I just couldn't resist that title, even though Christmas has come and gone already! (It sure sneaked up on us this year.) Today's featured flick is a hooty 1976 TV-movie called Cage Without a Key
, all about the horrors of a teenage girls correctional facility as experienced by wrongly-convicted Susan Dey (then fresh from The Partridge Family
.) It's one of several recent telefilms that have been unearthed from oblivion by one of my satellite high-def channels and broadcast in their original glory. This ad below, by the way, features people in a scuffle who in no way appear in the actual movie!
|Apparently afraid that the title Cage Without a Key wouldn't necessarily draw in all the target audiences, a blurb the same size reads, "Girls Behind Bars!"|
We start with a glimpse of two nicely-attired women walking the attractive grounds of an educational facility. The one on the left is a reporter, sent to interview the administrator (played by Katherine Helmond) about her establishment. We soon discover that this is no ordinary girl's school...
Thus begins our journey into the cat-eat-cat world of reform school girls. True, there might be vocational training, education, recreation and so on, but there is also plenty of threat and danger to be found.
Cut to young Susan Dey who is being served a light breakfast by her mother Ann D'Andrea (try saying that three times fast!) Dey, after a prior bit of trouble involving being caught at a pot party, is being trusted to set out with a friend of hers to San Francisco for two weeks. before she's even had a bite of her toast, the horn is honking outside and it's time to roll.
Back at the school, we meet one tough ass gal played by Jonelle Allen. She is enraged because just as she is eligible to leave the place after a lengthy sentence, she's been "shafted." She tells her two closest buddies there that someone snitched on her, incorrectly and deliberately, for smoking marijuana in her cell/room. Four extra months have been tacked onto her sentence!
She suspects that it was Suesie Elene, a very chatty and trouble-causing Asian girl with long ponytails and a wide, deceptive smile. Thus the battle lines are drawn in the sand between Elene and her gals versus Allen and hers.
Dey and Bloom have scarcely made it down the road when car trouble hits. The mechanic on the scene informs Bloom that her car is going to have to be towed all the way back to town. Just then a
Volkswagon minibus pulls up.
Inside is Sam Bottoms (for whom?! Ha ha!), a fairly cute, blond fellow student who knows Bloom and acts as if he knows Dey, though he really doesn't. Since Bloom has to stay with her car, he convinces Dey to ride along with him to San Franciso as he's on his way to Seattle and has to pass through there on the way.
A slightly hesitant Dey agrees to get into the van with him, though he is clearly a little bit off. She knows she's never met the guy before, but he acts very familiar with her, reaching over to pat her leg and so forth.
When he stops off at a service station to collect some money from a friend, he even refers to Dey as his girlfriend! She's so taken aback she can hardly find the words to correct him.
He's agitated anyway because the money he was to collect from his buddy isn't all there... She wants out of the van by now, but he insists that she stick with him.
At school, Allen is plopping this unfortunate blonde wig upon the head of an unsus- pecting fellow inmate during beauty training when she is informed that it was definitely Elene who set her up for a fall with the parole board.
She storms into a classroom where Elene is standing and begins to let her know how life is. Elene's acting in this movie simply has to be seen to be believed...! She is so, so, so, so ON at all times and over-the top in practically every syllable and gesture. (Of course pop-eyed Allen is no slouch in the mugging department either!)
|Thankfully the correctional facility allows talon-like painted nails...!|
Next thing you know, Allen is all over Elene, pounding her into next week. The sounds of their yelling and clanking around brings in a passel of teachers and fellow inmates.
Naturally, Elene makes it all seem so much worse than it really is by the time instructor Karen Morrow finds her, with bloodied lip.
Things are about to turn really ugly for Dey, too. Bottoms has pulled a gun and makes her enter a convenience store with him. He stations her near the window and demands that she act as a lookout while he tries to rob the owner at gunpoint.
Since the owner presses an alarm button rather than hand over his cash, Bottoms fires his gun and kills the man. Meanwhile, Dey is a screaming mess.
Both of the young folks are quickly captured and booked for murder. Witnesses saw them entering the store together, joined at the hip.
Now we land upon these two pairs of feet. This is only one of the config- urations they make until a ringing phone gets them up.
They belong to reporter Karen Carlson and new attorney Michael Brandon. His boss is calling and she attempts to tell him that Brandon is already on his way.
|Note the continuity error with the towel. The large white section is now in a different spot.|
Brandon decides to come to the phone and avoid not telling the truth (that he was lollygagging in bed with Carlson instead of getting up and heading to work!)
