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Notebook Primer: Ida Lupino

As an actress, writer, producer, and director, Ida Lupino was a revolutionary female filmmaker and a forerunner of independent cinema.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Above: The Light that Failed
She had the beauty and talent of the most captivating star, the unwavering determination of the most ambitious producer, and the fervent creative vision of the most gifted director. Ida Lupino could fall into any number of categories, yet with a significance that remains almost immeasurable, perhaps the one word best describing this groundbreaking artist is simply this: she was a pioneer.
Born February 4, 1918, in South London, Lupino belonged to a revered family of entertainers. Her mother, actress Connie O’Shea (also known as Connie Emerald), and her father, music hall comedian Stanley Lupino, were part of an ancestral dynasty of performers, and young Ida was accordingly encouraged to take the stage during her earliest years. In addition to writing her first play at the age of seven, she toured with a traveling theater company, was steeped in the works of Shakespeare, and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Lupino then found her way into the British film industry, making her first screen appearance in The Love Race (1931), which also featured her father and was directed by her uncle. The next year, the 14-year-old ingénue appeared in Allan Dwan’s Her First Affaire, essentially stealing the role from her mother, who also tested for the part. Though she starred alongside the likes of Ivor Novello, generally insignificant British features followed before Lupino arrived in Hollywood, where she acted in more than a dozen modest productions throughout the 1930s. This included Peter Ibbetson (1935), Anything Goes (1936), and William Wellman’s The Light that Failed (1939), for which she finally garnered attention more for her impressive abilities than for her manufactured platinum blonde image. 
Above: The Hard Way
The 1940s saw an expansion of Lupino’s range and her public recognition. Though she often appeared as a supplementary character alongside some of Hollywood's biggest male actors—They Drive by Night (1940), with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart; The Sea Wolf (1941), with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield—she soon assumed more significant narrative prominence, as in Ladies in Retirement (1941), which co-starred Louis Hayward, her husband since 1938, and The Hard Way (1943), where the depths of her ruthless performance earned her a New York Film Critics award for Best Actress. But while Lupino realized growing stardom and an increased salary, she was also becoming disenchanted with the lackluster roles sent her way. She often resisted Warner Bros.’ head Jack Warner and refused to act in films beneath her dignity, a steadfast, confident decision that more than once landed her on suspension. Dramas and thrillers made up most of Lupino’s work during this time, and her characters were frequently of an analogous nature. As noted by critic Kristen Lopez, Lupino’s turn in the noirish Out of the Fog (1941) was the “apotheosis of the actress’ trapped characters.” Where The Sea Wolf lets Lupino’s character “escape with the opportunity to find love and domesticity, Lupino’s Stella Goodwin in Out of the Fog kicks off a string of women Lupino played who were denied that opportunity.”
Above: Not Wanted
In the 1950s, Lupino, now an American citizen, entered her most influential period of filmmaking. She and her second husband, Columbia executive Collier Young, founded in 1949 Emerald Pictures (named after Lupino’s mother). Soon renamed The Filmakers, this independent company strove to highlight social issues, sometimes controversial subject matter, and unconventional stories seldom told by the larger studios. They first helped fund Elmer Clifton’s The Judge (1949), the success of which led to the development of Not Wanted (1949), a courageous and prescient film about an unwed mother. Lupino assumed authority over budgeting, the screenplay, and, after its director, also Clifton, had a heart attack, direction of the film itself (though Clifton still received the credit). She had long been observant of the directors with whom she worked, learning by example and planning for herself all the while, and in 1950, Lupino made her “official” directorial debut with Never Fear, in which Not Wanted star Sally Forrest plays a young dancer stricken with polio (a disease Lupino herself contracted in 1934). Lupino’s subsequent work as director included Outrage (1950), a daring and powerful film about a rape and its harrowing aftermath, and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), about a dispirited tennis star. While working on Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), where Lupino gives a subtly sympathetic performance as a agonized blind woman, the director suffered a nervous breakdown and Lupino stepped behind the camera there as well (also uncredited). Her The Hitch-Hiker (1953) was a gritty, male-dominated thriller—calling herself the “poor man’s Bette Davis” while an actress at Warner Bros., she now referred to herself as a “poor man’s Don Siegel”—and The Bigamist (1953) was a shrewd, cautious film about a man attempting to live a dual life of marital commitment.
