Sunday, February 4, 2018

The 100th Anniversary of Ida Lupino's Birth

It seems likely that most people know Ida Lupino only as  a beautiful and talented actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Classic movie buffs know otherwise. We know that she was not only a talented actress, but a talented director as well. Over the years she directed several films and several hours worth of television. As only the second woman to join the Directors Guild of America (Dorothy Arzner was the first), Ida Lupino was a true pioneer. She was born 100 years ago today.

Ida Lupino was born into an acting dynasty. Miss Lupino's grandfather was actor and dancer George Hook. George Hook took the surname "Lupino" after working with the Lupino family, another acting dynasty that had migrated from Italy to England in the 17th Century. Yet other members of the Hook family would take the surname "Lane", taken from Sarah Lane, the director of the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. Among George Hook's children were actor Arthur Lupino and Ida Lupino's father, music hall entertainer Stanley Lupino. Besides Ida Lupino, another one of George Hook's famous grandchildren was music hall performer Lupino Lane, whose great aunt was Sarah Lane.

Interestingly enough, Ida Lupino had wanted to be a writer. In fact, she wrote her first play when she was only seven years old. Of course, her father wanted her to go into the family business, so after playing various parts as a child, she enrolled in the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art. She made her film debut when she was very young, appearing at age 13 in The Love Race (1931), which starred her father Stanley Lupino.

It was not long before Ida Lupino was playing leads in such British films as Money for Speed (1933), I Lived with You (1933), and High Finance (1933). Paramount spotted her in Money for Speed and gave her a five year contract. It was then that she moved to Hollywood. Her first film for Paramount was Search for Beauty (1934). Over the next several years she appeared in such films as Peter Ibbetson (1935), Yours for the Asking (1936), Fight for Your Lady (1937), and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) for such studios as Paramount, United Artists, RKO, and Columbia. Her big break as an actress came with The Light That Failed in 1939. It was following The Light That Failed that Ida Lupino was taken more seriously as an actress. In fact, her performance in the film would lead to one of her best known roles. Impressed by her performance in The Light That Failed, Warner Bros. cast Miss Lupino as Lana Carlsen in They Drive By Night (1940).

Although Ida Lupino did not emerge as a major star in the Forties, she did become a very respected actress with good deal of critical acclaim. During the decade she appeared in such films as Ladies in Retirement (1941), The Hard Way (1943), and Pillow to Post (1945). At times she clashed with Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. She was suspended from the studio when she rejected a role in Kings Row (1942).  It was neither her first nor last clash with the studio, so it was probably no surprise to anyone when she left Warner Bros. in 1947.

As it was, it would not be long before Ida Lupino embarked on a new career. It was while she was on her various suspensions through the years that Miss Lupino was able to observe films being made more closely than she had been while acting. As a result she took an interest in directing. She and her husband at the time, Collier Young, formed their own production company through which they would make independent films. That having been said, her directorial debut would come about through unusual circumstances. With screenwriter Paul Jarrico she wrote the film Not Wanted (1949) about a girl who has a baby out of wedlock. Elmer Clifton was set to direct the movie, but had a heart attack and as a result could not complete it. Miss Lupino then took over directing the film.

Like Not Wanted, most of Ida Lupino's films dealt with issues not often addressed by Hollywood at the time. Her first film on which she was credited as director, Never Fear (1939), dealt with an issue Miss Lupino knew all too well. Never Fear centred on a young dancer crippled by polio. While young Ida Lupino had also suffered with polio. In her films Ida Lupino also dealt with such issues as rape (1950's Outrage) and bigamy (1952's The Bigamist). With The Hitch-Hiker (1953) she not only became the first woman to direct a film noir, but also directed one of the most important films in the genre.

The Bigamist would be the last film Ida Lupino would direct until The Trouble With Angels in 1966, but she would have a very successful directorial career in television. She directed multiple episodes of the classic shows Have Gun--Will Travel, General Electric Theatre, and Thriller. She also directed episodes of such shows as The Donna Reed Show, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, Gilligan's Island, and The Virginian.  Ida Lupino had her own idiosyncratic directorial style. She was referred to as "Mother" and the back of her director's chair read "Mother of Us All". Rather than ordering the cast and crew around, she would phrase what she wanted done as a suggestion and as a result it would always get done the way that Miss Lupino wanted it.

Of course, after Ida Lupino began directing, she also continued acting, although following the Fifties much of her acting career would be spent on television. She was a frequent guest star on Four Star Playhouse and starred alongside her husband Howard Duff in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve. She would go onto guest star on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, The Virginian, The Wild Wild West, Batman, The Mod Squad, The Streets of San Francisco, Columbo, and Ellery Queen. She returned to films in the Seventies, appearing in Junior Bonner (1972), The Devil's Rain (1975), The Food of the Gods (1976), and My Boys Are Good Boys (1978).

Ida Lupino retired from filmmaking in 1978. She died in 1995 at the age of 77 from a stroke while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

As an actress Ida Lupino was sometimes described as "the poor man's Bette Davis". As a director she jokingly referred to herself as "the poor man's Don Siegel." To a large degree neither of these things were particularly accurate. While Ida Lupino had considerable talent much as Bette Davis had, she also considerable sex appeal, which was something that Miss Davis lacked. Quite simply, while Ida Lupino could play most of the roles that Bette Davis did, it is difficult seeing Miss Davis play the sort of femmes fatales that Miss Lupino so often did. Of course, both actresses were very versatile. In the case of Ida Lupino, she played everything from the ambitious Helen Chernen in The Hard Way to socialite turned travelling salesman in Pillow to Post farm girl Libby Saul in Deep Valley.  Although best known for her dramas, Ida Lupino could play comedy. Aside from Pillow to Post, she also guest starred in the Bonanza episode, "The Saga of Annie O'Toole".

As to being "the poor man's Don Siegel", while both he and Miss Lupino were great directors, an argument can be made that Ida Lupino was the more versatile of the two. Don Seigel is best known for such suspense thrillers and action films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Killers (1964), Coogan's Bluff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971). Including her career directing television shows, Miss Lupino directed in a diverse number of genres. Many of her films were issue-oriented dramas. The Hitch-hiker is both film noir and a suspense movie. The Trouble with Angels was a comedy. With regards to television, Ida Lupino directed shows in a diverse number of genres, including Westerns (Have Gun--Will Travel), horror (Thriller), crime (The Untouchables), and comedy (Bewitched), among others. Had Ida Lupino directed in an era that gave women more opportunities in the field, one has to suspect that she would have directed many more films in a wide range of genres.

Although to this day Ida Lupino is remembered as a very talented actress, she was so much more. Miss Lupino was a pioneering director, screenwriter, and producer at a time in Hollywood when opportunities for women were much more limited than they are now. What is more, she covered topics in her films that were largely ignored by Hollywood at the time. In the end Ida Lupino wasn't simply a legendary actress. She was a true pioneer.

(For a closer look at Ida Lupino's directorial career, read my blog post "Ida Lupino as Director" from many years ago)

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