He's informed that the time has come for his own very first criminal case. You get one guess as to which recently arrested teenage girl is set to be represented by him...
Down at the courthouse, Dey's mother defends her daughter's innocence in contrast to an avalanche of circum- stantial evidence that's been collected against her.
Brandon assures her that he will do everything he can to see her acquitted while also informing them that this is his first case. He also implores Dey to avoid expressing any extreme emotion during her hearing as this usually doesn't sit well with the judges.
At the detention facility, Allen's two best friends are having a stroll. The one on the left (Edith Diaz) is listening to the one on the right (Margaret Willock) describe her recent visit to her father on the outside.
Allen, on the other hand, is in for a rude awakening. Thanks to her outburst and physical confron- tation with Elene, her sentence has now been extended and additional YEAR! Needless to say, she is crestfallen and furious.
Now at court, the judge (played by prolific character actor Basil Hoffman) is hearing from a parade of (mostly incrim- inating!) witnesses against Dey as well as Dey herself. She begins to fall apart emotionally causing Brandon to break a pencil in half to snap her out of it.
|Hoffman, among many other things, played the put-upon high school principal on Square Pegs.|
By the time Bottoms, already convicted, takes the stand and totally sells her out with a wholly concocted story of their love affair, things are bleak indeed for the young girl. When the dust settles, she's been remanded to the San Marcos School for Girls.
Brandon, aggravated by the loss of his case, is horrified to find out that an appeal will take six weeks. He worries over Dey's safety and state of mind if she has to stay at the reform school that long when she's innocent of the charges against her.
Morrow, in the midst of a session with several of the inmates, invites Dey and fellow newbie Dawn Frame to join them. Morrow runs a tight ship and doesn't hesitate to mete out punishment and withholding of privileges when the gals act up.
While entertaining friends in their oh-so-'70s studio apartment, Brandon is still bemoaning the loss of his case while Carlson is eager to put it all behind them and move on.
Now he has insomnia over it and she (looking truly heinous here!) is starting to become annoyed by the whole thing.
Dey realizes that she can communicate through the ventilation dampers with her new pal Frame. The two petrified girls strike up a close friendship and try to stick together amid all the drama around them at the school.
Of course, Elene isn't about to let that happen. She tries to get both gals to join her lunch table, but Dey declines.
She and Frame end up across the room with Allen and her gals. Allen spells it all out for them. They need to pick sides and stick to them, though Dey is still in her "I'm not going to be here very long" mode.
Having witnessed Dey sitting with archenemy Allen and worried that she might take up with the other team, Elene confronts Dey and tries to get her to spy for her. Dey wants none of it.
Elene and one of her closest pals, Lani O'Grady, give Dey the once over during afternoon calis- thenics... and O'Grady likes what she sees!
As Dey is returning from a shower that evening, O'Grady is waiting in her cell for her.
Dey turns to blithely ask her what she wants and soon finds out all to clearly what it is!
O'Grady comes in hard for a smooch, to Dey's absolute horror.
O'Grady won't take no for an answer and keeps pressing, however. Eventually, she whips off Dey's towel and presses her wet naked body onto the bed!
|Folks, this is Mary Bradford trying to tongue kiss Laurie Partridge! For '70s children it's quite a TV character mash-up!|
Fortunately for the hapless Dey, Allen comes stampeding in and corrals O'Grady around the throat, getting rid of her quickly.
By Dey's reaction to almost being kissed by O'Grady, you'd think she'd been passed around by the top five finalists in the Dinah Shore Open golf champ- ionship...! In truth, she fared a lot better than poor Linda Blair one year earlier in Born Innocent
(1974) who was raped by her fellow juvenile hall inmates with the handle of a plunger! (Said incident was cut from subsequent broadcasts of that telefilm for many years to come.)
Better recovered from her ordeal, Dey and Allen are in the midst of a home economics cooking assignment when Dey asks Allen about her own lesbianism. Allen relays a vague story about being left in the care of a certain woman when she was a little girl. All of this was quite startling, I'm sure, for 1975 television audiences!
Dey is already in trouble again, though. Morrow has found a stolen ashtray and cigarette butts in her room, even though Dey doesn't smoke! She is reprimanded for her (highly circumstantial - once more) transgression.
Soon, she realizes that it was the ever-present and ever-troublesome Elene who planted the stolen ashtray in her room. Elene wants help against Allen, but Dey insists she is staying out of the whole situation.
