Ida Lupino – Filmmaker

In commemoration of Ida Lupino’s 100th birthday this year, Film Forum in New York recently ran a two-week retrospective of her films. She’s probably better known as an actor, but it’s her career as a director, writer, and producer in feature films and television that deserves more attention. I knew she had directed some features, most notably The Hitch-Hiker (1953), but was basically unaware of the scope of her work as a filmmaker. As I saw Ida Lupino’s films in this series and found out more about her, I was overwhelmed by the extent of it. This post will be far from complete, but I’ll try to give some sense of who she was, what she did, and how special she was, both on screen and behind it.

Earlier this year I’d seen Outrage (1950) at the Museum of Modern Art. Directed and co-written by Lupino, the film is about a young woman, Ann Walton (Mala Powers), who is raped on a deserted street while walking home alone from work one night, and the aftermath of that. I’d never heard of this film, but I immediately knew it was something different. This was pretty edgy stuff for 1950. The word “rape” couldn’t be said in films at that time. “Viciously attacked” was used instead. Outrage is tough, direct, and unsentimental. This is an apt description of Lupino’s acting and filmmaking.

In the shot below, note the surreal imagery of the deserted street that engulfs Ann as she fearfully tries to get home.

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Ida Lupino was born in England on February 4, 1918. She died on August 3, 1995 in Los Angeles at age 77. Here is some of what she did in the meantime.

According to her Wikipedia entry, “Lupino wrote her first play at age seven and toured with a traveling theater company as a child. By the age of ten, Lupino had memorized the leading female roles in each of Shakespeare’s plays.” True or not, this makes a good story. She made her film debut in an uncredited role in 1931 at age 13. The following year she appeared in Her First Affaire, directed by Allan Dwan. In 1933 she had leading roles in no less than five films, so her career was picking up speed. Per Wikipedia, “Dubbed ‘the English Jean Harlow,’ she was discovered by Paramount in the 1933 film Money for Speed, playing a good girl/bad girl dual role. Lupino claimed the talent scouts saw her play only the good girl in the film and not the part of the prostitute, so she was asked to try out for the lead role in Alice in Wonderland (1933). When she arrived in Hollywood, the Paramount producers did not know what to make of their sultry potential leading lady, but she did get a five-year contract.”

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In 1939 she appeared with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a film probably more familiar now to American audiences than the 24 previous films she was in during the 1930s.

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In 1940 and 1941 Lupino appeared in two films directed by Raoul Walsh. The first was They Drive by Night, with George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan. The second was High Sierra, with Bogart in one of his iconic roles, gangster Roy Earle. Though Lupino acted in a wide variety of films, I think of her as more strongly linked to noirish films such as these. This is true as well for the films she later directed, wrote and produced.

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Below are two clips from The Drive by Night with Lupino as the duplicitous Lana Carlson. In the first she murders her boorish husband. In the second she freaks out on the witness stand after attempting to frame George Raft, who had earlier spurned her advances. This one is a little over the top, but I like it. Following that is a selection of scenes from High Sierra.

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In 1942, Lupino was in Moontide with Jean Gabin, who was a huge star in France. This was his first American film, with a screenplay by John O’Hara and direction by Fritz Lang. Lang started the film, but was replaced by Archie Mayo. Moontide isn’t a great film, but it has a drifting, dreamy quality. Lupino and Gabin are very appealing together.

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In 1948 Lupino starred with Cornel Wilde, Celest Holm, and Richard Widmark in another film noir, Road House, directed by Jean Negulesco. Jefty Robbins (Widmark) owns a road house in Upstate New York, near the Canadian border. Pete Morgan (Wilde), ostensibly Jefty’s best friend, manages the business. Lily Stevens (Lupino) is a nightclub singer brought in by Jefty to sing at the road house. His plans to marry Lily fall through when she falls in love with Pete. This sets Widmark on a campaign of terror against the two. Widmark uncorks the same giggling psychotic laugh he used in Kiss of Death, his debut film of the previous year.

A point of interest in this film is that Lupino does her own singing, which was not usually the practice. In the following clip, Lupino sings “One for My Baby.” Her voice is very distinctive, husky, “smoky,” and a little rough. She sounds great.

