Lupino in Road House (1948), via YouTube
February 4, 1918– Ida Lupino:
“My agent had told me that he was going to make me the Janet Gaynor of England. I was going to play all the sweet roles. Whereupon, at the tender age of thirteen, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.“
Director, producer, screenwriter, actor, any of these avocations in showbiz requires innate talent, knowledge and skill. Occasionally an artist can fill all four of these roles successfully.
She was stubborn, sullen, small (5ft 3in) and strong. With a mink stole over her shoulder-pads and an orchid in her hair, Lupino made it clear, in her silky, querulous voice, that she resented living in a man’s world. Like Joan Crawford, she was glamorous in different ways at different times in her career. Like Crawford, she was mesmerizing, but with a wider range. She was the archetypal Hollywood star, always surging back after a setback.
Lupino was born in London to performer parents. From an early age, she was encouraged to explore her creativity, and she began writing scripts when she was a kid.
She was only 15 years old when she made her first film, Her First Affaire (1933), cast as a teenage vamp. Paramount Pictures spotted her in Money For Speed (1933), playing a good girl/bad girl dual role, so there was some surprise when the studio signed her to play Alice in Alice In Wonderland. Lupino didn’t see herself as Alice. She wasn’t wide eyed and naïve; she was smart, independent and desperate to be taken seriously as an adult. So she did what any teenager would; she dyed her hair blonde and wore as much makeup as possible. It’s not surprising that Paramount cast another girl as Alice.
When she arrived in Hollywood, Paramount did not know what to do with her, but she still received a five-year contract. She was shuttled between roles of her own age, ingenues and glamour-puss parts for which she was much too young.
In 1934, Lupino was diagnosed with polio from a contaminated swimming pool. The disease severely affected her ability to work, and her contract with Paramount fell apart shortly after her diagnosis. Lupino said:
“I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously. If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.”
After that, she moved to Warner Bros. She convinced director William Wellman that only she could play the cockney whore who inspires Ronald Colman in The Light That Failed (1939), a notable movie based on Rudyard Kipling’s first novel.
Her smart performance in a difficult role convinced Warner Bros that they had found someone to fill Bette Davis‘s old shoes, perfect for their remake of Bordertown (1935) titled They Drive By Night (1940). It is a showy role, lasciviously pursuing truck driver George Raft while showing only contempt for her fond, much older husband (Alan Hale), who is, of course, Raft’s boss and best friend. At the climax of the film, she was required to go spectacularly mad on the witness stand. Jack Warner was so impressed by the first few days’ rushes that he signed Lupino to a seven-year contract. He even gave her billing over Humphrey Bogart in her next film, Raoul Walsh‘s High Sierra (1941), even though she has a much smaller role as Bogart’s moll.
Warner had trouble with Davis, whose temperament, in the cause of better material, was equaled only by her talent and her popularity. Lupino had special value because she was a threat to Davis. Warner suggested replacing Davis, his leading female star, with Lupino in the many properties purchased for Davis to star.
In 1942, she refused to work opposite Ronald Reagan in Kings Row and was put on suspension at the studio. She spent a lot of time under studio suspension. My sort of girl.
She moved to Columbia Pictures and staked her claim to be the first of the many wicked women at Columbia in Ladies In Retirement (1942), as the housekeeper who conspires with her “nephew” to murder the blowsy babe who is her boss.
In Walsh’s noir-ish The Man I Love (1946), she proves how effortlessly she inhabits those tough, world-weary dames, in this case a nightclub singer. Even more splendid is her work as a singer in Road House (1948), with Lupino greedily suggesting the small-time ambition and essential seediness of a girl who has spent too many nights on stage with stale cigarette smoke and booze, plus she gets to do the torch song, Again (It Mustn’t Happen Again). Celeste Holm as the club cashier quips: “She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard…”.The Man I Love (1947) Columbia Pictures, via YouTube
By the end of the 1940s, Lupino had appeared in over 30 Hollywood films. Her frustration with the studio system led her to seek work without a contract. Lupino founded her own independent film production company that focused on creating low-budget/high-quality films, The Filmmakers. She was able to produce, direct, and work in front of the camera.
Her first directorial gig was uncredited. She took over the direction of Not Wanted (1949), a controversial film about out-of-wedlock pregnancy, when the original director had a heart attack in the middle of production. She starred in On Dangerous Ground (1951), taking on some of the directing work when director Nicholas Ray was sick.
Lupino’s most noted directorial efforts are The Bigamist (1953), the story of a man who secretly has a second wife and family, with Lupino and Joan Fontaine, and the top-notch The Hitchhiker (1953) about an escaped convict. Both were produced by The Filmmakers. And, like all the films she directed, they have a common theme of exploring controversial topics with a sensitive, but honest, unflinching perspective.
I recently caught her powerful black and white film Outrage (1950), which she wrote, directed and produced. If you ever get a chance to see it, you will be knocked-out. It is crazy good.
Lupino called herself a “bulldozer”, but the back of her director’s chair was labeled “Mother Of Us All”. She credited her move away from the studio system by claiming:
“I had decided that nothing lay ahead of me but the life of the neurotic star with no family and no home.“
She also made a point to seem nonthreatening in a male-dominated business, stating:
“That’s where being a man makes a great deal of difference. I don’t suppose the men particularly care about leaving their wives and children. During the vacation period, the wife can always fly over and be with him. It’s difficult for a wife to say to her husband, come sit on the set and watch.”
Through The Lens (1995), A&E, via YouTube
Although directing became Lupino’s passion, she took acting gigs to make money for her own productions. She became a wily low-budget filmmaker, reusing sets from other studio productions and talking her doctor into appearing in the delivery scene of Not Wanted. She was one of the first producers to use product placement, putting Coke, Cadillac, and other brands in her films in return for funds. She shot in public places to avoid set rental costs and planned scenes in preproduction to avoid technical mistakes and retakes. She joked that if she was “A poor man’s Bette Davis” as an actor, she had become “The poor man’s Don Siegel” as a director.
The Filmmakers ended in 1955 and Lupino’s last director’s credit on a feature film was the fun nun flick, The Trouble With Angels (1966) starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell.
Lupino formed Four-Star Productions, a television production company, along with fellow actors Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, and David Niven. She served as the host of the company’s first prime time program, Four Star Playhouse (1952-57). She directed hundreds of television series episodes.
Lupino was the second woman ever to be admitted to the Director’s Guild. She wrote magazine articles, short stories and children’s books, plus she composed music!
She became an American citizen in 1948, and she was a tough old liberal, but no snowflake. A staunch Democrat, she actively campaigned for John F. Kennedy.
Lupino married and divorced three times. Her final credits rolled in 1995, taken by that damn cancer at 77 years old.
Of the 200 films currently slated for release in the next year, only seven have female directors attached to them. But, there is good news, three of the five Golden Globe Award nominees for Best Director of a Film are women: Regina King for One Night In Miami, Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.