Ida Lupino Gets Her Due

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Ida Lupino was groomed for stardom by Paramount during the 1930s and achieved it at Warner Bros. in the 1940s. Yet, she loathed the star system, which turned actresses into manufactured personas that required them to behave offscreen as they did on-screen. However, her experiences as a star were not in vain because they influenced her career as a director, according to Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, a new book by Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman.

Case in point: Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955), which is streaming on FilmStruck. Fellow Streamliner R. Emmet Sweeney has already written a detailed overview of this bitter drama starring Jack Palance as a movie star who agonizes over a career built on compromise and deceit, and I won’t steal his thunder (to read his review, click here). I will just point out that, even though the film is considered a turning point in Palance’s career, Lupino, who costarred as the estranged wife, got a great deal out of the experience, too. She considered Aldrich an influence on her directorial career, noting “He’s not only a fine technician, but he certainly knows the actor. He digs down into your role and pulls things out you weren’t aware were there.” Lupino could also draw moving performances from her actors, something that became her forte.

BIG KNIFE, THE (1955)

In addition, Aldrich was a kindred spirit in his criticism of the star system. The Big Knife is about the commodification of stars by studios, a subject Aldrich revisited in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The characters played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are the end result of the star system. The down side of stardom for actresses is a theme Lupino would explore as a television director not long after costarring in The Big Knife.

I would not have made the connection between Lupino’s style and themes and Aldrich’s work without this book. Because Lupino was one of the few female directors during the Golden Age, I mention her often in my classes, and I have shown her thriller The Hitch-Hiker (1953) in my film noir course. I thought I knew a lot about her, but Ida Lupino: Director helped me see influences and make connections I would not have on my own. The book is not a bio but a much-needed discussion of her career.

In the book’s preface, Grisham and Grossman reveal that Lupino referred to herself as a “jigger,” a personal idiom that acknowledged her tendency to “think jagged thoughts.” By jagged thoughts, Lupino meant her unconventional notions about social institutions and gender roles. The anecdote about Lupino is a perfect way to begin the book, because it succinctly explains the authors’ position that she was someone who thought and worked outside social, gender and industry norms.

Written in a breezy, easily understandable style, the book is structured into three parts. “Part One: Introducing Ida Lupino, Director and Feminist Auteur” provides context for understanding Lupino’s relationship with Hollywood and for comprehending her films within the postwar era. In the 1950s, when actors such as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster formed their own production companies to produce movies they wanted to make, Lupino formed a company called The Filmmakers with husband Collier Young to direct films she believed in. Lupino was drawn to stories of female trauma in which social institutions and gender worked against the characters. For example, Not Wanted (1949) chronicles the difficulties of being an unwed mother, while Outrage (1950) deals with the psychological and emotional effects of rape. Neither subject was typical for the era, and Lupino’s sympathetic, realistic treatment of these controversial topics was downright unheard of.

“Part Two: Lupino’s Ingenious Genres: Early Films and The Trouble with Angels (1966)” discusses the director’s style in relation to her preferred genres. Lupino felt she was making films about the lives and problems of ordinary people, which is akin to the social problem film. But, because her protagonists were often women, and the stories focused on their suffering, the content is close to melodrama. And, yet, some of her films used the chiaroscuro lighting and odd angles of film noir. Her directorial style was flexible enough to be both “highly expressionistic and grittily realistic,” as described by the authors. Film scholar Carrie Rickie referred to it as “Lupino noir.”

Part Two concludes with the best discussion of a teen flick I have ever read. I am probably biased because The Trouble with Angels has been a favorite movie of mine since childhood. But, the serious treatment of the film by the authors reveals how much meaning and significance a seemingly simple film aimed at adolescent girls can have. As enlightening as that was, I have to say that my favorite part of the book is “Part Three: Lupino Moves to Television,” which shines a spotlight on Lupino’s work for the small screen.

I did not realize how many of my favorite series Lupino had contributed to until I read this chapter. As the authors note, “Men and women now in their fifties and sixties may be unaware of how present Ida Lupino was in their childhood.” She contributed to genre series generally associated with male directors—westerns like Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-1963) and The Virginian (1962-1971) and horror series like Thriller (1973-1976). She directed three episodes of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure. And, she was the only female director to contribute to The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), one of my three favorite series of all time. I can recall her episode, “The Masks,” about a family patriarch who forces his greedy heirs to wear special masks for Mardi Gras, just from its title.

Lupino also appeared in The Twilight Zone in the episode “The 16mm Shrine,” about aging star Barbara Jean Trenton who watches the films she made as a young starlet over and over. I found it fascinating that this theme reappears in Lupino’s television work as both an actress and a director. In the 1950s, she had appeared in an episode of Four Star Playhouse (1952-1956) called “The Stand-in,” and in the 1970s, she guest-starred in an episode of Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981), playing a faded movie star named Gloria Gibson who wants to make a comeback. The negative impact of the Hollywood star system never really left her.

