A tale of two movies: 'Women Without Men'/'Blonde Bait'
We're not on a run with women-in-prison movies here, but the case of the Hammer Films production of WOMEN WITHOUT MEN (1955) and its Americanized version BLONDE BAIT, released the following year, offer a fascinating look at how one overseas picture became something almost entirely different by the time U.S. audiences got to see it. Not an unusual situation, given the number of Mexican-made imports of the 1960s that underwent an almost complete transformation in plot and tone thanks to editing and dubbing into English. BLONDE BAIT is still recognizably WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, but with sequences filmed in Hollywood prior to release that made for some significant changes from the original, some for the good, others not so.
In fact, WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, directed by American film editor Elmo Williams, remains the best version despite its production manager, Jimmy Sangster, dismissing it as "silly," which may have had more to do with Sangster's own admitted aversion to the job he then had with Hammer before soon becoming one of its best scriptwriters.* WOMEN WITHOUT MEN is nothing different from the run of prison movies seen before and hence, but is interesting for its take on those cliches and some helpful touches provided by Williams and its star, blonde bombshell-type Beverly Michaels, in what proved to be one of her final screen projects.
Scripted by Richard Landau with uncredited aid from Val Guest, both collaborators on the screenplay of Hammer's science fiction entry THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), WOMEN WITHOUT MEN cast Michaels as Angie Booth, an American entertainer working in London who falls for Nick Randall (Paul Carpenter), who must leave on an unstated job taking him out of the country. Both he and Angie agree to meet at a rural inn on New Year's Eve and marry. Angie, however, must break off ties with her possessive manager, Julian Lord (Ralph Michael), who flips out when Angie confronts him with the news of her independence. Julian attacks Angie, who defends herself with a hand mirror. Angie is apparently convicted of assault and sent to a women's institution.
Unable to obtain compassionate leave to keep her approaching reunion with Nick, Angie joins another inmate, "Gran" Rafferty (Thora Hird) in an escape plot. Wearing warder uniforms as part of a Christmas skit to entertain the other prisoners, Angie and Gran break out with little difficulty but with the unplanned participation of Marguerite (April Olrich), a Spanish girl serving time, and her baby who will soon be given up for adoption. Marguerite succeeds in getting her infant into the hands of friends before surrendering herself to the police, while Angie and Gran earn a rest and change of clothes through one of Gran's treacherous acquaintances, Grace (Hermione Baddeley), who soon rats them out to the law. Angie and Gran manage to elude the authorities long enough for Angie to keep her rendezvous with Nick, whose devotion convinces her to delay their marriage and serve the rest of her sentence.
Swiftly paced if somber, WOMEN WITHOUT MEN benefits from the direction of Williams (1913-2015), who began editing Hollywood product in the late 1930s and won an Oscar for the breathless cutting he performed on the acclaimed Stanley Kramer production of HIGH NOON (1952). Independent producer Robert L. Lippert awarded Williams with his first shot at directing with an offbeat western, THE TALL TEXAN (1953), followed by the 1954 documentary THE COWBOY, which also won critical notice for Williams, a native Oklahoman. Although working on a Hammer production meant adhering to budget first and foremost, Williams manages some visual stylistics within those confines of WOMEN WITHOUT MEN.
After striking Julian with the mirror, Angie looks down to find streaks of blood obscuring her image. A later battle by the warders to restrain a neurotic prisoner (Sheila Burrell) occurs against a matte painting of a huge corridor housing even more cells, an effective contribution to the bleak atmosphere of the prison and its inmates' existence within its walls. Some comic relief is offered by a minor storyline dealing with another inmate, Cleo (Joan Rice), an irrepressible flirt coping with two husbands (Gordon Jackson and Eugene Deckers) while catching the eye of another guard (David Lodge). Soon released for her offense, Cleo returns later in the plot to aid Angie in her desperate flight.
Williams only notched a few more directorial credits, including BLONDE BAIT, which carries his name despite the changes made to the original Hammer release. He returned to the editing rooms but also became more active in studio business with a significant hand in Darryl F. Zanuck's production of THE LONGEST DAY (1962), which helped Twentieth Century-Fox recoup heavy cost overruns incurred in the creation of CLEOPATRA (1963). Williams was also producer of another World War II epic, TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970), a flop in its day that within a decade of its release won praise as an absorbing, suspenseful re-creation of events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Williams served as chief of production at Fox from 1971 to 1974.
As Angie, Michaels is impressively low-key as a gutsy woman whose vitality is beaten down by her confinement, coming to life again when she puts the prison behind her. In scenes dealing with her daily life in prison, Michaels eschews what had been her more assertive screen persona for a more restrained approach to her character's dilemma. It was a marked contrast from the role she had in her last film, another jailhouse romp entitled BETRAYED WOMEN (1955) for director Edward L. Cahn at Allied Artists. This curious mixture of I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932), wild melodrama and a whisper of William Faulkner cast her as a tough-talking new resident of an archaic women's prison camp whose need for anger management is second only to her yen to break out. It was a flashy part for the New York-born former model and entertainer, but an indication of the path her career had taken since her breakout performance in PICKUP (1951), the first of the hard-breathing, older man-younger wife forays into infidelity and murder that became the legacy of its star-writer-producer-director, Hugo Haas.
