Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ida Lupino as Director

Many probably remember Ida Lupino as the glamourous actress who appeared in such films as They Drive By Night and High Sierra. In fact, she may best be known now as she was in her heyday, as "Queen of the B's." What many might not realise is that Ida Lupino was also a director. She was only the second female director to be admitted into the Directors Guild of America. In fact, when taking into account her career in television, Ida Lupino may be the most prolific woman director of all time. In all, she directed six films (and did uncredited directorial work on another) and over one hundred television episodes.

It was Lupino's career as an actress which led her to become a director. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, nearly every acting contract had in it a suspension clause--a clause whereby if an actor refused an assigned role could be placed on suspension by the studio. An actress with her own mind, Lupino had turned down more than one role offered by a studio and hence she also spent time on suspension (the most famous case may have well been when she refused to play Cassandra in King's Row). It was the feeling of helplessness at the studio's control over her career as an actress which led Lupino to become a filmmaker. It was in the late Forties that Ida Lupino found a script about unwed mothers. Impressed, her husband of the time, Collier Young, took the script to his boss, notorious studio head Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Cohn not only refused to finance any film made from the script, but would not even allow Young to produce it for Columbia.

It following this that Ida Lupino and Collier Young joined Emerald Productions, a fledgeling company specialising in low budget films. It would be that company which would produce the script about unwed mothers, initially titled Unwed Mothers, but soon to be known as Not Wanted. Elmer Clifton had been set to direct Not Wanted. It was only a few days before the film was to begin shooting that Clifton suffered a heart attack. Although Clifton recovered, he was still weak and had to remain seated much of the time. Ida Lupino then took over the bulk of the directorial chores. Not Wanted would prove to be a roaring success at the box office. It was in the wake of the success of Not Wanted that she and Collier Young formed their own production company, The Filmakers.

In all Ida Lupino directed seven films. When Nicholas Ray fell ill during the filming of On Dangerous Ground, Lupino took over the directorial chair for a few days, although she was uncredited. Taken as a whole, Lupino's films clearly mark her as an auteur. While her many of her films could be a bit melodramatic, through them Lupino tackled subjects which the major studios considered too controversial or uncomfortable to address. Her films often involved ordinary people whose lives are upturned by a single event. And Lupino did not provide the characters in her films with easy solutions. As might be expected of a strong willed, female director, many of the women in the Ida Lupino's films are often independent and able to hold their own with men. Sometimes women ever appear as villains.

The subjects which Ida Lupino covered in her films would surprise many viewers today, as some were largely considered unacceptable for the movies at the time. Lupino had to work with the Breen Office to even get Not Wanted. Her film Outrage centred on a young woman, about to be married, who is raped. The Hitch-Hiker was based on the real life case of Billy Cook, who murdered an entire family and a travelling salesman. The Bigmaist dealt with bigamy. Her follow up to Not Wanted, Never Fear, focused on a young woman who contracts polio. Only two of her films did not address subjects that were either controversial or uncomfortable. Hard, Fast, and Beautiful was essentially a soap opera about a tennis player and her overbearing mother. The last feature film Lupino directed, The Trouble with Angels from 1966, is the only comedy she ever directed.

Released in 1953, The Bigamist bombed at the box office. Its performance led directly to the end of Lupino's production company, The Filmakers. After the demise of The Filmakers, Lupino would not direct another feature film until The Trouble with Angels. Lupino did not retire from directing, however, as she moved into the then young medium of television. Ida Lupino's first experiences with television were as an actress. She had made appearances in episodes of Four Star Playhouse and The Ford Television Theatre. It was in 1956 that Ida Lupino was hired direct an episode of Screen Director Playhouse, an anthology series which brought Hollywood directors to the medium of television. It opened up a whole new career for Lupino. She became one of the first female directors, if not the first, in American television.

Curiously, much of Ida Lupino's work as a director on television was on action/adventure shows. Ida Lupino directed a variety of genres of TV shows, including sitcoms (she directed episodes of Giligan's Island), anthology series (General Electric Theatre), and yet others. That having been said, she became best known for her work in action/adventure series such as Have Gun--Will Travel, 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, The Viriginian, and Daniel Boone. In fact, she was considered a female, television equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock, a director who could easily handle action scenes and create a real feeling of suspense. Interestingly enough, she directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the horror anthology Thriller.

In the late Sixties Ida Lupino brought her directing career to an end. Her last work was an episode of the series The Bill Cosby Show in 1969. The reasons for Lupino giving up directing are unclear. She had always enjoyed directing both films and television shows. Regardless, she abandoned directing, although she would continue to act, appearing in such films as Junior Bonner and TV shows ranging from Columbo to Ellery Queen.

On the sets of the films which Ida Lupino directed, her nickname was "Mother." Indeed, on the back of her director's chair was inscribed "Mother of Us All." That was precisely the approach she took to her films. Ida Lupino had an uncanny ability to bond with her casts and crews. She was very much an "actor's director," able to direct male and female actors both with ease. With her own considerable acting experience, Lupino was always sensitive to the needs of her cast.

Beyond her interpersonal skills, Ida Lupino always showed grace under pressure as a director. Often her film and even her work in television was shot in less than ideal conditions. A portion of The Hitch-Hiker was shot in the desert, with little to ease the searing heat. In television she often found herself facing schedules that would have daunted a lesser director. On The Untouchables and other hour long series she would have only six days to churn out on episode, with no overtime and no night shooting. On half hour series she would have even less time, only two to three days. Not only was Ida Lupino able to complete entire television episodes in the time allowed, but she would bring them in under budget and produce quality work as well.

Today Ida Lupino is regarded by many film historians as a pioneer and a true auteur. She directed movies at a time when it was almost unknown for women to direct films, and did so on her own terms. She can rightfully be regarded as an early and important independent filmmaker. And while her name is not often uttered in the same breath as Lucille Ball and Loretta Young with regards to trailblazers in television, there is every one it should be. Ida Lupino may well have been the first woman director in the medium, and she was certainly the most prolific. Although best known for her work as an actress, she should be equally well known for her work as a director as well.

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