In these films, save for The Hitch-Hiker’s psychopathic killer, Lupino bravely refused to pass judgement on her troubled characters, preferring earnest portrayals and genuine emotions over sensationalism and moral condemnation. “The protagonists are trapped by their weaknesses and fears as well as social pressures,” writes critic and programmer Christoph Huber, “often signified by what is repressed. Lupino has said that she wanted to make films about bewildered lost people, and she has perfectly understood the experience of passivity and the social forces that maintain and exploit it.” As a director, Lupino made savvy use of sets and commonly shot on location, aligning with her interest in unvarnished realism. She worked quickly on these low-budget features but managed to achieve instances of compelling visual expression, penetrating compassion, and an intimate sense of existential anguish. Lupino, notes critic Michael Barrett, focused “on characters who have lost their way and don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. Thus she connects with the average viewers’ sympathies not through wish-fulfillment figures but with people who flounder like we do and become frightened by what happens, even as the results of their own decisions.”
Above: The Twilight Zone
From 1949 to 1953, the Filmakers produced 12 feature films, six of which Lupino directed or co-directed, in addition to writing several and acting in three. Although there had been female directors before Lupino (Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner, most famously), women in such a role were basically nonexistent at the time. But if Lupino was devoted to directing, she was also continuing to act for others, usually in an effort to secure the funds for her own, more personal projects. The Filmakers nevertheless folded in 1955, at which point Lupino began directing for television, amassing a stunning variety of credits and, per her tendency, breaking new ground along the way. She worked on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, where she was the only woman to direct an episode, Have Gun–Will Travel, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, and many others. Facing assorted challenges head on, Lupino became known for her efficient technique, the complexity of her camera work, and her adept handling of action. Writes Turner Classic Movies contributor Richard Harland Smith: “Lupino was famous for a punchy, unflinching directing style that was branded as masculine despite the fact that her aesthetic was in many ways a refutation of the patriarchal perspective.” And, as Gunsmoke producer Norman MacDonell noted, “You used Ida when you had a story about a woman with some dimension, and you wanted it really hard-hitting.”
Above: Junior Bonner
Lupino also appeared in 19 episodes of Four Star Playhouse, starred with her then-husband Howard Duff in Mr. Adams and Eve, and made guest turns on numerous other programs; for her work on Four Star Playhouse and Mr. Adams and Eve, she received consecutive Emmy nominations in 1957, 1958, and 1959. Her later acting for the big screen was limited and mixed, ranging from a touching turn in Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner (1972) to a mediocre appearance in the exploitation film Food of the Gods (1976), while her final film as director, the 1965 comedy The Trouble With Angels, starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell, was a lighthearted contrast to her hard-hitting dramas of the decade prior. In a perhaps self-reflexive bit of casting, her final role on television was in a 1977 episode of Charlie’s Angels, where she plays a has-been movie star who, according to author and professor Amelie Hastie, is "fighting her own disappearance." 
Above: Road House
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
  • High Sierra (1941): Among the more mature roles Lupino attained in the early 1940s was that of Marie in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), where she starred opposite Bogart as ex-con Roy Earle. Marie is shunned and denigrated in this masculine world of crime and conniving, but she persists with the hope of love conquering all. A somewhat naïve premise, perhaps, but Lupino manages to tap into the conflicted nature of her character, a character, writes Lopez, who is “trapped by the revolving door of double standards that plague countless women like her.” Despite the somewhat acquiescent role, Lupino proved herself ever-assured when it came to her career. She quarreled with Bogart during production and, according to film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon, vowed never to work with the actor again. Even as Bogart’s star continued to rise, as Dixon points out, “Lupino held firmly to her decree, although Warners tried to pair the two in a number of succeeding productions. Thus, in a sense, Lupino worked against her commercial success as an actress by refusing to work in projects she did not believe in, and refusing to work with actors who failed to respect her personally, or professionally, as she felt Bogart failed to do.”
  • Road House (1948): Having had enough of Jack Warner’s tactics and the limitations of her contract, Lupino left Warner Brothers in 1947 and soon appeared in the 1948 20th Century Fox film Road House. Directed by Jean Negulesco, the film features Lupino as sultry torch singer Lily Stevens. Acting alongside Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark, Lupino is mesmerizing in this hard-bitten love triangle, where her nightclub cynicism melds with her seductive coolness, a quality underscored by Lupino’s distinctive rendition of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)”—a hypnotic showstopping performance.
