enough silver and other valuables to make them rich, and they just callously steal them as she cries and pleads with them to get her out of the cage.
Sade and her bum pal don’t get very far because then a trio of juvenile delinquents, Randall (James Caan), Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley) and Essie (Rafael Campos), also break into Cornelia’s house. They learn about the silver, decide to steal it for themselves and hock it at the local pawn shop, then terrorize Sade, the bum and Cornelia for hours with the intention of killing them all later. True to the Hays Code, the evil ringleader gets his in the end, but the movie ends on a completely sour note, painting a very ugly, dark, cynical picture of a world that seems more Mad Max than Leave it to Beaver.
Now let’s not be mistaken about what Lady in a Cage was supposed to be. It was intended to be another entry in the large number of derivative, low budget horror films that shamelessly rode off the coattails of Psycho. It was also riding the wave of the increasingly popular “psycho biddy” genre, which was popularized by What Happened to Baby Jane (1962). After that movie caused a sensation, the public couldn’t get enough of seeing glamorous female stars from the Hollywood’s Golden Age slumming it in trashy horror and exploitation.
Yet Lady in a Cage, in spite of having no pretensions of being schlock, became one of the rare movies in its class that turned out a lot better than intended. In many ways, it shares a lot in common with The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Man with the X Ray Eyes and the Amazing Colossal Man. These were movies that were supposed to be nothing more than cheap popcorn flicks but were elevated above pure schlock because their writers were either better than the material they were writing for or decided that just because they were writing schlock, it didn’t mean they couldn’t make it about something meaningful.
In the case of Lady in a Cage, writer and producer Luther Davis could’ve just written a paint by numbers script filled with cheap thrills. But he did something much better. He wrote a script that was based on a very dramatic change that was happening in American society in the 1960s, something that sociologists had warned about at least a decade before.
What was this change? Well, in the late 1940s, sociologists were beginning to see signs that modern life was having a negative impact on society. People were losing respect for cherished humanistic notions like caring, compassion and kindness. Tradition, values and civility also seemed to be eroding, and there was a lessening feeling of brotherhood. What on earth was going on and why?
First, America had developed a skewed sense of competition. Getting ahead professionally and moving up in the world was seen as a zero sum game in which being cutthroat was a valuable asset. Because of this new take on competition, people saw each other more and more as rivals that they needed to screw over, take advantage of and even destroy to get a leg up. Consequently, humanistic values such as loving thy neighbor, fair play and justice were no longer important.
Secondly, as cities grew larger, people were beginning to lose a sense of belonging and community. Unlike small towns and small cities, there were no tight knit communities where everyone knew each other and felt they had a place. In major cities, very few people knew who their neighbors were–or even cared. As a result, millions of people were becoming alienated, feeling no sense of connection to the people or the world around them. This led to a growing apathy, as well as an erosion in civility. Between the cities and the dog-eat-dog nature of the so-called “Real World”, sociologists saw a society that was looking more like a Darwinist struggle for survival than a warm place where people cared and looked out for one another.
When the alarmists first complained about this, there was very little to back up what they were noticing. However, a decade later, little signs of what they were warning about began to emerge. In the 1950s, there was a spike in juvenile delinquency as disaffected youths came of age. There was also a rise in shocking murders of the likes that America had rarely seen. Whereas murderers before had been by career criminals, gangsters or people who killed out of a human failing, this new strain of murderer–the serial killer–seemed to kill for no reason at all.
By the time of the Boston Strangler murders, it was clear that American society had dramatically shifted and that things were about to get worse. It was during this uneasy time that Luther Davis wrote the screenplay for Lady in a Cage. In it, he depicted a country far different from the ideal image portrayed in Hollywood at the time. It is callous, cruel, inhumane, selfish and unsympathetic. There’s no sense of warmth or community or caring. Little girls listlessly roll their skates on the leg of passed out bums, motorists apathetically drive past the carcass of a dead dog in the street, little boys practice shooting with their toy guns and not one but two sets of people prey on an invalid who is trapped in her house.
Davis’ observations of this new emerging phase in American society were so on point that his screenplay anticipated the infamous Kitty Genovese incident, which happened just three months before Lady in a Cage’s release. This tragedy, in which a NYC woman was stabbed to death by a crazed serial killer as she begged her neighbors for help, is almost identical to the movie’s story. Just like Kitty was stalked and terrorized by a sociopath for the better part of an hour, Cornelia in Lady in a Cage gets stalked and terrorized by sociopaths for the better part of an hour. Just like Kitty’s pleas for help went ignored by anyone who heard her, Cornelia begs and begs for help, only to have her pleas fall on deaf ears. And all around her, she is surrounded by a sea of humanity that could help her but doesn’t because it couldn’t care less. There are no neighbors to drop in on her and say hello, no one to check in on her. Even her son is unavailable.
Not only did Lady in a Cage anticipate the Kitty Genovese murder, it anticipated the growing spike in violence that came to define modern day American society. The mayhem in the film seems unremarkable if not hokey by today’s standards. But what people have to remember is that this movie came out at a time when stuff like the Texas Bell Tower shooting, the Zodiac killer and the Manson murders hadn’t happened yet, and at a time when people were still wearing hats, coats and gloves to go grocery shopping, kids were addressing authority figures as “Sir” and “Ma’am” and people left their apartment doors unlocked. So, given how much Lady in a Cage anticipated, it turned out to be an amazingly prescient film.
Lady in a Cage also wound up becoming a remarkable time capsule. When many of us compare today’s world to what life was like 40, 50 years ago, we imagine that there must have a clean demarcation between “then” and “now.” We think that one year everything and everyone looked and acted like something out of an Audrey Hepburn film and the next year it was Helter Skelter.
But the reality is that there there was never a clean break between America’s more “innocent time” and the America of today. There was a transitional period in which the murder and mayhem started happening even as the world was still looking, dressing and acting like Breakfast at Tiffanys. The Boston Strangler murders, the Clutter family murders, the Ed Gein murders and the JFK assassination couldn’t have come at a more glamorous and “civilized” time in American history. Lady in Cage is probably the best film to capture this transitional period in which on one hand, everyone and everything still had a look of that era of innocence and glamour but on the other, the ugliness of what was to come just a few years later was beginning to bubble up towards the surface.
If there were ever one single moment in the film that would be a symbol of this transitional phase, it would be the moment when Elaine parades around in one of Cornelia’s evening gowns. At first glance, Elaine looks like she comes from an era that was classier, elegant and more civilized; her dress and jewelry are absolutely gorgeous and she is the vision of loveliness. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that her hair is disheveled, she has a black eye and she seems spaced out, as if on drugs.
We can never really know why Davis chose to have Elaine dress up, but if his script was as insightful as I believe it was, its symbolism–and what it was trying to convey about an America in transition–couldn’t have been more clever or brilliant.
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