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In a 1945 fan magazine interview, Ida Lupino said the following, which would prove to be prescient: “I see myself, in the years ahead, directing or producing or both. I see myself developing new talent, which would be furiously interesting for me. For I love talent. Love to watch it. Love to help it. Am more genuinely interested in the talents of others than I am in my own.”

But Lupino later downplayed her directorial ambitions as being the result of “being bored to tears standing around the set while someone else seemed to do all the interesting work.”

In a 1995, after her death, Martin Scorsese paid tribute to Ida Lupino in the New York Times, calling her “a woman of extraordinary talents, and one of those talents was directing. Her tough, glowingly emotional work as an actress is well remembered, but her considerable accomplishments as a filmmaker are largely forgotten and they shouldn’t be. The five films she directed between 1949 and 1953 are remarkable chamber pieces that deal with challenging subjects in a clear, almost documentary fashion, and they represent a singular achievement in American cinema.”

Ida Lupino was the second woman, after Dorothy Arzner, to be admitted to the Directors Guild of America.

The book Film Noir – The Directors (edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions 2012), contains chapters on 28 directors. Lupino is the only woman included in this collection.

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Lupino and her second husband, writer/producer Collier Young, formed their own company, The Filmakers (yes, that’s how they spelled it), “to produce, direct, and write low-budget, issue-oriented films.” Christian Huber in Cinema Scope magazine writes that “The Filmakers’ goal was to tell ‘how America lives’ through independent B pictures shot in two weeks for less than $200,000…a combination of ‘social significance’ and entertainment.”

Per Wikipedia: “Her first directing job came unexpectedly in 1949 when director Elmer Clifton suffered a mild heart attack and could not finish Not Wanted, a film Lupino co-produced and co-wrote. Lupino stepped in to finish the film, but did not take directorial credit out of respect for Clifton. Although the film’s subject of out-of-wedlock pregnancy was controversial, it received a vast amount of publicity, and she was invited to discuss the film with Eleanor Roosevelt on a national radio program.”

Just as “rape” couldn’t be said in her film Outrage a year later, “pregnancy” couldn’t be said in Not Wanted. The young woman who becomes pregnant is told she’s “going to have a baby.” Those were different times.

Lupino’s first official credit as director was for Never Fear (1949), which she also co-wrote and co-produced with Collier Young. The film concerns a young woman who has polio and how she deals with it. Lupino contracted polio briefly in 1934, so she had a personal connection to this material. This film, along with Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), are the two films directed by Lupino that I missed in the retrospective (before I realized that I should have seen everything).

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Lupino’s interest in subject matter the studios weren’t touching continued with The Bigamist (1953), written and produced by Collier Young. Edmund O’Brien stars as man with two wives, one in San Francisco, played by Joan Fontaine and one in Los Angeles, played by Lupino. It’s shot in an almost documentary style.

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Before I got into the rest of this, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) was only film directed by Lupino that I’d been aware of. I first saw it two years ago at Film Forum and again last month. It’s highly regarded and justly so. Two average guys (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip unwittingly pick up a psycho hitch-hiker (William Talman) who forces them to drive him to Mexico so he can escape all the cops on his trail. It’s as tense as tense gets. Talman, who I knew as the DA on the Perry Mason TV show, is very scary here. He has one eye that won’t close, which is also scary, given the context. This is an extremely uncomfortable film to see. As Christopher Huber wrote in an article in Cinema Scope magazine, “In a sense, all Lupino’s films are prison pictures: the protagonists are trapped by their weaknesses and fears as well as social pressures, often signified by what is repressed.” The Hitch-Hiker is Lupino’s most overtly noir film. It was co-written by Lupino and Collier Young, and produced by Young. A bit of trivia is that the associate producer was Christian Nyby, who directed The Thing from Another World in 1951, though many say that Howard Hawks was the real director of that film.

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Private Hell 36 (1954) was one of the last films made by The Filmakers before they ceased production in 1955. Though it was written by Lupino and Collier Young, and produced by Young, it was directed by Don Siegel, who was just two years away from directing Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Lupino stars with Steve Cochran and Howard Duff.

