Mother of All of Us: Ida Lupino, The Filmaker

By Christoph Huber

“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 talent of others than I am in my own.”

—Ida Lupino in a 1945 fan magazine interview

In a heartfelt 1995 New York Times tribute to Ida Lupino (1918–95), Martin Scorsese called 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.” That singular achievement, realized by Lupino under the banner of her independent production company The Filmakers, has earned some appreciation since, thanks to restorations rescuing her two most acclaimed features from the dupe-print clutches of the public-domain netherworld: the spare, stinging noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953) was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 1998, while The Bigamist (1953) has been preserved by UCLA (and Scorsese’s Film Foundation). Now regarded as minor classics, these two were also Lupino’s personal favourites.

Though Lupino has been regularly cited as a pioneering female filmmaker—she was the second woman admitted into the DGA after Dorothy Arzner—her other directorial efforts remain overlooked. So it was a treat when this year’s Viennale devoted a special to her work as a “filmaker”: seven features she helmed for cinema (one uncredited), plus one example from her prolific career as TV director. A last-minute addition to the program, the tribute went largely unnoticed by the general public, but handfuls of the usual cinephilic suspects rejoiced at seeing Lupino’s distinctive work on a big screen in good-looking prints, save for two exceptions (not counting the TV episode). The Filmakers’ first feature, the unwed-mother tale Not Wanted (1949), proved to be the drive-in circuit re-release from the ’60s, retitled The Wrong Rut and featuring the distributor’s incongruous insertion of “sensational” colour footage (long degraded to monochrome red): roughly three minutes culled from a documentary presenting a Caesarean delivery. (It also turned out to be a nitrate print, so safety regulations mandated a DigiBeta transfer.) The tennis-circuit mother-daughter face-off Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), meanwhile, was presented via a DCP of a print missing nine minutes of the original cut. Are the materials for the spotless (and complete) DVD transfer made by Warner Archive some years ago blocked?

Nevertheless, any opportunity to reconsider Lupino’s small-scale but prodigious directorial output must be seized. Lupino was part of an international wave of actresses who became professional directors within a decade around the end of World War II, the best known being Tanaka Kinuyo—famous for her indelible performances as long-suffering heroines in many a Mizoguchi movie—whose US visit in autumn 1949 was a turning point in her career. There is no evidence of a meeting of these two venerable thespians about to become legit directors—Lupino’s first credited work, Never Fear, would see release on December 29—but Tanaka was encouraged by the accounts of Hollywood actresses vying for artistic independence and planning to step behind the camera. Mizoguchi tried to prevent Tanaka from directing, causing the end of their working relationship, but starting with Love Letters (1953), she realized half a dozen remarkable films over a decade—comparable to Lupino’s Filmakers output, and infused with a related sensibility of ostensible sober humanism in lock-step with a proclivity for subtle, spiritual layers.

Established Norwegian stage actress Edith Carlmar directed ten films between 1949 and 1959, making her debut with the country’s “first noir” Death Is a Caress. Back in 1942, Bodil Ipsen—a theatre and screen star since the silent days—had done the same for Denmark with Derailed (co-directed by Lau Lauritzen, Jr.), helming ten features up to 1951, including two more noirs in 1944 (Murder’s Melody and Possession) and the Cannes prizewinner Red Meadows (1945, with Lauritzen), about a POW flashing back before his execution. Even before her full-fledged noir The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino worked with comparably shadowy moods: witness the existence-shattering rape that opens Outrage (1950), which turns a woman into a pariah as an uncomprehending society is unable to deal with the taboo subject of her violation.

But this complex of groundbreaking female-filmmaking self-assertion must wait for another occasion. Let’s stick to Lupino, who 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”—an attitude that fits with the directors she considered her closest influences, Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman, even though she insisted that “I had to find my own style.” But she also credited Charles Vidor, Michael Curtiz, and, emphatically, Robert Aldrich, whose scathing Hollywood exposé The Big Knife (1955) she acted in when her cine-director career was almost over and The Filmakers was about to fold.

