25 July 2004 | bmacv
Offbeat, often arresting women's prison noir gives underused Havoc a chance to shine
Why wasn't June Havoc in more movies? She's probably best remembered, biographically at any rate, as young vaudeville star Baby June Hovick, in Gypsy, who ran off to elope, breaking Mama Rose's heart and leading her to push her shrinking violet of a sister into the spotlight. That wall-flower became society `ecdysiast' Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote the book for the hit musical and its various compromised film versions. Lee's version of their lives caused a long-lasting rift between the siblings.
But Havoc had talent of her own, and plenty of it. She brought style and panache to her role in Chicago Deadline, for instance, and proved a welcome foil to the humorless Alan Ladd. That same year she took the title role in Crane Wilbur's The Story of Molly X, one of the better instalments in the noir cycle that time seems to have lost track of.
The Story of Molly X is a surprising work on many counts. It's one of the few (and one of the first) crime dramas to feature a woman as head of a mob (true, Dame Judith Anderson did it in Lady Scarface, but hers was a secondary role). Widow of a Kansas City gangster who was slain (assailant unknown), she's set herself up in fancy San Francisco digs. There's some resentment against her when she summons her gang west to knock over a jewelry-store vault, most virulently from Dorothy Hart, who serves as moll to one of the other gang members (Elliott Lewis). Resentment turns to hatred when Havoc seduces Lewis into admitting he killed her husband, then plugs him for revenge.
The planned burglary goes awry, and despite Havoc's belief that the cops couldn't find `a pair of pajamas in a bowl of soup,' she's apprehended (the detective in charge is Charles McGraw). She's sent to Tehachapi for only a short stretch, knowing , however, that if the revolver she ditched is ever found, she'll end up in the gas chamber at San Quentin.
Here the script takes an unexpected turn. A year before John Cromwell would make the Sistine Chapel of women's-prison movies, Caged, Havoc enrolls into a Correctional Institution for Women that's as comfy and cozy as the campuses of the Seven Sisters colleges for the brainier daughters of the well-to-do. At first, Havoc plays hard case, refusing even the light work details assigned to her. But confinement to her room summons up some demons from her past: She confides a history of sexual abuse by her stepfather.
Now, this may be so much dollar-book Freud in explaining her career in crime, but, in 1949, it was something of a breakthrough. The exploitation of children for sexual purposes was then barely acknowledged, even in most of the psychiatric establishment. Movies like Bewitched or The Three Faces of Eve or Lizzie that dealt with Multiple Personality Disorder which is widely thought to have its origins in severe physical or sexual abuse in childhood fastidiously avoided its roots (Joanne Woodward, who won an Academy Award as Eve, contracted it by being forced to kiss grandma goodbye in her coffin). So on that point alone, Molly X deserves credit (as does another movie of the same year that more gingerly hinted at similar shenanigans: Abandoned).
Escaping her memories by gratefully returning to work, Havoc shows unexpected spunk and fellow-feeling by rescuing other inmates caught in a laundry-room steam explosion. She turns into a model prisoner, at least until the arrival of a shipment of `new fish' proves to contain none other than her nemesis Hart.. Remember, the murder weapon still remains unfound....
Wilbur, both as scriptwriter and director, showed an attraction for stories that dealt with the realities or the aftermath of prison life: Canon City, Outside The Wall, Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison, Women's Prison. In Molly X, he argues the thesis that the penal system is progressive, even enlightened, supplying the rehabilitation that inmates at heart crave. (The antithesis was advanced with dark and persuasive brilliance in the following year's Caged.) He bolsters his argument by means of a none-too-plausible twist at the end. But along the way, especially in the pre-Tehachapi sequences, he shows a real flair for the volatile moodiness of film noir. And in Havoc, who runs the gamut from hard-boiled defiance to contrition as convincingly as the confines of the script allow, he found a star who, for once, got to show just how good she could be.