There was an absolute and iron-clad system in the film capital in the 1940s and 1950s which, it seems to me, had its primary purpose to exclude females – Ida Lupino
She wasn’t wrong. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Hollywood in the mid-century was an industry ruled by the studio system and the strictures of the Hays Code, where men occupied all the positions of power behind the camera and controlled the stories and people in front of the camera. The pioneering female filmmakers of early cinema and the 1930s like Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner had either passed away or retired. Outside of Hollywood and highly critical of its products, Maya Deren was making experimental film that engaged with female experience. But make no mistake: the oppressive environment of Classic Hollywood couldn’t stop all kinds of subversion in story and characterisation where women and queer people still managed to work and question the domination of the heterosexual patriarchy, however coded or overt.
In the late 1940s and most of the 1950s was one woman who (with her then husband) produced, wrote, and directed her own films. They weren’t necessarily A-grade films, they weren’t even commercial. But they were frequently beautifully shot, deeply driven by characterisation, and tackled contemporary social issues like polio, illegitimate pregnancy, thwarted female ambition, and the always ghastly always relevant nightmare of rape. She made seven full-length features, and helped to direct more than one film she starred in. One of those features was the first noir ever directed by a woman, and to this day a harrowing watch. According to a biography, she was also the first woman to direct herself in a film.
At the same time, she managed to carve out an acting career marked by performances of total authenticity, often illuminating the range and depth of female characterisation onscreen. When television became the juggernaut of storytelling, she began with acting jobs, starred in a two-season sitcom with her third husband, and then transitioned to being one of the most prolific and hardworking directors in the industry. Thrillers and action were her forte, earning her a title of “the female Hitchcock.” She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, and also starred in a first season episode wonderfully reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard (1950).
She was Ida Lupino.
Born 4 February 1918 into a London family whose theatrical history went back to Renaissance Italy, Ida was trained by her father and his brothers, then by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and made it onto English stage and screen before moving to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Paramount had entirely the wrong idea of what to do with her, made her blonde and gave her hideous Harlow brows, and put her in woefully written and even worse filmed comedies. She went back to her natural brunette but Columbia didn’t appreciate her any better. Until 1939 when she got the chance to prove her impressive ferocity onscreen opposite none other than Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and then opposite Ronald Colman in The Light That Failed in the same year.
After that, she proceeded to make almost exclusively dramas. Ida often jokingly referred to herself as the “poor man’s Bette Davis” since more than once, roles came to her after being turned down by that other legend. Don’t be fooled by that self-deprecation: Ida’s acting was just as powerful and interesting – and often a lot more subtle.
Like Olivia de Havilland, Ida had few qualms about rejecting shitty roles which meant she was frequently put on suspension by studio bigwigs. That’s when her curiosity about filmmaking led her to shadow cinematographers and learn the craft in between jobs. As it was, her own maternal aunt, Nell O’Shea Beatty, was a pioneer female filmmaker who had written, produced, and acted in silent comedies back in England. And in addition to composing music and writing songs, Ida herself used to direct plays and film little movies as a child with her showbiz family. In 1948, she formed a production company with her second husband, totally independent of the studios, to make films they considered of social importance. She used to say she was always drawn to stories of wretched people, the lost and bewildered, and that shows in the immense compassion of both her acting and directing.
Like a lot of women of her generation and since, Ida Lupino refused to call herself a feminist. And yet her films and her roles speak for themselves, deeply aware of the patriarchal structure in which both film and women have to function. It’s also not difficult to see how she negotiated her space in a male-dominated industry, overseeing crews that would have been almost entirely men – she had the word “Mother” on the back of her director chair. She took care to always be fully prepared and never appear indecisive. She talked in publicity about how “keeping a feminine approach is vital — men hate bossy females. You do not tell a man; you suggest to him.” Despite the fact that she knew the exact technicalities of her craft, “often I pretended to a cameraman to know less than I did. That way I got more cooperation.” Techniques that are familiar to any woman who has to contend with the fragile male ego in the workplace. Ida manipulated that 1950s patriarchal system as far as she could, and it’s fascinating to see how her films challenge various institutions to overt or subtle effect.
I first saw her in They Drive By Night (1940), a Raoul Walsh movie that began to show up on my Tumblr dash, thanks to a Classic Hollywood account I follow, and finally got me curious enough to track it down and watch. It’s a hard little film, very noir which is not a genre I favour, but there’s one specific moment when Ida’s performance blazes in perfect chilling malevolence. This moment:
I was slain. From that moment on, I had to find and watch everything she made. Which was so much easier when Kino Lorber recently released a blu-ray collection of her directorial work.