Born into a noted British theatrical family, Ida debuted alongside dad Stanley, a “king of the music hall,” in The Love Race (1931) before breaking through with Her First Affaire (1932). She had merely accompanied her mother to the casting, but director Allan Dwan seized on the ingénue, and Ida was promptly publicized as the “English Jean Harlow.” Unsatisfied with the undemanding vehicles she found herself being cast in—the exceptions being her supporting turns in Henry Hathaway’s mystical masterpiece Peter Ibbetson (1935) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)—Lupino stormed into Wellman’s office for an instant audition. Reading (“very badly”) the male lead of his upcoming film The Light That Failed (1939) opposite Ida’s breakdown virtuoso act, Wellman was floored: “I’m not going to test you. You have the role. And I have a .22. If you do not come through for me, I’ll shoot out every light on the set and maybe you, too.” Though no Wellman highlight, the result brought Lupino accolades and a Warner Bros. contract, leading to the parts that enshrined her as the thinking cinephile’s fave tough gal, most notably in her searing Walsh collaborations: laying waste to a courtroom in the second half of They Drive by Night (1939), iconically complementing Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1941), and showing her musical chops as a conflicted chanteuse in The Man I Love (1946).

Though Curtiz’s brilliant The Sea Wolf (1942) was overshadowed by the actor and director’s mutual hatred for lead Edward G. Robinson, it paired Lupino with John Garfield, who joined Bogie and Ann Sheridan as her Warner contract-prisoners friend (“It seemed we were always on suspension [for turning down roles],” she recalled). A radio-work freelance clause kept Lupino afloat through subsequent professional and private setbacks: her marriage to actor Louis Hayward—alongside whom Ida played her favourite role in Ladies in Retirement (1941)—dissolved, and she kept getting assigned Bette Davis’ leftovers. Lupino composed music—Outrage features one of her piano pieces—and used her downtime to learn filmmaking, especially from Walsh, whom she nicknamed “Uncle” and who let her into the cutting room. (Patrick McGilligan’s interview collection Film Crazy usefully features both their recollections.) When Jack Warner offered her another exclusive four-year contract in 1947, Lupino refused: “I don’t want to be told someday that I will be replaced by some starlet as I was told I would replace Bette.” By 1948, Ida had become a US citizen, shining seductively and singing some sizzling tunes in her second most favourite part in the superb, swampy noir Road House (ironically slighted by producer Daryl Zanuck as a weak Warner Bros.-days retread) and marrying a second time to writer (and soon producer) Collier Young. In 1949, she and Young founded Emerald Productions (after the nom de plume of Ida’s mom, Connie Emerald), which was soon renamed The Filmakers, with the mission statement: “This gave me the freedom to call my own shots.”

The Filmakers’ goal was to tell “how America lives” through independent B pictures shot in two weeks for less than $200,000 with a creative “family,” “the ring of truth” emphasized by fact-based stories, most of them co-written by Young or Lupino—a combination of “social significance” and entertainment. Not Wanted emerged from Lupino’s discovery during role research “of the 100,000 girls, half of them between ten and nineteen years old, who bring children into the world outside wedlock each year. I determined the story, shocking though it was, had to be brought to the screen.” As in her subsequent films—though Not Wanted is credited to veteran Elmer Clifton, he fell sick three days in and Lupino took over with help from editor William Ziegler (Rope, 1948)—the supposedly shocking subject is given the least sensational treatment imaginable: compassionate, precise, and intimate, yet suffused with a sprawling sense of anguish and confusion. (Scorsese pointedly quotes Lupino’s statement about wanting to “make films about poor bewildered people, because that’s what we are.”)

