Indie film pioneer Ida Lupino focused on Hollywood's attention on controversial social themes
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.
Lupino directed the next three Filmmakers productions--Never Fear (1950), Outrage (1950), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951). She took a writing credit only for Outrage, but she also worked extensively on the other scripts. Never Fear sought to assuage the era's hysteria about polio; Lupino's focus was on a female dancer crippled by the disease. Outrage tackled rape at a time when the word was not even used in newspapers ('victim of a criminal attack' was the preferred coding), and when many critics did not consider it a proper subject for motion pictures. Hard, Fast and Beautiful examined a mother's frantic efforts to make a tennis star of her athletically gifted daughter.
These were the first in a group of Filmmakers films to be released through RKO, then controlled by Howard Hughes. Lupino's later reminiscences about her distribution problems sound remarkably similar to the laments heard from indie directors today--including the pressure exerted by her distributor on the selection of scripts and casts. The growing influence of Hughes and RKO is evident in The Hitch-Hiker (1953), which is frequently cited as Lupino's most aesthetically accomplished work, though it is largely devoid of social content. In the film, two vacationing friends give a lift to a homicidal maniac who takes them hostage. The film is tense, well-acted, and fast-paced, but unlike Lupino's other films, it was the kind of B drama any studio might have made.
With The Bigamist (1953), Lupino became the first woman to direct herself in a feature film. Although far from a masterwork, The Bigamist has an intriguing premise. The bigamist (Edmond O'Brien) is not a dashing rouÈ with attractive women neatly sequestered in different cities. Instead, he is unhappily entwined in two complex relationships. His wives are not femmes fatales or madonna/whore opposites, but sincere and sympathetic women.
In 1966 Lupino directed what would be her last feature film, The Trouble with Angels, an odd mix of comedy and religion involving high-spirited girls in a Catholic boarding school. Rosalind Russell plays the mother superior, Gypsy Rose Lee is cast as an interpretive movement instructor, and Hayley Mills is the student ringleader. Once again, Lupino rejected studio sets to film on location at St. Mary's Home for Children in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The film entertains with girlish pranks and the obligatory smoking scenes and brassiere jokes, but it didn't win Lupino many fans in a generation rebelling in the streets or in the burgeoning feminist movement.
During the so-called golden age of television, Lupino was the first and, for a considerable time, the only woman to direct. Her ability to shoot engaging stories rapidly soon had people calling her 'the female Hitchcock.' She directed episodes for Westerns, comedies, and dramas, including Gunsmoke, Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, and many other shows. (She was even trusted to do an episode of The Twilight Zone by the finicky Rod Serling.)
Lupino's feminist credentials suffer from her marriages to three difficult men. While these relationships reflect values visible in the films, they are irrelevant in judging her work's enduring value. In fact, many feminist critics write favorably about Lupino's work, including Annette Kuhn, who, in Queen of the B's, collected more than a dozen essays arguing that Lupino's work has been greatly undervalued.
Martin Scorsese referred to Lupino's films as 'remarkable chamber pieces' marked by their 'empathy for the fragile and brokenhearted.' Her women are fully realized characters who go far beyond the usual passive and decorative images of women in conventional films of the day. In retrospect, Lupino's films prove to be progressive in their sympathy for ordinary women and men caught in various social dilemmas.
Shortly before she died in 1995, Lupino reminded biographers that she had never set out to be a director. She was just as happy acting, and perhaps happiest producing. William Donati, author of Ida Lupino (University of Kentucky, 2000), an appreciative account of her life, has written that 'Lupino features were commendable for the period but fall short of being great films.' But she didn't just direct and produce films: She was breaking ground, and enriching the sensibility and subject matter of American films. That she did this with a only a few films, and without claiming to be a genius, ought to encourage all filmmakers confronting barriers today.
Adapted from the film journal Cineaste (vol. 25, no. 3). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (4 issues) from Box 2242, New York, NY 10009. The films Not Wanted, The Hitch-Hiker, and The Bigamist are available from Kino on Video (212/629-6880).