Lupino’s career was full and more diverse than she is given credit for; Ida Lupino, Director covers all of it with insight and understanding.

Susan Doll

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13 Responses Ida Lupino Gets Her Due
Posted By Arthur : June 26, 2017 10:38 am

That TZ episode The Masks was a standout. I did not know she directed it and others.

I saw some of the films you mentioned. They were different than the run of the mill stuff and quite good.

btw she was no slouch as an actress either. I remember her from the HIGH SIERRAS and especially from ON DANGEROUS GROUND in which she is shown in your first photo with Robert Ryan. That was certainly an intriguing film to say the least.

Posted By Maryann : June 26, 2017 10:50 am

Finally, Ida Lupino is getting the recognition she deserves. I’m so glad that you brought this book to our attention. I look forward to reading it and watching her films again. I have always been an admirer of hers but I had no idea that she was also directed an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS is one of my favorites as well.

Posted By Tommy : June 26, 2017 12:48 pm

As usual, Susan, a superior piece of writing. Oftentimes slurred as “The Poor Man’s Betty Davis,” Lupino remains my favorite actress and female director. Ida sensed the changing Hollywood landscape well before others did. Sam Peckinpah showcased her talent in a very brief role in Junior Bonner, a film that distills everything you’ve written about here. Sam’s detractor’s typically fail to note the praise this gentle film deserves and Ida’s part is a wonderfully brilliant turn near the end of an even more brilliant career. Kudos!

Posted By Emgee : June 26, 2017 3:07 pm

“The Poor Man’s Betty Davis,” She did often get the parts that Davis refused, one of the reasons she left Warner Brothers.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 26, 2017 4:07 pm

Tommy and Emgee: The book addresses the “poor man’s Bette Davis” reputation. Interesting, esp. since I don’t find them that similar.

Tommy: Thank you for the compliment. Much appreciated.

Posted By Lisa W. : June 26, 2017 6:31 pm

Thrilled to read this review as I had no idea that Lupino was such a powerhouse. Thank you for showcasing her career and for pointing me toward this book. A few years ago I was lucky to participate in a noir class taught by Therese Grisham. I enjoyed the class immensely and thought she was brilliant, so this new book is now added to my must-read list.

Posted By Dave Stark : June 27, 2017 2:49 am

I loved Trouble with Angels too, never knew that she directed it. I kind of knew that Lupino was a director, but no clue about her stature and contributions. Great review of what sounds like a terrific book about an overlooked director.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : June 28, 2017 2:02 am

Excellent article. I loved THE HITCH-HIKER and was a big fan of Hayley Mills as a kid and THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS. I remember seeing Ida Lupino’s director credit in a lot of TV shows. She was special.

Posted By Lee Morrall : June 29, 2017 8:20 am

Ida Lupino has been a favourite of mine since my childhood, watching Hollywood movies and noirs with my dad on 1980′s TV. I was struck both by her beauty and thespian brilliance, not to mention that she could play sympathetic waifs and hard-boiled femme fatales, and indeed sympathetic hard-boiled characters with equal aplomb. I was later introduced into her directorial triumphs. She certainly wouldn’t have considered herself a feminist from all that I’ve heard…she was very much an underdog person though. The Bigamist actually shows a bigamous man in a sympathetic light, itself quite an achievement! It’s about time she was fully recognised, as a pre-code darling, noir icon and directorial great.

Posted By George : June 29, 2017 2:49 pm

“The 16mm Shrine” (1959) is one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. I know some have dismissed it as a “poor man’s Sunset Boulevard,” but Lupino and Martin Balsam make it work.

Posted By Mr. Memory : June 29, 2017 10:36 pm

Ida Lupino is somebody I wish actors like Geena Davis would emulate in that she was a doer (getting into directing and setting up her own production company to make movies instead of setting up an organization to tell the big studios what to make as Davis has done.) This is a great article that shows what she was and what she accomplished.

The 16mm Shrine ‘a poor man’s Sunset Boulevard‘ ? Not to me it isn’t; the character realizes she can’t exist in this world, so she goes into another one instead, rather than kill somebody and decend into madness for not wanting to bring back their career, like Norma Desmond does.

Posted By Robert : July 2, 2017 5:19 pm

I loved Ida’s work on screen, and her extremely confident hand directing (particularly with material challenging to the time) makes me wish she’d been given more opportunities to handle larger-budget features as I’m certain she could have delivered had Hollywood thought a bit more out of the box back then. One little correction though – the “Thriller” series she directed for was the 1960-1962 anthology hosted by Boris Karloff. The 1970s era show with that title was a British program that she was not associated with.

Posted By Pietro Antoni : July 14, 2017 6:36 pm

She was the complete ‘portrait of a lady’. Love to Ida.

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