The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films and Stars
Ida Lupino (1918-1995) exuded sex appeal and sophistication on the screen during her acting career, playing mostly “hard boiled dames.” But she turned her back on acting, which seemed boring to her, in favor of directing movies and TV in a bold move in the 1960s. To me, this real-life switcharoo just proved that her image as the beauty with a mind of her own was more than skin deep.
On the other hand, Lupino continued acting because that is where the money was. And she never pushed herself forward at the expense of the men in Hollywood. If she believed that her true role was writing and directing, she also knew where a dame belonged in the male-dominated world. “Any woman who wishes to smash into the world of men isn’t very feminine,” she said.
Lupino grew up in a family of performers and became so knowledgeable about film that she decided she could write and direct as well or better than other directors. She first acted in England, then moved to the U.S. In 1949, she formed her own film company, where she mostly produced films with social activism themes. During the 1950’s, her directing and writing largely replaced acting. Unfortunately, then as now, women directors were rare. Lupino was the second woman to be admitted to the Director’s Guild.
She was a rare female director in her time. Actors who worked with her praised her for her skill at working with actors — she understood what they needed and how to help them be their best. In the 60s when she directed and wrote for TV, she became known for action thrillers and westerns — definitely not the usual province of women. An accurate analysis of the way Lupino was seen in her TV work comes from the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Although Ida Lupino was the first (and perhaps only) woman director during the early years of American television production, it is odd that she is rarely referenced as a “ground breaker” for other women entering the industry. Unlike Lucille Ball, Loretta Young, Joan Davis, and other women who were involved as producers in early television programming, Lupino had little creative control over the programs she directed. To contextualize Lupino’s role as a director in relation to other women working contemporaneously as producers is not meant to suggest, however, that a critical analysis of Lupino’s work is irrelevant to television history and feminist inquiry. What remains significant about Lupino as a “woman director” was her unique ability to succeed in an occupation which was (and still is) dominantly coded as “masculine.”
As an actress, she played bad girls, but the kind of bad girl that you wished you were brave enough to be. Especially if it meant hanging out with the prime bad boy, Humphrey Bogart, in a film like [amazon_link id=”B007FQXEQO” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]They Drive by Night[/amazon_link] (1940) and the better known [amazon_link id=”B000GIXLUW” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]High Sierra[/amazon_link] (1941). Her long string of these B-movie roles earned her the nickname, Queen of the B’s.
Lupino made her mark as an actress in High Sierra. She plays a dance-hall girl hanging out with two-bit gangsters until the master criminal Humphrey Bogart comes along and she latches on to him. Her affection grows and despite Bogart’s disreputable character, you’re cheering for him at the end as he climbs up a mountainside to hide out from the police.
(Trivia note for dog lovers: In case you have never seen High Sierra, it features an adorable mutt who in the end plays a critical role in the plot. Bogart’s rough affection for the dog gives us one more reason to love the big lug.)
However, Lupino quarreled with Warner Brothers because she didn’t like the roles they were giving her, and she negotiated a contract to give her the ability to freelance in the early 1940s when the studio system was still dominant. When she left Warner Brothers for Columbia, her roles and accomplishments improved.
The troubled background she had with the studios must have made her role in The Big Knife (1955) enjoyable. I have to be honest, despite an all-star cast, I am not recommending this movie. Jack Palance plays a movie star in thrall to an eccentric movie studio head (Rod Steiger). Other stars in this movie adapted from the stage play by Clifford Odets include Shelley Winters, Wendell Corey, and Ilka Chase. While each of these actors (with the exception of a wooden Jack Palance) bring their enormous talents to the show, Odets’ dialogue is stilted and situations are melodramatic.
The film was the cause-oriented “get even with the studios” movie that must have done the actors’ hearts good. Lupino’s subtle and natural acting stands out as she urges her husband, Palance, to stand up to the studios. Shelley Winters shines in the role of the starlet who is not taken seriously — which was her fate for many years in real life. Rod Steiger blusters and chews on the scenery, but he is playing a strange character where that behavior is totally understandable.
In 1972, Lupino returned to an acting role in Junior Bonner, after 16 years away from the camera. As the title character’s mother, she was still beautiful and natural in front of the camera.