“I suppose we were the New Wave at the time,” Lupino later reflected on The Filmakers’ low-budget versatility, extending to personal complicity (that’s Lupino’s physician in the delivery scene of Not Wanted) and fresh faces like Sally Forrest and Mala Powers (outstanding in Outrage). Grossing ten times its cost upon release, Not Wanted became The Filmakers’ template: middle-class security suddenly, traumatically broken, with the young women at the centre treated in a refreshing break from Hollywood’s mostly decorative fashion. In the opening grabber of Not Wanted, a girl steals a baby from a carriage, then her back-story is related: Forrest, whose resemblance to Lupino got more pronounced during her Filmakers tenure (by 1956, they could have played sisters in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps), plays a beautiful, naïve small-town girl seduced by an itinerant piano player (Keefe Braselle). Pregnant and discarded by her beau, she ends up in a home for unwed mothers, then sucked further into a maelstrom of guilt, abetted by social incomprehension—whose overcoming remains Lupino’s key subject. (Her attempt to show a true-to-life, racially diverse boarding home was nixed by the investors.) With this first film, Lupino established an unaffected tone that obliquely aligned with various realist-humanist postwar movements—and it was her tone, as evidenced by the four Filmakers productions not directed by Ida.

Never Fear proposes a similar dilemma to that of Not Wanted. Fate strikes, literally: crippled by polio (which Lupino had contracted briefly in 1934), a woman (Forrest) enters rehabilitation, rejecting her fiancée-partner’s (Braselle) help. Lupino’s approach is delineated more smoothly and clearly here, with the melodramatic premises treated as a sober behavioural study, the emotional tumult deflated but not denied. 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. This is most pronounced in Outrage, possibly Lupino’s masterpiece (curiously, she deemed it “too arty”). Moving from a dark, taut opening act culminating in an (unseen) rape to the victim’s troubled search for healing in an increasingly illuminated countryside, it presages both Nicholas Ray’s Lupino-starrer On Dangerous Ground (1951) in its path from shadowy urban sickness to enlightened rural regeneration (Lupino supposedly directed scenes of On Dangerous Ground when Ray fell ill) and Roberto Rossellini’s Lupinian prison movie Europa ’51 (1952). For all the unresolved issues and social problems, the comforting message is “you are not alone.” Outrage exemplifies the complexity Lupino wrestles from seemingly straightforward situations: with minds and bodies in turmoil, everything seems strange, even unknowable. Her lover’s sincere, unchanged affection is an affront to the rape victim, and a cheerful communal farm dance is an isolating sight for someone suddenly (self-)marked as an outsider. In Never Fear, a touching, unsettling scene simply shows a square dance in wheelchairs at the polio centre. While accurately rendering milieus, Lupino uproots the notion of normality, making for stunningly ambivalent evocations of the times. For all her impartiality, she commits to a point of view, endorsing her heartbroken subject’s struggle for dignity. (See Never Fear’s closing title: “This is not THE END: It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.”)

Hard, Fast and Beautiful, a film about a young tennis talent (Forrest) ruthlessly pushed on by her ambitious mother (Claire Trevor, inaugurating Filmakers’ switch to name-casts), highlights a shift of focus in Lupino’s work from females under assault to weak men. (About to divorce Young, though their working relationship continued, Lupino soon entered another difficult marriage with actor Howard Duff.) The conflict between romantic daughter and dominant mother provides the film’s powerful centre, and is contrasted with the father’s (Kenneth Patterson) decay: sidelined by his bossy wife at the beginning, he slowly succumbs to sickness. The unforgettable final scene shows wastepaper blowing over an empty tennis court, as if to announce the barrenness central to Lupino’s next, (nearly) all-male movie, The Hitch-Hiker. Based on the case of psychopathic killer Billy Cook (Lupino visited him in San Quentin and deemed the experience “very scary”), the film sees two men on a fishing trip (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) picking up the eponymous threat (William Talman), his murderous exploits introduced in an economical opening consisting mostly of feet, wheels, and ground. Held at gunpoint (and later forced through a William Tell routine), the two friends disintegrate, imploding in the rear-projection pressure-cooker car confines or losing it in stark landscapes under the watchful gaze of their tormentor, whose deformed “bum eye” never closes. Anticipating the symbolic desert trek of Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966), The Hitch-Hiker maroons its characters in a near-allegorical wasteland (“it could happen anywhere, to anyone”) yet still maintains the documentary essence of Lupino’s location shooting.