Per Wikipedia, the plot is this: “L.A. police detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) get in over their heads when they decide to split up thousands of dollars they found on a recently killed counterfeiter. To make matters worse, they are assigned by their police captain to look for the missing cash. Things get even worse when one cop gets romantically involved with Lili Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a money-hungry nightclub singer. Farnham decides to turn honest and hand the money over to his superiors, but the other cop decides to take it all.”

Private Hell 36 is another bleak and brutal vision on the film noir landscape. It’s great.

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Ida Lupino had been appearing in other films all this time. One of the best was On Dangerous Ground (1951), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Lupino, Robert Ryan, and Ward Bond. This is a favorite of mine. Ryan is a New York City cop who has become brutal and sadistic. After beating up one too many suspects, he’s’ sent on a case upstate in the country to help with the search for a killer. There he meets blind Ida Lupino and through her regains some humanity. It’s tough and tender, with a lot of feeling. The following clip conveys some of that. On Dangerous Ground was written by A. I. Bezzerides, produced by John Houseman, with music by Bernard Herrmann.

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The last feature film directed by Ida Lupino was The Trouble with Angels (1966) with Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, set in a Catholic boarding school for girls. One could say this is a change of pace from her earlier work.

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The scope of her work in television was a revelation to me. Four Star Playhouse, was a half-hour anthology series created by Lupino, Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Dick Powell. They would alternate starring in each weekly drama. It aired from 1952 to 1956. Lupino appeared in 19 of the 129 episodes produced. Blake Edwards made his directing debut on the show and also wrote a number of episodes.

Something I remember from growing up in the 1950s is Mr. Adams and Eve, the sitcom Lupino starred in with her then-husband, Howard Duff. They played married movie stars Howard Adams and Eve Drake. I don’t remember the episodes, but I know we watched the show. Mr. Adams and Eve was broadcast from January 1957 to July 1958.

Ida Lupino directed more than 100 episodes from 1959 to 1966 of television series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun – Will Travel, Thriller, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Donna Reed Show, Gilligan’s Island, The Rifleman, 77 Sunset Strip, and Bewitched. This is just a partial listing. I’m rather astounded by this.

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Lupino continued to act in films and TV until 1978. I fondly remember her in Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). She and Robert Preston play Elvira and Ace Bonner, the estranged parents of Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner, a rodeo rider. Lupino and Preston have a great scene together on an outdoor wooden staircase. This is a laid-back, easy-going film, a departure for Peckinpah.

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I have far more material on Ida Lupino than I can reasonably fit into this post. I’ll do a follow-up in a couple of days, because she deserves more space. In the meantime, here’s the availability of some of the films referenced in this post.

Amazon Prime: Not Wanted, The Bigamist, The Hitch-Hiker, On Dangerous Ground

You-Tube: Outrage

Home Video for Purchase: Hard, Fast and Beautiful; Private Hell 36; Road House; Moontide

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more on Ida Lupino. — Ted Hicks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Feature films, Home Video, Music, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Ida Lupino – Filmmaker

  1. David M Fromm says:

    Terrific.I learned a great deal about a woman I remember basically by name.

  2. Kimball Jones says:

    Great post, Ted. Lupino clearly did not get the coverage or notoriety that she deserved. Maybe this column will help.

  3. Vic Losick says:

    Fascinating. Thanks Ted.

  4. Mark Ryan says:

    On Dangerous Ground is one of my favorite noir films and one of the few Lupino films I’ve seen. I’m now inspired to search out more of her work. Thanks, Mr Hicks, for another terrific exploratory dive into the vast ocean of cinema!

    • Ted Hicks says:

      Thanks! Glad you liked the post. I strongly recommend you watch “The Hitch-Hiker” available via Amazon Prime. It shows what she could do as a director. An amazing film. I think her career is tremendously important.

  5. Mark Ryan says:

    Great piece, Ted!

    >

  6. Judith Trojan says:

    Thanks for this coverage, Ted. I love the posters, especially the one for “Bigamist”…It would make a timely addition to my living room wall!

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