How Ida Lupino lit a path for women directors and indie filmmakers alike

There was no place for women directors in 1940s and 50s Hollywood, but that didn’t stop Ida Lupino. Long before John Cassavetes, Lupino – born in London 100 years ago – blazed a trail for fearless, independent filmmakers.

Matthew Thrift
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Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

Born in Herne Hill, London, 100 years ago today, Ida Lupino was virtually predestined to answer the calling of stage and screen. Part of an acting dynasty that could be traced back hundreds of years, she made her big-screen break courtesy of director Allan Dwan, who cast the 14-year-old actress in his 1932 film, Her First Affaire, made at Warner Bros’ British studios at Teddington.

Ida Lupino

Her subsequent path to Hollywood stardom with the likes of High Sierra (1941) and On Dangerous Ground (1951) was hardly straightforward, with Lupino fighting all and sundry to break out of roles she thought beneath her considerable talents.

Suspended from studio contracts, Lupino turned her hand to directing, forming a production company known as The Filmakers [sic] with then-husband, writer-producer Collier Young.

It’s impossible to underestimate Lupino’s achievements as director in the four years The Filmakers was in business. The Senses of Cinema profile on Lupino notes that between 1943 and 1949 there wasn’t a single film directed by a woman in Hollywood.

Uncompromising in her vision “to make pictures of a sociological nature… to tackle serious themes and problem dramas,” Lupino would shoot on the streets of Los Angeles for a pittance, before making a break into self-distribution.

If ever there was a precursor to the independents who would emerge with John Cassavetes in the late 1950s, it was the movie star whose greatest contribution to film history lay behind the camera.

What follows are eight of her key works as director.

Not Wanted (1949)

Not Wanted (1949)

Lupino got her directorial apprenticeship on Not Wanted after credited director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack just days before production was due to begin. Her rigorously unsentimental, documentary style was born as much out of necessity as want for sociological verisimilitude. The film was made for peanuts, shot largely on the streets and in hastily repurposed locations with a cast of unknowns.

Tackling the subject of illegitimate, unwanted pregnancy immediately landed Lupino in hot water with the Breen Office, who took her to task for violations of the censorship code, and rejected her original title, ‘Unwed Mothers’, outright.

Not to be outwitted, Lupino changed the title, but emblazoned ads with her first choice as the film’s tagline. Grossing over a million dollars from a paltry $153,000 budget, Not Wanted would find a second life on the exploitation circuit years later, complete with explicit colour footage of a caesarean section that had nothing to do with Lupino.

Never Fear (1949)

Never Fear (1949)

Lupino was resolute in her decision to proceed with her second picture, despite investment falling through and an explicit lack of interest in the project from theatre owners. Making a film about the devastating effects of polio at the height of the 1949 epidemic was a bold move, one inspired by her own little-known battle with the disease 15 years years prior.

Ploughing all her savings into the production and relying on a loan from her agent, Lupino doubled down on her bid to capture lived experience, shooting much of the film at a rehabilitation centre with recovering victims among the cast. Shot by John Ford veteran Archie Stout, the beautifully rendered wheelchair dance sequence proved a highlight, but audiences predictably gave such close-to-home material a wide berth.

Outrage (1950)

Outrage (1950)

Signing with Howard Hughes’s newly minted RKO for a three-picture deal, The Filmakers’ first production seemingly played to the producer’s prurient inclinations. Of course, Lupino had other ideas for her hugely controversial portrayal of sexual violence.

One only need look at the attack sequence early in Outrage to note the technical progression she had made as a filmmaker by her third picture. Free from dialogue, the unbearably tense five-minute scene sees the young victim (a brilliant Mala Powers in her first role) stalked by her rapist through deserted streets. High angles signal her isolation as increasingly quick cuts stab at the nerves, before a blaring truck horn gives away her hiding place.

When the camera pulls up and away as her attacker closes in, a potential witness opens his window, looks out, then slams it shut. He wasn’t the only one who’d have preferred to look the other way, it seems. “One topic which would better have been left unfilmed,” wrote Variety. 

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951)

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951)

Lupino’s directorial surety continued to grow with Hard, Fast and Beautiful – the title imposed by Howard Hughes, of course. It’s a film that saw her fuse her documentarian’s eye with an elegantly moving camera style that has seen her compared to Douglas Sirk. This may well be the closest Lupino came to traditional melodrama, charting the relationship between a young tennis pro and her domineering mother, but it’s one packed with gestural detail.

Using a star for the first time in Claire Trevor as the imposing matriarch, the film sees Lupino question the damage wrought within the family unit by fame. Given her own family history, could this be read as auto-interrogatory? The brutal final shot of the mother abandoned in the tennis stadium offers little sympathy for those seeking glory at any personal cost.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car.” The opening title card of Lupino’s best-known film, the only noir directed by a woman, tersely encapsulates its no-nonsense style. The setup is all detail: a gun, a number-plate, a spilled purse and the killer’s shoes. Largely confined to the vehicle hosting a pair of vacationing buddies and the psychopath they pick up, The Hitch-Hiker ekes tremendous tension from the nervous scrutiny of Lupino’s close-ups.

The desert wasteland outside serves as a pitiless counterpoint to the interior claustrophobics, while William Talman – and his malfunctioning eyelid – delivers one the great screen wackos. Running a mere 71 minutes, there’s not an ounce of fat on The Hitch-Hiker. The female protagonists and sociological enquiry may be gone, but in its stripped-down focus on form, it stands as Lupino’s most purely cinematic venture.

The Bigamist (1953)

The Bigamist (1953)

With the exception of the $25,000 bonus she earned for bringing each of her films in on time, Lupino (and The Filmakers) saw little money from the three films made for RKO. Parting ways, the production company went wholly independent, self-distributing The Bigamist at profit-crippling expense.

Alongside Joan Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien, Lupino took a starring role, despite promising never to do so (“I can’t afford my salary”), thereby becoming the first woman to direct herself in a major feature. The controversial subject matter saw Lupino return to The Filmakers’ originally stated ethos, fittingly for what would prove to be her final picture for the company. The film’s gender politics may not have aged too well, but the irony of Collier Young casting his new wife (Fontaine) opposite his ex (Lupino) as the objects of O’Brien’s affections certainly wasn’t lost on contemporary audiences.

The Twilight Zone: The Masks (1964)

The Twilight Zone: The Masks (1964)

Following the dissolution of The Filmakers, Lupino embarked on what would soon become steady employment directing for television. In fact, with only seven features to her name, the 60-plus episodes of TV she directed make up the vast majority of her body of work behind the camera. Her ability to work quickly and to budget clearly proved a bankable asset, and series as disparate as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Fugitive and Gilligan’s Island would follow.

The only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone in its entire 156-episode run, Lupino’s viciously grotesque miniature would prove one of the show’s late highlights. A dying man makes his vulturous family don Mardi Gras masks “with certain properties” in order to earn his inheritance. Needless to say, things don’t end well for the greedy clan…

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

The Trouble With Angels (1966)

It had been a decade since Lupino had acted on the big screen and more than a dozen since she’d directed a theatrical feature. Very much a director-for-hire gig, The Trouble with Angels was compromised by the studio deleting several scenes. Comparisons that have been made to Mädchen in Uniform (1931) might be pushing it, there’s still plenty to like in the episodic telling of a young girl’s (Hayley Mills) comic adventures at Catholic boarding school.

Rosalind Russell stars – after Garbo passed – as the mother superior, and, as ever with Lupino, it’s the details that allow the film to occasionally transcend its commercial trappings. Panned on release, it would be Lupino’s final film.

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