"Mother of All of Us": Ida Lupino and the Label of Proto-Feminism

The actress and pioneering Hollywood director is being celebrated—and more broadly recognized—during her centenary.
Christina Newland

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino (c. 1952). Courtesy Film Forum via Photofest.

Much has been written about Ida Lupino’s centenary this year, and the renewed critical attention is a cause for celebration. The veteran screen actor and director of Golden Age Hollywood has too often been a name casually trotted out in lip service to women’s historical impact in the film industry. She most certainly did have that impact, but her films have proven difficult to see and completism with her work has been equally challenging. This began to shift after Martin Scorsese wrote an affectionate obituary of Lupino in a 1995 issue of The New York Times. Not long after, restorations and DVD releases would follow—some by Scorsese’s Film Foundation itself. Now, in her centenary year, both the British Film Institute and New York’s Film Forum are holding retrospectives to celebrate her, including works like her mother-daughter sports saga Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), which have been omitted in the past.

Lupino directed eight (credited) feature films and hundreds of episodes of television in the ‘50s, not to mention starring in nearly sixty films over her half-century career. Her salt-of-the-earth beauty combined delicate features with a tough jaw and steely nerves, seeing her star opposite Bogart and Robinson in Warner Bros. dramas like High Sierra (1941) and The Sea Wolf (1941). Lupino played murderous women, ambitious widows, and unhappy prostitutes in the vein of the Warners house style, often taking on roles Bette Davis was also considered for or had turned down. That led her to jokingly refer to herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis,” in typical self-deprecating fashion. “Now I’m the poor man’s Don Siegel,” she added about her directorial efforts.

That may seem like a considerable leap, but Davis and Siegel did share an involvement at Warner Bros., where they both learned to economically and tersely convey their talents in their respective artforms. Lupino, like the studio employees she compared herself to, was notable because of her involvement in genres deemed masculine—particularly noir and crime, but also the western.  Perhaps the apotheosis of those films is Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, the story of a spiraling homicide detective (Robert Ryan) who lashes out at the petty criminality around him. Lupino plays the blind sister of a potential murderer,a role that written on paper must have seemed melodramatic and silly. Yet she makes the role live and breathe with her honest delivery and Ray’s intention to make her subjectivity a key part of the film’s narrative.  

With Ray’s typically hothouse approach—all frantic shots of spinning car wheels and and unusual POVs approximating the blind woman’s own fuzzy vision—it’s an artful and surprisingly romantic film noir. But it’s also a strikingly vulnerable display from Lupino; she was clearly better than any throwaway femme fatale role.  

Lupino’s list of firsts is indeed prodigious. She was the only woman to become a member of the Directors Guild of America in her time, the only one to ever direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, and the only with the distinction of having directed a real film noir in the form of the minimalist drama The Hitch-Hiker (1955). In 1949, with husband Collier Young, she formed an independent production company called The Filmakers, whose stated focus would be making low-budget “social problem” pictures. In the first—Not Wanted (1949)—though she co-produced and shared a screenwriting credit, she went uncredited as director. This changed with her film Never Fear (1950), a daringly personal drama about a young woman stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down. Several of Lupino’s films focus on young women that are in some way “trapped,” both physically and psychologically, by oppressive situations. Not only does this idea permeate thematically, it also translates via a truly claustrophobic visual style.Take the opening scene in Outrage (1950), where Mala Powers’ Ann is the victim of sexual violence: the city streets seem to enclose around her, with menacing geometric shadows and ratcheting tension which rivals Hitchcock in noirish suspense. 

Long prior to other famous figures of American independent cinema, Lupino truly fit the role of the hustling low-budget director. She reused old sets, utilized product placement for extra cash before the phrase was really in existence, and got favors from friends to help round out her supporting casts. She carefully planned out each of her shots to save resources.Nonetheless, her cash-strapped production company would sadly fold in 1953, with Lupino having directed six of the eight films they made. In 1955, she returned to the screen in Robert Aldrich’s acidic film noir The Big Knife, playing the fed-up wife of a dissolute Hollywood star.  

Lupino’s reputation as a director has undergone a curious transformation: she went from relative invisibility to posthumous recognition. Today, her prominence exists within a fast-moving think piece culture where one of the defining questions of artistic critique has become, “Is it feminist?” Because she has gone from an oddity in her era to a “proto-feminist pioneer” in ours, little consideration has been given to how her work and her personality might not fit into neat ahistorical categorization.  

The filmmaker’s relationship to womanhood, domesticity, and career was necessarily complicated, particularly by merit of her being one of the very few women directors to even be working in Hollywood of the forties. In Mary Ann Anderson’s book Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera, she was quoted as saying, “Keeping a feminine approach is vital; men hate bossy females. You do not tell a man; you suggest to him.”

As critic Molly Haskell has pointed out, it sometimes felt as though Lupino was far from progressive in her views on women. “Her films are conventional, even sexist,” she says. But Haskell did gently amend her views over time, later adding that the defense mechanism of wanting to appear “feminine” and unthreatening was an understandable motivator for the director in such a male-dominated field.  

Lupino was doggedly determined to keep directing but tended to defer attention to her married life in interviews; she was thrice divorced, but her films still often closed with cheerful domesticity for her female leads. She cherished the work she had done with macho, action-driven film directors like Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman, and regarded them as her mentors.  

Equally, Lupino’s film work pings between empathetic, progressive subject matter—unwed mothers, rape victims, wheelchair-bound young women, bigamy—and the safe harbor of a conventional ending. But this was hardly unique to Lupino so much as an industry-wide answer to the censorious Hays Office. Women’s dramas directed by men, like Now, Voyager (1942), were equally as encouraged to swap more progressive endings for romantic ones.

In fact, Lupino ran into trouble with the censors on her very first picture with The Filmakers, when she wanted to call Not Wanted something more direct: Unwed Mothers. It seems pointedly unfair to ask of a female director what we wouldn’t ask of a man of the time: to fight a status quo and censorship board already stacked against her.  

Like most of the women in classical Hollywood who broke into the upper echelon of creative work, Lupino often downplayed her success. The back of her director’s chair was emblazoned with the words, “Mother Of All of Us.” On first thought, that may seem feminizing and even condescending. But it has proven more salient over time, with many female directors who have Lupino’s groundwork to look back on. Nevertheless, fashioning a strictly progressive, contemporary feminist narrative about her and her career risks oversimplifying and falsifying reality. Lupino’s life and work was rarely so straightforward. But her cinematic legacy is. 

Ida Lupino 100 is showing November 9 – November 22 at New York's Film Forum.

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