It’s a Social Problem Movie, a genre to which I’m usually highly allergic. On the other hand it’s also a women-in-prison movie and they can be fun.
In this case the social problem is wayward girls. Helen Martin (Arline Judge) is the sister-in-law of racketeer Johnny Moon. That’s why she’s just lost her job as a teacher. To the respectable folk of this city anyone associated with Johnny Moon has to be a bad influence on innocent girls. In fact Helen Martin is about as respectable a woman as you could possibly find anywhere. She hates Johnny Moon with a burning white-hot loathing. She hates gangsters anyway but she also blames Johnny for corrupting her sister Jean.
The principal of the school, who was forced to fire Helen, manages to find another job for her - teaching school in a women’s prison. It’s an institution for young offenders, the sorts of young girls who get corrupted by people like Johnny Moon. Helen is sceptical but good-hearted reformist cop Frank Donovan (Roger Clark) persuades her to take the job.
Helen is also a psychologist so she has all the do-gooder qualifications.
The reformatory turns out to be a brutal institution and girls sent there, if they’re lucky enough to survive (some don’t as Helen finds out as soon as she arrives) leave the place worse than when they came in. Frank Donovan and Helen Martin want to change all that but it’s going to be an uphill battle. The superintendent is corrupt and vicious and the warders are sadistic (yes, this I definitely a women-in-prison movie). The girls aren’t just wild, they’re angry and dangerous.
It turns out that it’s actually Johnny Moon who runs the reformatory, like he runs everything else in this town. That’s why the respectable people turned on Helen - they didn’t like admitting that this is Johnny Moon’s town and that he owns them.
Now a new girl has arrived. Rita (Robin Raymond) is a waitress and she’s Johnny Moon’s latest mistress.
Helen of course tries to improve things for the girls and that gets her into trouble with the reformatory staff who are on Johnny Moon’s payroll.
Somehow Frank and Helen have to get some hard evidence against Johnny Moon. Maybe Rita will help. But then again, maybe she won’t. And Johnny is a killer so i’s a dangerous game.
The ending has a touch of German Expressionism to it and is a fine example of what a director with real talent could so with no money at all.
Making films on miscroscopically low budgets wasn’t a problem for Ulmer. The real problem was that it means working with second-rate (and sometimes third-rate) actors. The rare occasions when he had the right actors and actresses to work with (Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman, Tom Neal and Ann Savage in Detour, John Carradine in Bluebeard) tend to be his best work. The problem with Girls in Chains is that he doesn’t have much to work with at all.
Arline Judge’s career never really took off and it’s easy to see why. She’s just a bit wooden and can’t manage to bring Helen to life. Roger Clark has the same problem as Frank Donovan. Dorothy Burgess steals the picture is a minor rôle as Mrs Peters, the most dangerous and sadistic of the warders.
This movie isn’t easy to find on DVD but there is a grey market version from Sinister Cinema in their four-movie Poverty Row Collection, PRC volume 3 pack which is cheap and also includes Jungle Siren which is a fun little jungle girl movie. And it includes another Ulmer movie, Isle of Forgotten Sins plus the odd but enjoyable musical Swing Hostess, so it’s well worth grabbing.
Girls in Chains isn’t great but it’s intriguing as an example of a Poverty Row feature which is a bit better than it has any right to be. Ulmer’s films are never less than interesting so this one is recommended.