So here are five thoroughly subjective recommendations to serve as an introduction to – or further exploration of – the work of my birthday twin Aquarian lady love Ida Lupino: three where she’s in front of the camera, two where she’s behind the camera.
Deep Valley (1947)
One of two films Ida made with under-appreciated director Jean Negulesco, this tale of female emancipation based on a novel is deliciously Gothic in its interiors and family drama. That would certainly be enough for me as a lover of the genre, but there’s a wonderful expansion of the story to the natural world, and a really great analogy for widening horizons in the use of blasted open land and sudden views of the open ocean.
Ida plays Libby, a girlchild of nature who’s trapped in a gloomy house with an invalid mother and a recalcitrant father, forced to mediate in their ongoing feud. She’s cripplingly shy, stammers, doesn’t like dresses, has no time for the trappings of civilised femininity, and is even less interested in the possible attentions of a gentleman caller. But then out in the woods one day, she stumbles across Barry, an injured man escaped from a chain gang, played by Dane Clark. He sees how she’s trapped in that toxic family, she sees his desperation to regain his freedom at any cost. And of course they fall in love.
It’s a melodrama with some absolutely scathing lines of dialogue and heartrending moments. The first time I watched it, my heart actually hurt at a climactic moment, feeling both their anguish and how meticulously his teary face and her screaming and scrabbling were filmed. The contrast between their situations and their choices is well portrayed, such a gendered difference of that time and place which makes it powerful. In this story, civilisation is something to be learnt and chosen. And the consequences for not learning and not choosing are brutal.
Jean Negulesco is a director who seems to have no discernable visual trademark. Rather, his films adapt so perfectly to the genre that he’s completely invisible. This is the man who made How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), Three Coins In A Fountain (1954), and Johnny Belinda (1948) – all incredibly different films. Out of those three, Johnny Belinda is closest to this in terms of the same sinister darkness crowding the frame, which makes sense since Ted McCord is the cinematographer for both. But there’s a more refined elegance to the composition and lighting of Deep Valley, both indoors and outside: the architectural lace shadows cast on a frozen Ida on the stairs; the glint of light on a scythe blade; the sunshine glowing on her hair and eyes in the woods, natural light captured so beautifully in black and white.
The sound design is very effective in the nature scenes, and the Max Steiner score rises with such joyous melody and then utter terror when necessary. In a relatively strong cast, Ida’s performance is pitch-perfect, never a false moment, so real and totally affecting. I particularly love the ambiguity of the ending, how it offers a hopeful resolution to both the self-sufficient feminist viewer and the heteronormative romantic viewer, not necessarily the same person.
The second film Ida directed but the first under her own name, this was a story close to her own experience. In 1934, when an epidemic of polio was sweeping America, Ida was struck down for a brief but terrifying time. With typical resilience and Aquarian ruthlessness, she said later, “I realised that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralysed, my brain could still work industriously. If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” After a full recovery, she worked to raise funds for polio research. It’s not hard to see this film as part of her effort to raise awareness and cultivate sympathy for patients, especially since America seemed to be going through another polio epidemic at the time of production.
Ida co-wrote the script with her husband Collier Young, and consulted director Michael Gordon – yes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s granddad – while acting in a tense noir for him. A lot of the film was shot on location, and Ida is said to have impressed the entire crew, particularly John Ford’s cinematographer Archie Stout who said she “has more knowledge of camera angles and lenses than any director I’ve ever worked with, with the exception of Victor Fleming.” Despite breaking her ankle, financiers pulling out, investing her and Collie’s own money, and their marriage failing, Ida kept to schedule and charmed the cast into delivering the performances she wanted.
A dancer named Carol – played by Sally Forrest who was the lead in Ida’s first directorial effort Not Wanted (1949) but way more glamorous here – has just gotten engaged to her very tall very cute boyfriend Guy, and is on the brink of professional success when she contracts polio. Mostly the film is a psychological study of Carol as she struggles with the blighting of all her and Guy’s dreams, how the illness affects her femininity, how she creates new connections with people at the rehabilitation centre. Though some people find the film preachy, I find the story structure pretty impressive, how it moves between grim and hopeful, between upsetting and unabashedly sentimental, between educational and romantic. And typical to Ida’s films, the relationships are so real in their messiness and arguments and hurt and healing. There are always a few moments of emotional excess but they’re always undercut and brought back to reality.
