Retrospective: Ida Lupino

The Bigamist, dir. Ida Lupino

Directed by Ida Lupino. That opening credit sends shivers down many spines. Many probably felt that way seeing it at the end of the 1940s, when Lupino was the only working woman director and the only woman member of the Directors Guild of America. 

Legend has it that the Guild reunions opened with a greeting: ‘Gentlemen and Madam’ for her. How did that young Hollywood actress turn into an independent director representing new American realism and later into a popular television director? 

As she explained: Today it's almost impossible to [become a director] unless you are an actress or writer with power... An actress, one needs to add, ready to take over a movie (one she wrote herself) in the unfortunate event of the appointed director’s heart attack. An actress who fared great in the sudden change of her task, which eventually led her to directing further movies and showing her drive and ambition in that profession. 

Ida Lupino was born in 1918 in London to a noted theatrical family. Her stage career was planned by her father early on. Ida traveled to the United States with her mother, also an actress, in 1933. She accompanied her to an audition for Alice in Wonderland and… was considered instead. Eventually this time she did not get the job but was offered a contract at Paramount if she agreed to be typecast. She hoped for dramatic roles, but Hollywood intended to turn her into another petite blonde. Hedda Hopper, a gossip columnist known for her salty language, commented that Lupino might be taken more seriously if she ‘didn’t look like a hussy.’ Later, when Ida found her place in noir pictures and gained recognition for her work alongside Humphrey Bogart in They Drive by Night (1940) or High Sierra (1941), Hopper noticed the change, but still warned Ida against losing “all that time and maybe courage to battle for something better".

After satisfying her father’s expectations regarding her professional life, Ida decided to take her future in her own hands. The press announced: Ida Wants to Be Herself. She rejected a lucrative contract offered by Warner Bros. and, together with her second husband, producer Collier Young, and Malvin Wald, a friend and screenwriter, she created an independent production company, The Filmakers. In 1950 Variety published their ‘Declaration of Independents’.  

Altogether, The Filmakers produced 12 feature films, half of which Lupino directed or co-directed. She wrote or co-wrote screenplays for 5, she cast herself in 3 and directed herself in one, The Bigamist (1953). Along with their original idea, The Filmakers made low budget movies about regular people, traumatized men and women whose American Dream turned out to be a depressing, realistic drama. The modern world after World War II turned traditional gender roles upside down, provoked rampant consumerism in an unstable market, stirred up lofty ambitions, which more than often turned out to be too hard of a challenge for an average person. Like most postwar film producers, The Filmakers drew inspiration from Italian Neorealism, but also from German Expressionism. Promises of better life remained unfulfilled and they had to be realistically represented. Reigning the screens, film noirrevealed the criminal aspects of metropolitan cities and suburbs. Lupino noir, on the other hand, disclosed home noir – evil that lurks at home, that attacks you on your way to the office, on a weekend trip to the countryside, at a dance party. In addition, her trademark hybrid of noir and melodrama finally gave stage to a female protagonist, or protagonists.  

Once upon a time, there was a nice girl who had dreams and rational plans for the future. The dreams could not come true in postwar America. That is how a synopsis of any Lupino movie with female protagonists could open. In Not Wanted (1949), Never Fear (1950), Outrage (1950), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful! (1951), everyday normal life is interrupted by a sudden blow of fate: a disease, an unwanted pregnancy, a rape, a career taking a destructive turn. A girl can turn for help to one of the existing institutions and their helpful caregivers, who are there to take care of the blow’s effect, on behalf of the society, not its underlying causes. While Lupino pleads for further development of these institutions, the importance of her films lies not so much in this appeal, but in the extended experience of a rift between our desires and reality, the bitter lesson we are given between 20 and 30 years of age, and sometimes, as a reminder, later in life as well. 

Lupino inherited the interest in the above subjects from Lois Weber, the grandest exponent of issues such as birth control, abortion, and capital punishment in film history. Not unlike Weber, who usually ended her stories with a moralistic message, when Lupino introduced problems such as rape, unwed motherhood, infertility, women’s career, or bigamy, she had to meander between her intentions and instructions of the Hays Code, which listed themes approved for the screen. She collaborated mainly with men, frequently working in so called ‘men’s genres’ like action film or western. In that respect she can be perceived as a harbinger of the strategies perfected years later by Kathryn Bigelow. Lupino learnt to negotiate with Production Code Administration (PCA) officials, change Hollywood customs and influence male crews. She set the pace for the 70 men who made up the troupe, and held it, said William Talman about working with her on The Hitch-Hiker (1953), where he played a serial killer. She preferred to use gentle pressure and said: You don't tell a man, you suggest it to them. She made her leadership more acceptable by calling herself Mother. She would not turn into a matron or give up her femininity, but remained the same energetic petite woman, even as her personal life became steadily unbearable. In the late 1950s, she played it out on screen together with her third husband, Howard Duff, in a comedy Mr. Adams & Eve (1957-58), while directing a couple dozen television pictures, and she kept acting until the late 1970s. She died in Los Angeles, the city she depicted so candidly in The Bigamist, in 1995. 

In our ‘Directed by Ida Lupino, 1949-53’ retrospective we do not intend to announce a discovery of another forgotten master. We do not want to argue about Lupino’s feminism either. Let us instead look closely at Lupino’s work and analyze it from her perspective. Let’s accompany the blond starlet on a rarely taken career path to becoming a woman-director in an entirely masculine world and let’s hold witness to the unprecedented success she enjoyed for several years. There was no other woman in American film who would achieve so much at that time. Instead of fantasizing about trailblazers, let’s confront their work.  


Monika Talarczyk

Selected Filmography 

1949 Not Wanted

1950 Never Fear

1950 Outrage

1951 Hard, Fast and Beautiful!

1953 The Hitch-Hiker

1953 The Bigamist

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