Called before Helmond the admin- istrator, Dey tries to express her frustrations and concerns about the place to her, but it is of little to no effect...
|Yes, I know it's puerile of me, but it made me cackle that the administrator of this all-girl institute, rife with lesbianism, has a nameplate that includes the word "clit" in it!|
Soon after, she is informed that her new little friend Frame has been savagely injured in an "accident," with a huge vat of boiling water having been dumped on her. Dey is beyond crushed to find out soon after that the young girl has died as a result of her injuries. Allen is on hand to comfort her - platonically - and becomes Dey's first ever black friend, lesbian friend and lifelong criminal friend!
Brandon still cannot get Dey's case off his mind. As he and Carlson (awkwardly) ride their bikes in the park, he comes up with a brainstorm. He wants Carlson, a reporter, to interview the incarcerated Bottoms and try to appeal to his ego, hoping he might slip and admit that he actually never even knew Dey prior to the afternoon of the robbery/murder.
|Check the wildly frayed and holey tank top that Brandon is sporting. It even has a gaping tear under his left arm!|
Dey is fast giving up hope, understandably considering the circumstances. Her mother and best friend Bloom try to give her a ray of positivity, but it's no use.
Dey finally agrees to join up - to a degree - with Allen, who is now planning an escape from the place! They want Dey to use her job at the facility to gain information that will help with their plans to run away from the center.
Later, during a spirited volleyball game, Elene basically puts out a hit on Allen's ally Willock. She and O'Grady come up behind her and beat her down to the pavement where she suffers a head injury.
Dey visits Willock in the infirmary, bringing her a small potted flower. While there, they have a one-on-one conver- sation in which Willock admits that her trip to see her father was actually a disaster. He wasn't even there! She sat alone in his apartment until it was time to return to the center.
Dey wants Willock to come and live with her once they are out. She explains that she has twin beds in her room and they can be close friends during the rebuilding period of this arduous time behind bars.
Carlson has made her way to the men's prison and sets up her tape recorder to capture her interview with the delusional Bottoms. Sure enough, as they are discussing his crime, he lets it slip that Dey wasn't his girlfriend after all and that he scarcely knew her!
Back home, she plays the tape for a now-hopeful Brandon. He may finally be able to get young Dey out of the living hell she's in.
And, yes, that hell has continued to become even worse. While writing to her mother, explaining that she wants Willock to come and stay with them once their sentences are up, she is informed that Willock, too, has now perished from her injuries!
Brandon gets a call from the authorities that Dey can finally be cleared and freed from the San Marcos School for Girls, but will he be able to get to her in time? Just at that same time, a virtual riot has broken out with most of the girls on site embroiled in a violent (and hilarious looking!) skirmish, and not everyone emerges from this alive...
|Stunt double anyone?!|
Dey had literally just ended her nearly 100 episode run on The Partridge Family
when she took on this assignment. She proceeded to a variety of guest roles on many of the hot series of the time, occasionally attempting another regular series (such as Loves Me, Loves Me Not
with Kip Gilman and Emerald Point, N.A.S.
) with only marginal success. Then, after movies like Looker
(1981) and Echo Park
(1985), she landed the role of Grace Van Owen on the very hot series L.A. Law
, which netted her a Golden Globe along with three Emmy nominations (losing to Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, both of Cagney & Lacey
and Dana Delaney of China Beach
.) Now sixty-seven, Dey has not acted on screen since 2004.
|During the time of L.A. Law, I thought Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey were the living end as a power couple.|
Allen began acting on Broadway at the age of six and amassed a wealth of stage credits before appearing in movies as the 1970s dawned. She had stabs at television series such as Palmerstown, U.S.A.
and enjoyed a juicy part on the daytime soap Generations
, but it wasn't until Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
, that she enjoyed long-term semi-regular work on a show. She ultimately appeared in over 100 episodes. Still working occasionally today, she is now seventy-one.
Bottoms began acting in 1971 when he was spotted accompanying his brother Timothy to the set of The Last Picture Show
. He soon began winning further roles in films such as Class of '44
(1973), Zandy's Bride
(1974) and The Outlaw Josey Wales
(1976.) Later films included Apocalypse Now
(1979) and Bronco Billy
(1980.) He continued to work busily in character parts, including the hit Seabiscuit
(2003) until brain cancer claimed him at only fifty-three years of age in 2003.
Bloom was still very new to screen acting when she landed this part. She proceeded to a raft of guest roles on popular series until 1982 when she became a highly familiar face to pay cable subscribers. She starred as TV journalist Frosty Kimmelman on the HBO parody series Not Necessarily the News
, a show that ran for close to a decade. By the dawn of the 2000s, she had segued into life as a licensed marriage and family therapist, with little acting since. She is now seventy-two.