What I particularly love here is the gender representation. Like the best women’s pictures of that era, an Ida Lupino woman is allowed to be sexy, clever, and violent onscreen – both emotionally and physically. And she isn’t punished or killed for it, it’s merely part of her human nature, something to be accepted and worked through and resolved. Equally, an Ida Lupino man, when he’s good, is the loveliest blend of traits. He’s caring, intelligent, so totally secure in himself that showing kindness and empathising with a woman doesn’t lead to his emasculation or the fear of it. It’s the kind of representation that gladdens my heart to see onscreen.
The formalism and gorgeous shadows of Ida’s cinematography is probably better displayed in other films like Not Wanted or Hard Fast And Beautiful (1951) but there are still moments here of lovely framing and lighting of beautiful faces and one particularly excellent incidence of shadows casting bars across a character. The look is very much of a classic documentary – clean, utilitarian, mostly devoid of flourishes, particularly in the filming of all the physical therapy. (Look out for Ida’s sister Rita Lupino as a very flirty girl named Josie, being all coy in the pool.)
Carol’s relationship with her selfhood and how she defines herself as a woman is a little uncomfortable to watch from a 2022 perspective. And yet the urge to take refuge in other people, to define ourselves by who loves us rather than taking full and total responsibility for our own happiness is all too recognisable across the decades. The film may not resolve that aspect to everyone’s liking but the relief is sweet and palpable.
The score gets quite intrusive at times, and I tend to ignore the few bits of voiceover since the visuals are powerful on their own. And while the performances may be a little earnest or a little uneven, the central relationship is so endearing. I really do want these two kids to find happiness together though it seems horribly impossible at times. The ending is one of such poignancy, exactly the kind of lost bewildered tone Ida favours. And it’s wildly romantic too, no magical cure for all, but the recognition that life is still lovely even if it takes more effort and looks a little different now.
This certainly wasn’t the first film to be made in Hollywood about rape. But it might be one of the most effective depiction of one sort of lead-up and the traumatic aftermath. Certainly I had to work my courage up to watch it because I knew by then that Ida would terrify the hell out of me. The six‑minute sequence of our protagonist Ann being stalked through deserted streets is filmed at stark high angles and deep shadows, the score switching from jaunty music to jarring sound design and zero dialogue. You can tell the actress Mala Powers in her debut performance has been coached by Ida behind the camera to deliver such terror that drags you right into her character’s experience. We don’t see the actual assault, the camera draws back and high, but by then our imagination has been fully primed. I still flinch a little at the sight of an outdoor staircase.
As infuriating as the Hays Code and its descendants were, they forced Hollywood filmmakers into clever workarounds to hint at if not directly address taboo subjects. In this case, Ida Lupino and her team were not allowed to use the word “rape” onscreen, so instead they used “criminal attack” and “vicious assault”. Everyone in the film understands immediately what is meant. From my 2020s perspective, these euphemisms only enrage me more. And the script – written by Malvin Wald with Ida contributing Ann’s dialogue – stokes that fury with its critique of the justice system and 1950s American society in how they treat a survivor of sexual assault.
The courtroom scene is particularly interesting with a male judge, a male district attorney, and even male clergy speaking on behalf of Ann. Sure, that’s totally reflective of the gender disparity in courts then – and to varying degree now – and it smacks of such condescending paternalism. If it was a man behind the camera, you could read that paternalism as condoned by the film, fully in line with the Hays Code. But when you realise it’s firebrand fiercely independent Ida Lupino who routinely defied studio heads and directors, suddenly that courtroom scene with all its benevolent men silencing the woman and robbing her of her agency becomes a wonderfully subtle critique of 1950s patriarchy.
Touchingly, William Donati’s biography points out the careful portrayal of people of colour in incidental roles, that Ida cast Black Americans in roles that went against contemporary stereotypes. I noticed that subversion in Not Wanted with kids of colour playing on the street and an Asian mother befriending our heroine, but I’ll admit it escaped my notice here.
What particularly amuses me is the clergyman and his relationship with Ann. At one point, I realised I was watching Jane Eyre and St John Rivers. Except this is a much kinder sweeter St John, the St John he should have been instead of the incorruptible fucktard he is in the book. I thought, “Haha, I bet Ida loved Jane Eyre.” And then I remembered a few years earlier she was in a (hideously inaccurate) Brontë sisters biopic called Devotion (1946), playing Emily to Olivia de Havilland’s Charlotte. And much later, she said a few very Janian lines in a 1956 film called Strange Intruder based on a book by Australian author Helen Marjorie Fowler. Undoubtedly a fan.