After the sleeper success of The Hitch-Hiker, Filmakers opted for self-distribution (against Lupino’s protests) for The Bigamist. Despite a few good notices, the film’s failure inaugurated the company’s collapse even as it reached its zenith. The Bigamist’s non-hero is a travelling businessman (Edmond O’Brien) who turns out to have married twice, with the best intentions: each wife (Joan Fontaine and Lupino) gives him something the other can’t. (The fact that Fontaine was the second Mrs. Collier Young adds another autobiographical twist to Lupino’s filmography.) Well-meaning and weak, the protagonist proves an irrational force to complement The Hitch-Hiker’s psycho: his deeds posit a conundrum to society, remaining unsolvable in the exceptional courtroom (open) ending. Mysterious despite its clarity, The Bigamist represents the special quality of Lupino’s Filmakers output to the fullest, down to its ultimate mixture of uncompromising and bankable decisions. The latter manifests itself most crassly in some of the earliest instances of product placement and its relatively all-star cast, with Lupino reluctantly acting the only time (apart from cameos) for herself—insecure as usual, as she never saw her own appeal (“I can’t judge my acting. I can’t stand to see me on screen”). On the other hand, Lupino’s (and DP George Diskant’s) decision to use two different camera crews for each wife’s scenes testify to an unusual subtlety.

A perverted kind of Filmakers’ blowout party, Private Hell 36 (1954) is a claustrophobic indictment of corruption and conformity, in its tale of two cops (Steve Cochran and Howard Duff) who pocket the money of a dead counterfeiter, then inevitably go mental. Lupino played top-billed support as a greedy nightclub singer and co-wrote with Young, but sourced out direction to Don Siegel, who felt an outsider to the “family” and their vodka-fuelled production mode. (“I liked Ida personally and admired her talent. We just couldn’t communicate,” he wrote in his autobiography.) Also, the murky material didn’t fit Siegel’s clean, efficient style, producing both abrasive curiosity and another box-office disappointment, despite the film’s desperate 1958 re-release as Baby Face Killers. (Never Fear’s title change to The Young Lovers hadn’t helped either.) Her company gone, Ida relocated to a second directorial career in television, and also began acting more frequently: in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve (1957-8) she and her estranged husband Duff essentially played versions of themselves, and then topped it by doing guest-star turns as themselves, period, in a 1959 installment of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.

Prior to this, in 1953 Lupino made another small-screen move when she joined Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Dick Powell to make up the Four Star Playhouse, an anthology series wherein each featured star would rotate as the week’s headliner. Two 1956 episodes with Ida stand out for being based on self-penned stories: “The Stand-In” is Lupino’s sarcastic last word on Hollywood’s star system, its cruelty an over-the-top version of the Filmakers’ pained middle-class worlds; “The Case of Emily Cameron” extends Ida’s experiments in even-handed viewpoints by presenting incompatible versions of a horribly failed marriage in alternating recollection-flashbacks. But Lupino preferred directing four TV episodes to acting in one (which netted the same salary), and became one of the Hollywood pros who migrated to the small screen along with the B pictures themselves, as a new medium inherited their function and production facilities. Like Jacques Tourneur, John Brahm, or Gerd Oswald, Ida managed to leave a mark more often than not. Directing an amused Peter Lorre in her first TV episode, “No. 5 Checked Out” (1956) for Screen Directors Playhouse, Lupino again concocted a tight mini-thriller-story whose existential irony offers a hint of her proposed true-crime TV series—which never came to pass, despite the fact that The Hitch-Hiker and her TV work had secured Lupino the moniker “the female Hitchcock” for her “cool hand with terror,” never mind that she hardly shared the same sense of suspense with Sir Alfred, let alone anything else (though she did contribute two fine, restrained episodes to the 1960-61 season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Typically self-deprecating, Lupino countered “I used to be the poor man’s Bette Davis. Now, I’m the poor man’s Don Siegel” (the alleged difficulties with Siegel adding extra spice, one supposes).

