Indie film pioneer Ida Lupino focused on Hollywood's attention on controversial social themes

| November/December 2000

During the late 1940s, when there were virtually no women directors in Hollywood, actress Ida Lupino formed a production company and directed six feature films dealing with controversial social themes. On the surface, this should be enough to establish her as a feminist icon. But Lupino's work has often been characterized as anti-feminist and even sexist. A few critics have gone further, suggesting that if Lupino had not been a woman, her films would now be forgotten. Until recently, those films have been hard to find, so critics--and the public at large--have formed opinions based only on occasional screenings and the judgments of others. The recent video release of three of Lupino's most highly regarded films--Not Wanted, The Hitch-Hiker, and The Bigamist--has given viewers a chance to rethink Lupino's place in film history for themselves.

Though she was born in England, Lupino fashioned a Hollywood career by playing tough, working-class American women, an image first shaped in They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941). Highly regarded for her professionalism, Lupino was known for working with directors on their conception of her characters and with cinematographers on lighting and angles that presented her most effectively. Like all the female stars of her era, Lupino fought continuously with the studio bosses for meatier roles. In 1948, Lupino was only 31 and at the peak of commercial success; nonetheless, to grow as an artist, she felt she had to do what men in similar situations had done--form her own independent production company. Producing and acting, rather than directing, were her main concerns.

The company, called Emerald Productions, was later reformed and renamed The Filmmakers. Lupino and her partners said they wanted to make substantial films of a sociological nature that challenged contemporary norms without being preachy. What was in a film was more important than who was in the film. Lupino often referred to her films as being documentary in nature; she preferred to shoot straightforward narratives on location in the neorealistic and film noir style seen in many of the era's low-budget films.

Not Wanted (1949) offers insight into how her desire to take on serious social issues manifested itself on the screen. The film focused on being young, pregnant, and unwed in America in the 1940s. Credit for direction went to Elmer Clifton, but he had suffered a mild heart attack as the filming was about to begin. Clifton was consulted throughout the shoot, but Lupino did the actual directing, though she insisted at first to the press that she was only filling in temporarily. One of her concerns was that she was not then a member of the Screen Directors Guild; but as it became clear that she would direct the entire picture, there was fear that a film directed by a woman would fare poorly with critics and the public, particularly in light of its volatile sexual subject matter.

Lupino had done a major rewrite of the script with its original authors, shifting it away from a seduction/ quasi-rape scenario to one in which the man is a louse but not a predator and the woman is less a victim than a sexually active woman caught in tragic circumstances.

Time has blurred the guts required to make a film in which an unwed mother is presented as a moral person worthy of the audience's sympathy. Pregnancy resulting from consensual sex by a woman trying to find pleasure in a dreary world also was daring. That a decent and attractive man who was not the child's father could fall in love with such a woman was yet another conceptual breakthrough. Even so, some viewers today charge that Lupino made feminist films from an anti-feminist or male-identified perspective. They wonder why the woman didn't raise the child on her own, why the understanding man has to be physically lame, and why there has to be so much patriarchal moralizing from the police, ministers, medical officials, and even the empathetic male.

Not Wanted, made for $153,000, grossed $1 million its first year, creating a buzz in the film community. Established stars became interested in Lupino's film company, which in due time would boast an unusual mix of well-known actors and newcomers. Investors were also buoyed by the film's phenomenal success.

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