Above: Pillow to Post
  • Pillow to Post (1945): Primarily known for her memorably dramatic roles, Lupino seldom had the chance to exhibit her adroit comedic touch. Pillow to Post (1945) is a delightful exception. She had a year earlier appeared as herself in Delmer Daves’ wartime morale booster Hollywood Canteen (1944), and in Pillow to Post, her third and final feature with director Vincent Sherman, Lupino also gets in on the patriotic relief by playing saleswoman Jean Howard. Seeking to secure an oil contract, the motivated young woman ends up in a motor lodge reserved for military personnel and their wives. Jean persuades a lieutenant (William Prince) to play along with a ploy that would allow for her temporary repose, but their ruse is summarily upended by the policies and public presumptions of a military courtship. While still appealing to that quintessential Lupino subject of a woman’s place in an apparent “man’s world,” Pillow to Post is also primed for a raucous celebration of misunderstandings, good-natured scheming, fruitful romance, and farcically entertaining chaos.
Above: Outrage
  • Outrage (1950): Lupino’s Outrage was distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, then led by Howard Hughes, who gave the film a prominent promotional push. And it certainly needed the help. Detailing the multifaceted repercussions of a young woman’s rape, this bold film was also written by Lupino, with Collier Young and Malvin Wald, and it is, in nearly every way, an extraordinary perceptive motion picture. While “rape” itself is never uttered, the act and its implications are clear as Ann Walton (Mala Powers) shares her ordeal with loved ones and suffers from the perceived social stigma, the ensuing effect on her relationships, and the lingering personal trauma.
  • The Hitch-Hiker (1953): Far less provocative, Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker was commercially successful and remains highly suspenseful; Lupino herself considered it among the best of her work. As two men (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) set out on a fishing trip, their excursion is thwarted by an escaped killer played by an effectively twisted William Tallman. Based on the case of murderer William Cook (whom Lupino visited in prison), the film is striking for its abrasive cruelty, its depicted psychological torment, and the tautness of its breakneck narrative. Running just over 70 minutes and shot primarily in the California desert, The Hitch-Hiker is, according to Dixon, Lupino’s “most purely visual film, and also her most intimate.”
RECOMMENDED READING
If not always in her time, Lupino would later be regarded as a revolutionary female filmmaker, becoming in 1950 the second woman admitted to the Directors Guild of America (after Arzner) and emerging as one of the forerunners of independent cinema. As her director’s chair read during her days directing for television, she was “Mother Of All Of Us.” Though Lupino didn’t expressly consider herself a feminist icon, that was and is a prevailing view of her work. But it has been a complicated perception.
  • "Ida Lupino: Auteuress," by Ronnie Scheib: As Ronnie Scheib wrote for Film Comment, in an insightful article republished at Screening the Past, some, like Andrew Sarris, stated “Lupino’s directed films express much of the feeling if little of the skill which she has projected so admirably as an actress.” Comparing her films to Lillian Gish’s first and only attempt at directing, Sarris remarks, “Directing is no job for a lady.” But, as Scheib observes, “Lupino fares little better with feminist critics, who are more concerned with statement-making than with filmmaking. Either she is cryptically dismissed as a director making ‘feminist films from an anti-feminist point of view,’ or she is lukewarmly praised for courageously bucking the masculine establishment to make halfway interesting films on hokey subjects (which cheerfully ignores the fact that Lupino co-scripted most of these hokey subjects).”
  • "Rediscovering the Films of Ida Lupino in the '#Metoo Era'," by Sinéad McCausland: Largely in response to a discussion hosted by professor Richard Peña, critic Sinéad McCausland considers Lupino’s role as a female writer/director in the “#Metoo Era.” She writes that, “Whilst some film critics and theorists have asserted Lupino’s films are not feminist – with some, for example Molly Haskell, going as far to say that they are sexist – Peña encouraged those in attendance to rethink not only our understanding of Lupino’s films, but also the ways in which we frame women’s cinema. Even if Lupino herself did not identify as a feminist, why should this take away from the significance of the filmmaker’s oeuvre? We do not apply these rigid cultural, social, and political boundaries to male directors working within the same period, for example Hitchcock, after all.”
  • “Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition,” by Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman, and “Ida Lupino: A Biography,” by William Donati: These detailed biographies provide the most comprehensive accounts of Lupino’s life, her diverse filmography, and her lasting legacy.
  • The Woman Trapped: The Lens of Ida Lupino,” by Kristen Lopez: Lopez’s essay is a discerning survey of Lupino’s entire career. “Lupino knew women were more than their reputation, their past, and their family,” Lopez argues, “she knew she was more than an actress and a pretty face. Each would work in unison to turn Ida Lupino into a unique personage we should all be talking about today.”
  • "Great Directors: Ida Lupino," by Wheeler Winston Dixon: Dixon’s Senses of Cinema profile of Lupino is a thorough, sharply written assessment of “[o]ne of the most important auteurs in 1950s cinema,” and “one of the most marginal.”

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