One thing is for sure: on the set, Ida was Mother. “Keeping a feminine approach is vital; men hate bossy females,” she explained. “You do not tell a man; you suggest to him. ‘Darlings, Mother has a problem. I’d love to do this. Can you do it? It sounds kooky, I know. But can you do this for Mother?’ And, they do it.” Mary Ann Anderson’s adoring remembrance Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera, a rich source of such quotes, also has a priceless photo showing Ida’s director’s chair in TV times: instead of her name, it reads “Mother Of All Of Us.” The subdued manner and cool observation of her films may belie this at first glance, but there is something of a motherly gaze at work, right down to the belief that it’s possible to revive the wounded souls of characters who seem to be not just her protagonists, but her children.

Still, Lupino insisted she was not “a woman’s woman,” making inroads on “typically” male territory up to the mid-’60s in TV. Dabbling successfully in adventure and crime shows from Hong Kong to The Untouchables and The Fugitive, she excelled in westerns and thriller mysteries; Gunsmoke producer Norman MacDonell said, “You used Ida when you had a story about a woman with some dimension, and you wanted it really hard-hitting.” Indeed, her Rifleman episode “Assault” (1961) opens cold on a man and a woman whipping and hitting each other to knock-out, in a quarrel about where to marry. Lupino hit her stride with Have Gun – Will Travel (195961)—whose star Richard Boone thought of her directorial background when spotting her in another western series—where over eight episodes she crafted pointed, ambiguous morality plays like “The Man Who Lost.” Ida’s second boost was Thriller (196162), which was basically Boris Karloff Presents. From Lupino’s nine Thrillers, the Viennale chose the enjoyable Diabolique (1955) variation “What Beckoning Ghost?,” likely for its elaborate camerawork, not for the uncharacteristic supernatural twist. Lupino’s spiritual streak was firmly grounded in the real world; as with Rossellini, there are no easy miracles. Conversely, this manifests itself as fateful punch lines in Lupino’s TV suspensers like “The Last of the Sommervilles, another blackly amusing gothic Thriller, and Ida’s last writer’s credit. But the real Karloff corker is “Guillotine,” cited by Stephen King in Danse Macabre to bolster his claim for Thriller as the best TV horror series of all time. A 19th-century-Paris conte cruel replete with Pepé Le Pew accents, its story of an executioner who gets poisoned, yet valiantly attempts to fulfill his duty, slows down to a real-time crawl on the last metres to the guillotine. Ida demonstrates ample sense for the absurd throughout; it even tops the dilated suspense in The Hitch-Hiker’s barrenness, counterpointed with delicious character reversals.

The superbly nasty chamber play “The Masks” (1964), the only female-directed episode for the original Twilight Zone, was also right up Ida’s alley, but she found herself cornered in comedy territory as the ’60s progressed—rare was the sophistication of The Rogues (196465), a reunion with Playhouse pals Boyer and Niven. The options dwindled: a Gilligan’s Island assignment may hand you a madcap Hamlet musical (replete with Phil Silvers in all roles), but there’s only so much you can do with the enforced stasis and banter of Bewitched, even if your episode has the promising title “A is for Aardvark. In comparison, Lupino’s cine-comeback The Trouble with Angels (1966) was no fluke, although often described as TV-ish for its episodic plot, leisurely place, and unassuming style. A comedy about two prank-prone girls (Hayley Mills and June Harding) at a Catholic boarding school, it’s considered a mere confection, but how its true themes unfold along the sidelines, even its meandering turn towards (possible) transcendence, are pure Lupino. (Fittingly, the working title was Mother Superior, after the key character, imbued by Rosalind Russell with a Lupinian mixture of reserve and compassion.) The context is lighter, but the final conversion repeats Lupino’s adage that our perceived prisons are often only within ourselves. A box-office success, The Trouble with Angels spawned a sequel, but nothing for Lupino, who last directed in 1968 (for TV’s The Ghost & Mrs. Muir), with a dream project about actress Frances Farmer remaining a dream.

According to Anderson, before she met and helped her in the early ’70s, Lupino lived in dilapidated, Sunset Blvd.-like reclusion. And as an actress, Ida was to give us yet another mother in Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), melt alongside William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain (1975), and serve as Food for the Gods (1976); she even got an episode of Charlie’s Angels designed around her guest appearance (as “Aging Actress”), aptly titled “I Will Be Remembered” (1978).

I will always remember her as the Greatest Mother of Them All.