Girls in Chains (May 17, 1943)

Barbara Pepper in Girls In Chains

Released on May 17, 1943: A big city school teacher is fired because her brother-in-law id the big mob boss of the city, and has lots of enemies. She gets a job in a girls reformatory and discovers corruption there also.

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

The Actors: Barbara Pepper (Ruth Martin), Arline Judge (Helen Martin), Jack Randall (Johnny Moon), Roger Clark (Frank Donovan), Robin Raymond (Rita Randall), Dorothy Burgess (Mrs. Peters), Clancy Cooper (Marcus), Patricia Knox (Jean Moon), Sid Melton (Pinkhead), Russell Gaige (Mr. Dalvers), Emmett Lynn (Lionel Cleeter), Richard Clarke (Tom Havershield), Betty Blythe (Mrs. Grey), Ernie Alexander (court reporter), Mary Bovard (Taffy, convict), Beverly Boyd (George), Gerald Brock (Smoky), Dorothy Brown (elevator operator), Roy Butler (bailiff), Eleanor Counts (Linda, convict), Madge Crane (Mrs. McCarthy), Ben Erway (bartender), Bess Flowers (courtroom spectator), Francis Ford (jury foreman), Henry Hall (Judge Coolidge), Kenneth Harlan (Police Lieutenant Jackson), Robert F. Hill (Dr. Orchard), Charles Jordan (Police chemist), Gloria Lake (Dottie), Charles McAvoy (court officer), Charles McMurphy (cop), Broderick O'Farrell (lawyer), Rose Plumer (Matron), Suzanne Ridgway (bar customer), Peggy Stewart (Terry, convict), Eileen Terrie (Maria, convict), Crane Whitley (Reverend Greene).


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First, the name: "Girls in Chains" - if you follow old movies, your first guess would be that Roger Corman made this movie in the 1960's, but you'd be wrong. The prolific director Edger G. Ulmer filmed this one in 1943, about the terrible conditions in the city's girl's reformatory, filled with shoplifters and petty thieves. Barbara Pepper, who acted in movies from 1933 through 1969, the year she died at the age of 54, stars in this crime adventure.

Ruth Martin is a school teacher in the city that gets fired because the Mayor and the city powers demanded it. You see, Ruth's sister is married to Johnny Moon, the gangster that rules the underworld of this large city. On her way out of the school administrator's office, her boss suggests that she get a job teaching at the girls reformatory. She meets a cop that is most likely the only honest cop in the city, who investigates her and recommends her for the job. But to get this position, she must appear before a committee that has the Mayor's wife, a stuffy society gal, a minister, another gal that is close to the mayor's wife, and a mousy little man with coke-bottle glasses that works for the mayor. The mayor's wife declares that Ruth is unfit to teach at the school because of her sister's attachment to Johnny Moon, but the cop and the minister think she would be just fine. It is up to the mousy man to cast the deciding vote, and the Mayor's wife clearly tells him that if he doesn't vote her way, he will lose his job. Well, if he doesn't go against the Mayor's wife and vote Ruth in, we won't have much of a movie, will we? So he does vote in her favor, and does lose his job, and then goes on a drinking binge that lasts the whole movie, bringing a little bit of comic relief.

So, pretty typically in these kinds of movies, Ruth gets to the reformatory and finds lots of hard labor, tough treatment, no medical facilities, causing the death of one young lady on the first day that Ruth is there. She fights to bring better treatment, but guess what? The head of the prison/reformatory is a fellow that Johnny Moon had installed there, so the gangsters basically control things. Now this is where the movie gets 'real' for me - call me jaded by the sometimes realities that seem to make gangsters and government seem pretty much alike. After the gal dies, and the head of the place repromands Ruth for trying to help the inmates instead of treating them badly, Ruth goes to visit the mayor . . . er . . . no, actually Ruth goes to visit her brother-in-law Johnny Moon, the gangster that really runs the city. But of course, being a hardened gangster, Johnny doesn't care about the reformatory or the conditions there . . . wait a minute . . . something is wrong here . . . Johnny DOES care about the gal that died because she wasn't offered any medical help until too late. Johnny DOES care that the fellow he installed as the head of the place is corrupt. He offers Ruth the job of taking over the reformatory and cleaning it up any way she likes . . . wait a minute, shouldn't the Mayor be doing that, not the gangster? Is this how Mayors really are? Is this how gangsters really are?

Anyway, Ruth turns down Johnny's offer and leaves, and then Johnny calls the head of the place and reams him a new . . . I mean, he yells at him for being corrupt and tells him to get the gals out of solitary and start treating them better. Now this movie is so far out of the predictable plot that I'm just not sure where we are headed. It's 1943, and the Hays Office is in full control, but this plot is very unusual for the day. I'm choking on my popcorn with each twist and turn. If you like 1940's noir crime stories, this is a good one. If you like prison reform, clean up the city movies, this is a good one. But beware, until the wrap-up, it is very surprising and unconventional for the movies of 1943.