Carlson had been a beauty contestant (coming in as first runner up to Miss America in 1964) before pursuing an acting career. Wed to David Soul in 1968, she appeared on his series Here Come the Brides
and Starsky and Hutch
as well as many others (also working with Robert Redford in The Candidate
, 1972.) I have to declare that I have never been very hot on her acting style, something I first discovered during her flat performance in the star-studded Centennial
, but she enjoyed a long, busy career that continues on occasion to this day. She is currently seventy-four. (Note that despite playing the career woman opposite the "teens" in prison, she was only a couple of years older than most of them!)
Puerto Rican Diaz had worked on stage with Allen in the musical "Two Gentlemen from Verona" and proceeded to win roles on television in many hit shows. After Cage
, she costarred with Hector Elizondo on the short-lived Popi
, one of the first series to star Latinos as the leads. Diaz was a committed advocate for the Latino acting community. She was still singing in the 1990s, appearing in both Sister Act
films amid the nuns choir, but was felled by heart failure in 2009 at only age sixty.
Elene, who'd appeared on Love, American Style
and a couple of other shows, was selected as a "Deb Star of Tomorrow" in 1975, appearing with her fellow honorees on a Bob Hope special. However, one could almost count her screen appearances on their hands. It would be almost impossible to find a performance more outrageously ridiculous than the one she turned in here, though she did try to outdo herself the following year with the inane Revenge of the Cheerleaders
(1976), notorious for giving the movie world one David Hasselhoff as a character called "Boner." After appearances on Hawaii 5-O
and Magnum, P.I.
, she receded from view for the most part.
Helmond had a long career on stage both in the Catskills and on Broadway before shifting more to television. She toiled on many a program and not long after this movie she landed a leading role on Soap
. Not long after that series ended, she found success again with a showy part on Who's the Boss?
, winning a Golden Globe for each. She also scored seven Emmy nominations for those shows and along with one for Everybody Loves Raymond
, on which she occasionally guested. Ms. Helmond passed away in 2019 at eighty-nine of Alzhemier's Disease, though she'd been working up until the year before.
Morrow was yet another performer here whose most significant contributions to entertainment were done on stage. She attained the unenviable distinction of having costarred in more high-profile flops than most other Broadway stars before seguing into TV, where only marginal success awaited. Soon after Cage
, she worked on the short-lived (and in many ways wrong-headed) sitcom Tabitha
, a sequel to Bewitched
. By the end of the 1980s, she was focusing more on teaching than performing, but did do an episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch
in a nod to her time spent on Tabitha
. She is currently eighty-three.
O'Grady was the younger sister of hunky Don Grady
of My Three Sons
. Not long after Cage
, she won a prime role in the successful family series Eight is Enough
as Mary Bradford, one of the most level-headed members of the extensive clan. Off-screen, she was plagued with anxiety and panic attacks which led to a serious prescription drug addiction. She left acting (apart from a couple of reunion movies) in the early-1980s to become a talent agent as her mother had been, but in 2001 was discovered dead of a drug overdose at only age forty-six.
Willock was still new to the business when she worked on this television movie, though this was her fourth. She went directly into the Lee Grant
, but that one was notoriously short-lived, much to its star's dismay. Only a few sporadic acting appearances followed, all finished by the mid-1980s.
This was the seventh (and final) acting appearance of child actress Dawn Frame. She'd had a bit part in Skidoo
(1968) and had played Walter Matthau's daughter in The Laughing Policeman
(1973), but this project would signal the end of her on screen acting roles.
After a brief turn on Broadway, Brandon burst onto the scene in the hit comedy Lovers and Other Strangers
(1970), followed by Jennifer on My Mind
and Four Flies on Grey Velvet
(both 1971.) A busy actor, who almost from the start used his voice for animated projects as well, he went from a relationship with Kim Novak to a 1976 marriage to Lindsay Wagner which ended after three years. He was reunited with Dey in Emerald Point, N.A.S.
and after relocating to England costarred in the British series Dempsey and Makepeace
. (Brandon married his costar from that one, Glynis Barber, and they remain wed today.) Still acting regularly (he had a role in Joan Collins' 2017 film The Time of Their Lives
), he has long been the narrator of all the Thomas (as in the train engine) programs. He is currently seventy-four.
|Now the towel is back in its original position (and Carlson is back in hers?! Ha ha!) Till next time, Poseidon.|