Ida Lupino was a major movie star during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Born in England to a show business family with roots going back to the Renaissance, she came to Hollywood in 1933 as a bleached blond Jean Harlow look-a-like. After a breakout performance in The Light That Failed (1939), Lupino moved on to starring roles at Warner Brothers as one of their top contract players. When she left the studio in the late 1940s, she began thinking about working behind the scenes as a director. Lupino eventually formed her own production company and directed a series of low-budget melodramas. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, she was the only female director of note working in Hollywood.
The story goes that Lupino was signed on at Warner Brothers to keep the lot’s top female star, Bette Davis in line. The truth behind that tale is open to speculation, but Lupino bolstered it by self-deprecatingly calling herself “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” It’s true that some of the roles Davis turned down went to Lupino, but this type of thing happened regularly during the height of the studio system.
In 1940, Lupino starred in They Drive By Night alongside Warner heavy-hitters George Raft and Ann Sheridan. The film also starred Humphrey Bogart, but he was billed fourth behind Lupino. As Lana Carlsen, the unfaithful wife of Alan Hale, Lupino literally tore up the screen. So compelling was her characterization, that movie audiences supposedly applauded when her character breaks down in front of a packed courtroom. With that performance, Lupino showed she was a talent to be reckoned with.
As one of the hottest new stars in the movies, Lupino was cast next as Marie, a hard luck dame with a soft spot for career criminal, Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart ) in High Sierra (1941). So hot was Lupino that she received top billing over Bogart. The movie is credited with making a major star out of Bogart, but Lupino gives a multi-layered performance that showed she could hold her own opposite anyone. As the film progresses and Marie’s love for Earle grows, Lupino’s characterization becomes more complex. We see her vulnerability, her tenderness. A classic that holds up today, High Sierra’s success owes as much to Lupino’s performance as Bogart’s. And you gotta love her close-up at the end, looking luminous in her grief, tinged with happiness for her love who is free at last in death.
Lupino starred in three other films in 1941: The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog, and Ladies in Retirement on loan to Columbia. Once again, she proved that she could hold her own against the bigger-than-life Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield in The Sea Wolf and Garfield again in Out of the Fog. And like Davis, she wasn’t afraid to immerse herself into the character she was playing even if it meant downplaying her looks, as she did in Ladies in Retirement. Of her performance in that film, The New York Times wrote, “Give Ida Lupino the largest measure of credit, for her role is the clue to the suspense. Perhaps she is too slight to portray the stolid threat that lay in Flora Robson’s original [stage] performance, but she is none the less the thin ribbon of intensity that makes the film hair-raising.”
In 1942 Lupino was loaned out to Twentieth Century Fox for two films. The first was Moontide, costarring French star Jean Gabin, making his American movie debut. The second, Life Begins at Eight-Thirty, costarring Monty Wooley. Both films featured stronger male than female roles, but Lupino’s presence in both did not go unnoticed. Of her performance in Moontide, The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther had this to say: “Miss Lupino makes a taut and sleazy slattern who is prettily revivified by love.” And as Wooley’s handicapped daughter in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty, Crowther said, in his December 10, 1942 review in the Times, that “Miss Lupino plays the crippled daughter with compassion and simplicity.” In 1943, Lupino would star in a film that would bring her great critical acclaim.
The Hard Way (1943) is a tough tale of two sisters trying to escape their dreary and impoverished existence. Ironically the mining town from which they want to escape is called Green Hill, where there is nothing green or leafy. Under the sharp direction of Vincent Sherman, Lupino gives one of her most complex and nuanced performances as Helen Chernen, Katie’s (Joan Leslie) pushy success-driven sister. Lupino is Katie’s “stage sister,” exploiting the younger sibling’s talent while vicariously living through her. So compelling was Lupino’s performance that she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award in 1943. For some unknown reason, she was overlooked come Oscar time. (Lupino was never nominated for an Academy Award.) In the hands of a lesser actress, Helen would have been merely a villain. The beauty of Lupino’s performance is that while you don’t necessarily like her actions, you understand them. She isn’t perfect for sure, but neither is her sister or the others in the rough and tumble world of show business that they inhabit.
Now an established star at Warner Brothers, Lupino was not always offered the best roles on the lot. Bette Davis was still the queen of the studio and had first refusal on the choicest scripts. Not one to take just any role, Lupino was often put on suspension by the studio. It was during these periods that she became interested in working behind the scenes. A naturally friendly individual, calling everyone she knew “darling,” Lupino learned from the contract directors, cinematographers, and others about the technical side of filmmaking. It would be a while before Lupino would move behind the camera.
In the mid-to late 1940s, Lupino starred alongside some of the top talent at the studio, including Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland, and Paul Henried. One of her best roles during this period was as Petey Brown in The Man I Love (1947), directed by the legendary Raoul Walsh. As the tough-talking club singer, her Petey is the epitome of independence. As the take-charge career woman, Lupino showed she could carry a picture. The Man I Love was popular enough for Jack Warner to offer the actress a four-year exclusive contract. Lupino decided to try her hand as a freelance artist and turned down Warner’s offer.
Her first role after leaving Warner Brothers was the enjoyable and popular success Road House (1948). Released by Twentieth Century Fox and directed by the underrated Jean Negulesco, the film costarred Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm, and Richard Widmark at his loony best. Lupino plays Lily Stevens, a torch singer from Chicago, slumming at Jeffty’s road house and bowling alley, owned by Widmark’s character. A predatory Widmark stalks Lupino when he finds out that she favors his “best friend,” Wilde, over him. As interesting as this triangle is, some of the film’s most enjoyable moments are when Lupino sings and plays the piano. Her modest gravely voice has an appealing style that is hard to resist.
As the 1940s came to a close and with good roles harder and harder to come by, Lupino formed her own production company with second husband Collier Young. She produced and directed a series of low budget films utilizing the skills she gleaned from working with the male directors at Warner Brothers. The movies Lupino made during this period were gritty and for the time, groundbreaking. Not Wanted (1949) dealt with unwanted pregnancy and Outrage (1950) told the story of a young woman raped on her way home from work, hardly popular themes at the time. Lupino was now the only working woman director and the second to become a member of the Director’s Guild. When television came on the scene, Lupino hit her stride. She directed numerous episodes of popular TV series, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, and Lupino has the distinction of being the only woman to ever direct and star in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Not only did she direct in television, she guest starred on many TV shows herself, staying busy throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
|Ida Lupino is the only woman to direct an episode of the classic TV series.|