Michaels made her screen debut at M-G-M, convincingly tussling with Van Heflin in the latter portion of EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949), then moved on to the Haas production and its more sensitive but less successful follow-up, GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (1951). Haas replaced Michaels with another blonde, Cleo Moore, but she was then cast by producers Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene as WICKED WOMAN (1953). Rouse wed Michaels in 1955 and their union lasted until his death in 1987 at 73. Despite her sparse screen resume, Michaels won a spot on the roster of film noir's bad girls on the strength of PICKUP and WICKED WOMAN, but steadfastly declined discussing the distinction until her own passing at 78 in 2007.
In WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, Michaels interacts nicely with the cast although at 5-foot-9 she towers over all of them except for an extra in a prison yard exterior scene who's even taller. A standout is Hird as the savvy convict Gran. Already on her way to becoming an institution in British film and television in both dramatic and comedic characterizations, Hird (1911-2003) had also worked with Landau and Guest on Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT with a neat character part. An eventual veteran of several situation comedies for the tube, Hird became best-known to international audiences on the long-running LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE, joining the series in 1986 as sharp-tongued Edie Pegden and continuing with the role until her death. She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1993.
That WOMEN WITHOUT MEN was found to be a "particularly dreary" experience (in the words of historian David Pirie) by audiences at the time of its original release may have been the result of Hammer's fortunes. As discussed by several experts on the Hammer saga like Pirie, the studio went into a slump after a partnership with U.S.-based Lippert Pictures came to an end. Since 1951 Lippert had distributed Hammer product, mostly crime and murder dramas with available American stars like Robert Preston, Lizabeth Scott, Paulette Goddard and Richard Conte in the leads. In fact, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT had starred Brian Donlevy and Lippert contractee Margia Dean in a bid for overseas business. WOMEN WITHOUT MEN may have been the very last of these co-productions as Hammer cut back its output and tightened its belt as the last half of 1955 approached.**
But the investment in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT proved more successful than dreamt of by company executives, launching a reinvigorated Hammer on a science fiction vogue until 1957's CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, scripted by Sangster, firmly placed its forte in the gothic horror mode. In the interim, WOMEN WITHOUT MEN was sold to Associated Film Releasing Corp. for American distribution, which promptly decided BLONDE BAIT looked better as a title on theater marquees, along with other changes.
While Lippert Pictures, which disbanded in the mid-'50s when Robert Lippert became a contract producer of second features for Fox, was content to leave its Hammer-made productions alone, Associated's bosses evidently decided that even with Michaels' starring presence, WOMEN WITHOUT MEN/BLONDE BAIT was too British to play in Peoria, and set about transforming key portions of the film into something more transoceanic.
Associated then filmed insert scenes, directed by Herbert Glazer and shot by William Whitley, in cramped interior sets featuring familiar Hollywood faces Richard Travis, Jim Davis and Paul Cavanaugh, as well as Michaels, now returned to the U.S., interacting with them. These scenes replaced some of the original continuity to advance a new storyline, and represent Michaels' last work on screen before her retirement. BLONDE BAIT, issued by Associated in April 1956, begins with a new title sequence to reflect the American participation and opens in Washington as State Department official Kent Foster (Travis) briefs his superior (Harry Lauter) on his recently-completed trip to England involving Angie.
Nick Randall, whose perfectly legitimate business in WOMEN WITHOUT MEN is revealed to be as a diver on a deep-sea salvage job, is played in BLONDE BAIT by Davis as a no-goodnik on American and British radar for delivering stolen government secrets, with Foster determined to bring him to book. Angela, as she's referred to here, is unaware of Nick's activities and makes plans to marry, but her unfortunate encounter with Julian lands her in prison. (Nick, meanwhile, has disappeared back onto the continent to continue his nefarious deeds).
Made aware that Nick is a ruthless criminal who murdered Foster's predecessor in the job, Angela agrees to help Foster and a Scotland Yard special investigator, Inspector Hedges (Cavanaugh) in trapping Nick at their appointed meeting. Hedges arranges for Angela to escape from prison. Instead of the tender reunion, Nick berates Angela for leading the authorities to him. Nick is then killed in a shootout with Foster, who arranges for Angela's release from the remainder of her sentence. Foster then shows his boss a London newspaper proclaiming Angela's return to show business with a command performance.
To its credit, the new continuity provided by BLONDE BAIT and Foster's narration clarifies some things left unsaid in WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, especially the charge levied against Angela and the length of her sentence. Davis does make the transformed Nick into an interestingly slimy character thanks to the gruff charm that served the actor so well two decades later on the TV drama DALLAS; Paul Carpenter in the original footage could have only wished his role was that deep given his limited screen time. But scenes involving the investigators serve only to smooth over footage deleted from WOMEN WITHOUT MEN and as we can see, radically change the story as well as introduce some confusion for the viewer. It seems everyone except Nick knows about the plot to capture him before the closing reel unspools. Leonard Maltin and associates gave BLONDE BAIT two stars, but said Michaels "excels" at her lead role.***
Your best bet? Stick with WOMEN WITHOUT MEN if you can find it somewhere. There are worse ways to kill 70 minutes than watching BLONDE BAIT, but we just can't think of them right now.
* Sangster, DO YOU WANT IT GOOD OR TUESDAY?, Baltimore, Md.: Midnight Marquee Press, 1997, p. 29.
** David Pirie, A HERITAGE OF HORROR: THE ENGLISH GOTHIC CINEMA 1946-1972, New York: Equinox Books/Avon, 1974, pp. 26-27.
*** Maltin, ed., LEONARD MALTIN'S CLASSIC MOVIE GUIDE, New York: Plume Books, 2005, p. 54.