B-Real

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.

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).

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