There is an overwrought aspect to Mala Powers’ performance but it’s forgivable in context of the restrained ensemble cast. That restraint is most evident in the ending that seems to come a couple of scenes early. I always wonder at that decision – was it runtime, was it budget, were the shots not good enough? Or did Ida and her team decide such an unvarnished film didn’t need an excess of sentiment at the very end? Personally, I would have liked the healing of just two more scenes of reconciliation. But also I admire such ruthless elegance.
It’s not a flawless film but it’s worth watching for a snapshot of the era and the uncompromising determination of Ida and her allies bringing this story to screen.
Ladies In Retirement (1941)
This Gothic melodrama features twenty-three year old Ida playing a forty-year old – yes, really – housekeeper named Ellen hired to take care of a retired actress. Ellen’s life gets very complicated when some pretty boy arrives, claiming to be her employer’s nephew, and matters get worse when her eccentric and increasingly unstable sisters turn up out of the blue.
With a severely unflattering updo, barely any makeup, and deliciously thickened brows, Ida holds the centre of the film in a performance that gets all the more subdued and traumatised as everyone around her – looking at you, Elsa Lanchester – chew scenery and get madder and madder. The pivotal scene had me grinning ear to ear, both horrified and delighted by Ida’s intensity.
Her first husband, the very pretty Louis Hayward, plays the dodgy nephew, and it’s delicious to see what a beautiful couple they make, despite her unglam lewk. I like to think that’s Ida’s natural English accent we’re hearing, unAmericanised, but it’s probably not the case. The studio sets do the film no favours but still there’s fairly snappy dialogue and a wonderful sense of claustrophobia. And Ida gets a pretty majestic ending, all bittersweet and dignified in the most gorgeous atmospherics. A thoroughly enjoyable example of the Gothic genre.
My fave Ida performance ever. This is the film of hers I rewatch the most even though it is a goddamned rollercoaster of emotion. Watching it in quick succession to They Drive By Night and Pursued (1947) – kinda Wuthering Heights but make it Western – made me think very damned highly of director Raoul Walsh. Based on a novel, this is a mess of relationships and warring personalities set in a sleazy nightclub with great music and delicious costumes.
Ida plays Petey, a jazz singer who returns home to find two of her siblings caught up in the nefarious doings of club owner Nicky. Who might look eerily familiar to those of us who have grown up with M*A*S*H reruns because he’s played by Robert Alda, Alan’s dad. And he’s not a nice man at all! Nicky’s in the process of seducing Petey’s married sister Sally and corrupting their younger brother Joe with dirty money. Into this comes Petey who sizes Nicky up immediately and puts herself between him and her family. They engage in this weird wonderful battle of wills – she doesn’t budge an inch to all his coaxing and smirking, and he in turn gets lowkey obsessed with her total implacability.
Petey has to be one of the most multifaceted women onscreen, and Ida makes the most of such rich characterisation – the strength, the cynicism, the hope, love for her family, her kindness and sympathy for broken people, falling in love (surprisingly not with the bad guy), rage, humour, and sweetness. Every single emotion which is not something a woman always gets to express onscreen in that or other eras of Hollywood. And she gets to do it in some very clever hats, ensembles, and the most deliciously Grecian costumes designed by Milo Anderson. Here’s this fierce woman in a one-shoulder gown looking like Athena, and then in another with snaking silvery straps and her hair coiled like Medusa.
I’m always struck by how similar this film is to my favourite Hitchcock, Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), another story where a woman is all that stands between an evil man and her vulnerable family. But this is the grittier urban counterpart to that image of small-town Americana under threat. This is a decidedly post-war America where husbands come home clearly suffering post-traumatic stress, where restless wives prefer glamour and easy hedonism to hearth and motherhood, where artistic men are broken by their own shame and inadequacy, refusing to let themselves be healed by a woman’s good love, where glamorous predators move in on families struggling to hold it together. All the American dreams are in tatters. It’s completely messy and real and utterly fascinating. I love the song – even though it’s not Ida singing – and I couldn’t ask for a better film to match it.
And yes, you should also watch the noir she’s most famous for, The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Ida Lupino, an Aquarian icon.
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