1930s Up the River may be the first women in prison movie — feel free to correct me — but between this movie and Jess Franco’s 99 Women, all the things you need to know about WIP that would follow have been set in stone. In fact, Roger Corman thought the genre had already peaked and little did he know how many more movies were to come.
That’s why director and writer Jonathan Demme financed this himself, first calling it Renegade Girls and finding inspiration from the prison movies of the past like White Heat and Caged when it came time to retitle it.
Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin, Vixen!) has been busted for drugs — she’s innocent — and sent to Connorville, where she’s in the care of McQueen (Barbara Steele, forever the queen of evil), a wheelchair-bound repressed warden who seems to live to torture her prisoners. And while Jacqueline first hates Maggie (Juanita Brown, Foxy Brown), they end up busting out with fellow inmate Crazy Alice (Crystin Sinclaire, Ruby, Eaten Alive), robbing a bank and getting so brave that they bust back into the jail to rescue all of their former cell mates, who include Deborah Clearbranch (before she was Desiree Cousteau), Ella Reed, Irene Stokes, Amy Barrett, Cynthia Songe and two of the most important of all 70s female exploitation icons, Roberta Collins and Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith.
This movie stands out from every other WIP ever made because it doesn’t stay in our reality, instead letting us see into the dreams and hopes of the women behind bars, even Steele, who can escape her chair and be part of “The Blue Angel” inside the prison showers. Of course, before we have too much sympathy for her, she’s also sent so many of the women to be experimented upon and get electrical shocks from Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller).
Obviously, Demme would go above and beyond this film with Stop Making Sense, Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild. But it’s in genre films like this where he started and proved that he could make something special even on the smallest of budgets.