The Golden Age of Hollywood, regarded as the years between 1928 and 1943, was also the period in which there was only one female director working in Hollywood, and that was Dorothy Arzner. Although she never made a movie that was a complete box office and/or critical success, Arzner was respected by her male peers, and worked with some of the biggest stars of the era. But she made her last feature in 1943, after which there were no female directors working in Hollywood. Until 1949 that is…
Ida Lupino (1918-1995)
Ida Lupino’s importance as a female director can’t be downplayed. Although she only made eight movies (two of which she didn’t receive an on-screen credit for), Lupino’s rise from studio starlet to challenging actress – at Warner Bros. she was often suspended for refusing roles she was offered – to respected director came about by a strange combination of happenstance and good/bad luck.
During the occasions when she was suspended, Lupino would spend her free time observing other directors as they worked on set, and also how movies were edited. To her it seemed as if everyone else was “doing the interesting work” on a movie while she sat around bored between takes. She learnt the basics of directing throughout the Forties, but still didn’t attempt to get a directing job. When she left Warner Bros. in 1947, it was to become a freelance artist, and while she continued to work as an actress, she and her husband, Collier Young, formed a production company called The Filmakers.
In 1949, she and Paul Jarrico collaborated on a script for the company’s first production, a (for the time) searing drama about pregnancy out of wedlock and the psychological impact on the young mother when she gives up her baby. The movie was called Not Wanted and it was to be directed by Elmer Clifton. But when Clifton suffered a heart attack part way through filming, Lupino stepped in to finish the movie (Lupino refused a screen credit out of respect for Clifton). The result was a controversial movie that drew attention to the problem of unwed mothers, garnered a huge amount of public debate, and made people aware of Lupino’s role behind the camera.
In the same year, Lupino co-wrote, co-produced and directed Never Fear, another drama, but this time about an aspiring dancer who contracts polio. It was a modest movie, effective in its way, and enough for the Screen Directors Guild to offer her membership in 1950, which she accepted, becoming only the second female director in its ranks (after Dorothy Arzner). Her acceptance within the industry as a director was rapid though well-deserved, and Lupino continued to make challenging social dramas that cemented her reputation and were successful both commercially and critically.
Lupino’s attraction to “difficult” subject matters was confirmed with the release of Outrage (1950), about the rape of a young woman and the problems that arise because she doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened to her. It shows Lupino still learning her craft as a director, but also growing in confidence, and her decision to tackle such a topic is entirely laudable: it’s a movie that Hollywood would never have made at the time, and which was only possible because of Lupino’s independence from the studio system. (By coincidence, Akira Kurosawa tackled the same subject, but from a different angle, in the same year’s Rashômon.)
Lupino’s next movie seemed, at first glance, to be a step back from the powerful social dramas she’d already made, but Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) was a deceptively intriguing look at female jealousy and longing as experienced by the mother of a tennis prodigy. It features a great performance from Claire Trevor, and shows that Lupino was entirely capable of making the subtext of a movie more interesting than the main storyline. It was also Lupino’s first time directing a movie that was written by someone else.
Lupino’s next directorial stint was filling in for Nicholas Ray when he fell ill during the filming of film noir thriller On Dangerous Ground (1951), a movie Lupino had a role in. It’s a measure of Lupino’s regard within the industry at that time that she was asked to do this, and though it’s difficult when watching the movie to work out which scenes she shot specifically, that in itself is a tribute to Lupino’s skill as a director in that she was able to mimic Ray’s idiosyncratic style of directing.
The film noir approach of On Dangerous Ground may well have prompted Lupino to seek out a similar project for her next movie as a director. If so, the result was perhaps her most well-received movie yet, the tense and menacing The Hitch-Hiker (1953). With its claustrophobic car interiors and bleak desert vistas, Lupino’s strong visual style served as a compelling background to the psychological battle occurring between fishermen Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, and psychotic William Talman (never better). It may be a short movie, a lean seventy-one minutes, but it’s one of the most compelling crime dramas of the Fifties, and Lupino’s grip on the material is so assured that her increasing skill behind the camera can no longer be questioned.
With audiences and critics alike impressed by The Hitch-Hiker, their response to Lupino’s next movie should have been even more emphatic, but despite being widely regarded now as her masterpiece, The Bigamist (1953) was coolly received. And yet it’s a movie that addresses its subject matter head on and is still as uncompromising in its approach even today. It was a first for Lupino in that she directed herself – as the object of the main character’s bigamous relationship – but her confidence as a director ensures that each character gets the screen exposure they need. The ending is particularly impressive, and has an emotional impact that is as unexpected as it is effective.
Sadly, Lupino’s short career as an independent producer/director came to an end after The Bigamist. Budgets had always been tight, and though Lupino was always well prepared and planned ahead on all her movies, the returns on her movies weren’t enough to keep The Filmakers going. Fortunately, in 1952, Lupino had been approached by Dick Powell who had started up a television production company called Four Star Productions; he wanted her to replace Joel McCrea and Rosalind Russell after they’d dropped out. Lupino began working in television in earnest, and it wasn’t until 1966 that Lupino made what would be her final movie as a director, The Trouble With Angels. A comedy about the students at an all-girls’ school who challenge the nuns that run it (including, ironically, Rosalind Russell), the movie received a mixed to negative reaction, but viewed today holds up remarkably well. Afterwards, Lupino continued acting and directing in television until her death, and along the way took supporting roles in horror movies such as The Devil’s Rain (1975) and The Food of the Gods (1976) (as many of her contemporaries did in the Seventies).
Lupino’s importance in the history of women directors is due to the fact that she did it all by herself: she founded the production company to make the movies she wanted to make, she wrote (at first) the screenplays for those movies, and she tackled topics that her male peers would have run a mile from (or just not been allowed to make). If she couldn’t completely undermine the conservative values of the time, it was enough that she challenged them and held a mirror up to some of the more uncomfortable social issues of the day. She was a tough, determined director who didn’t short change her audience, and she achieved industry and public approval on her own terms, as well as long-lasting respect. And more importantly, she helped inspire a new generation of female movie makers, a generation that would tackle many of the same issues Lupino had, and with the same sense of propriety.