Ode to Ida

by Shawn Crawford

Ida Lupino

A pioneer occasionally runs so far ahead of the culture the world forgets her contributions by the time they start to catch up. Such is the case with Ida Lupino, a woman so talented and visionary she practically invented the indie movie studio to achieve what she wanted.

If you remember Lupino at all, it’s probably as an actor. Originally from Italy, her family had entertained England for generations; her great-grandfather George provided background material to Charles Dickens for the theatrical family in Nicholas Nickelby. Lupino adored her father Stanley, an immensely successful musical comedian that would travel with his wife Connie to New York to perform on Broadway. Although she loved to write, her father insisted on her performing and had her schooled and trained to that end.

After appearing in some English films, Lupino traveled to Hollywood in 1933. Intelligent with a razor wit, the studios weren’t sure what to do with her and cast her in a series of comic films that did nothing to showcase her talent. She finally got a break appearing in The Light that Failed and then made two acclaimed pictures with Humphrey Bogart, They Drive by Night and High Sierra. Lupino developed a friendship with Bogart and got to witness first-hand the shouting matches between Bogie and his wife Mayo Methot. They christened their house Sluggy Hollow.

Despite the acclaim and her rising fame, Lupino constantly found herself in trouble with Warner Bros. head Jack Warner. She simply told him no when she thought a film role wasn’t up to her standards. Warner would then suspend her. Furious about the lack of historical accuracy in their movie about the Bronte sisters, Lupino and her co-star Olivia de Havilland became known as the Lupino-de Havilland Underground for delaying and sabotaging the picture. Despite critical success and box-office records for movies like The Hard Way and Devotion, Lupino refused to re-sign her exclusive contract with Warner Bros. In 1947, at the age of twenty-nine, her career in the studio system was over.

What she wanted was control to create the movies important to her. When Harry Cohn at Columbia refused to finance a film she developed about unwed mothers, Lupino decided to produce it herself with Emerald Studios. In 1949 they began shooting Not Wanted, tapping Elmer Clifton to direct. When he suffered a heart attack the day before production began, Lupino took over and directed the film herself (uncredited, she would be listed only as a producer). They propped the ailing Clifton up in the director’s chair each day so they didn’t run afoul of the Director’s Guild.

For years Lupino had observed and learned the mechanics of filmmaking during the long periods between her scenes. With no prior experience she directed a movie that won glowing reviews and made over a million dollars. Actors respected her direction as a long-time actor herself and responded to her clear and pragmatic style. As a producer she finessed or just defied investors that wanted to squash her ideas. She deftly outmaneuvered an irate patron that objected to an Asian woman in the home for unwed mothers. Lupino wanted the most realistic picture she could achieve.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Production Code had to put its stamp on any film made in America that wanted theatrical release, and the standards were both strict and inane. For a man and woman to shoot a scene on a bed, one actor had to have a foot on the floor at all times. Proving deft at handling the censors, Lupino had agreed to change the title of Not Wanted from Unwed Mothers, but then used the phrase frequently in their advertising. She employed her cagey wit with the press, praising the Production Code and declaring, “They practically wrote the story for us.” In the end, they were forbidden to even use the word “pregnancy” in a film filled with pregnant women.

With the windfall from Not Wanted, Lupino, her husband Collier Young, and Malvin Wald formed their own company, Filmakers. They suddenly found themselves approached by Howard Hughes for a production and distribution deal; he had recently acquired RKO and was looking for projects. Hughes initially offered $750,000 so they could make three pictures with RKO and Filmakers splitting the profits. Excited but wary of working with the enigmatic Hughes, Young was sent to finalize the deal. Like so many before him, Young got fleeced by Hughes. Any project had to receive final approval from Hughes; even worse, RKO had the right to use income from the movies to market them further, robbing Filmakers of the profit they needed to survive. The deal would hamstring Lupino’s independence and contribute to the breakup of her marriage.

But at least they had cash, and Lupino learned she had a good rapport with Hughes to get what she wanted at least some of the time. Of course finding the reclusive Hughes proved challenging. Knowing his fascination with forbidden boundaries, especially sexual ones, Lupino received the greenlight for Outrage, a film about a rape victim. Yes, the Production Code got involved. In a masterful six-minute scene, Lupino managed to portray the brutality of a sexual assault without losing the endorsement of the Production Code.

In between Not Wanted and Outrage, Lupino had directed Never Fear, a movie depicting people surviving polio, which Lupino had contracted herself in the 1930s. If I told you even one of those movies had been made in the late 40s or early 50s you would probably be doubtful. That one woman was instrumental in bringing all three into existence is an astounding achievement.

And she just kept pushing the envelope. In 1953 Lupino directed and co-starred in The Bigamist, becoming the first woman to direct herself in a film. By then Lupino and Collier Young had divorced but remained business partners. Young’s new wife, Joan Fontaine played one of the wives with Lupino playing the other. Edmond O’Brien played the bigamist husband.

The movie begins with O’Brien and Fontaine interviewing to adopt a child. The case worker, Edmund Gwenn, Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, tells the couple he will have to carefully investigate their lives. O’Brien looks mighty nervous. The premise allows the narrative to unfold in a logical manner.

The couple lives in San Francisco, but O’Brien spends much of his time managing clients in Los Angeles. Gwenn arrives to interview O’Brien’s business associates and discovers his second marriage to Lupino as well as a young child.

The movie showcases all of the challenges of making independent movies at the time. There’s product placements, before movies thought of using product placements, for Coke, United Airlines, and Cadillac to help cover costs; the same buildings get a quick sign change and modest exterior additions to save time and money. There’s several on-location scenes to save having to use rental lots–Lupino would shoot rapidly because they didn’t have permits and didn’t want to be fined. She would have RKO build sets from the discarded materials of other movies.

The Bigamist refuses to descend into melodrama or moral platitudes and instead offers a complex web of loyalties, responsibilities, and loneliness. O’Brien wants a resolution to the situation that is fair to everyone; after initially wanting to call the police, Gwenn ends up with a grudging respect for O’Brien and lets him go to the authorities when he’s ready. Both marriages work. Lupino does a remarkable job of making it clear neither woman needs O’Brien but both value the relationship.

There’s a courtroom scene and you brace yourself for the Moral of the Story lecture from the judge so prevalent in Hollywood movies during this time. The judge tries and then admits he’s just feels bad for everyone and hopes they find a resolution. I find myself hoping both relationships last even though that seems impossible. Lupino and Fontaine exchange a fantastic glance across the gallery of the courtroom that seems to say, “we’ll figure this out.” Just a reminder: this movie was made in 1953.

The onerous contract with Hughes and RKO meant Filmakers was doomed. After a couple of other pictures, the company folded. Lupino moved into television and again broke new ground. As a producer and director and actor, she contributed to many outstanding shows, including being the only woman to ever direct an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Masks”).

Thankfully Lupino’s work has seen new interest lately, as she explored social justice issues long before that term was ever used. A remarkable woman, a stellar talent. Discover her movies for yourself.