Ida Lupino: Mother Directs
August 26-September 20 at MoMA
In The Bigamist, Edmond O'Brien describes one of his two wives as not "really beautiful, just nice—kind of a funny little mouse." That wife is played by director Ida Lupino, and the line echoes something the coarse Columbia boss Harry Cohn told Lupino when they first met: "You are not beautiful, but you've got a funny little pan." Ida agreed, and her lifelong deprecating opinion about her own looks was one of the factors that drove the actress into the director's chair, though it would have mattered for little without her attendant ambition, intuition, and connections. Her perception of herself as a "poor man's Bette Davis" might be wildly off the mark, for Lupino was a brilliant actress, but the underestimation isn't regrettable if it led to directing. By any standard, her body of work is intriguing, but as a female in sexist mid-century Hollywood, it is particularly remarkable.
MoMA makes dual claims for Lupino's acting and directing bravura with its series Mother Directs. The title refers to her preferred nickname among film crews and the phrase on her director's chair—"The Mother of Us All". Pictures by Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, and Don Siegel here showcase some of Lupino's best performances, and they're featured alongside all seven of her directorial jobs.
Ida was born into entertainment in London as part of a family that had been leaders in British theater since the early 17th century. The Lupino name was synonymous with performance, and before Ida, the most famous member was probably her father Stanley, who indelicately strong-armed her into the profession, though she readily obliged. With her respected surname and Royal Academy training, Ida and her mother Connie were welcomed like royalty to an always prestige-reverent Hollywood in 1933.
Lupino spent several years in minor roles, but by 1940 she'd married actor Louis Hayward (also British-born) and bought a house on Beverly Drive where the couple entertained The Chums, a serious-about-fun group that included Rex Harrison, Ann Sheridan, and David Niven. Lupino became famous in that year's They Drive by Night. Walsh's bizarrely bisected movie begins as an oily, rolled-up shirtsleeves trucking movie before Lupino steals it from George Raft and Humphrey Bogart with her jaw-dropping second-half turn as a jealous murderess. With her gigantic, wide-set eyes and petite frame, the 22-year-old is adorable, which makes it all the more shocking to see her entomb her husband in a gaseous garage and shriek lies on the witness stand.
From there, MoMA's series skips ahead nine years (over classics like High Sierra and The Hard Way) to 1949, focusing on the period in Lupino's career when she was both actor and director. With her now-husband, screenwriter/producer Collier Young, and Malvin Wald, she formed the production company The Filmakers [sic]. Inspired by something Roberto Rossellini once told Lupino about movies with "ordinary people in ordinary situations," The Filmakers dedicated themselves to "social problem" pictures made in a style Lupino called "documentary," though they all contain heavy melodramatic elements. Seen today, Lupino's films are too unquestioningly loyal to social mores of the time (sex always leads to pregnancy, wifedom and motherhood trump female careerism) to be considered feminist documents, but the mere fact of the issues they raised was a leap.
Elmer Clifton is the credited director of the company's first feature, Not Wanted, but a few days into shooting he suffered a heart attack and Ida, who'd always closely studied the mechanics of production, took over. Tackling the taboo subject of unwed motherhood, the bleak film follows the consequences of the impregnation of a naïve innocent (Sally Forrest) by a nomadic pianist (Leo Penn). The terror associated with pregnancy out of marriage is on a hysterical, Reefer Madness pitch, but Lupino shows great dormant skill with both the realist passages and a Seconds-like psychedelic birth scene.
Lupino and The Filmakers next targeted the then-misunderstood and feared disease polio, in Never Fear. Outrage was about the horror and long-term crippling effects of rape, a subject no other movie would touch (at least so bluntly) in 1951. With her next film, Lupino was able to move away from the somewhat stifling confines of the one-issue public alert film, with a witty and multi-layered story about class anxiety and the ruthlessness of "sports parents," the young athlete here being a tennis prodigy (Forrest). Howard Hughes thought up the title—Hard, Fast and Beautiful. An accumulation of small details (contingent tennis club memberships for the poorer family, snobby sniffs at cheap cigars) illustrate excruciating class awareness, and Claire Trevor is brutal as the conniving proto-Earl Woods, whose pursuit of amateur circuit kickbacks helps dash her daughter's tennis career. Lupino's capper is devastating—a shot of Trevor alone at night in empty bleachers, yesterday's papers blowing in the wind to the sound of an echoing tennis ball bounce.
In 1952, Lupino acted in two films with Robert Ryan, both shot by George Diskant. She also directed some scenes in both movies, when the directors were temporarily ill. In Harry Horner’s Beware, My Lovely, she is a housewife menaced by psychopathic handyman Ryan, convincingly sweet-then-menacing. Ray's On Dangerous Ground is the story of Ryan's rage-wrecked cop learning to see with the help of Lupino's blind Mary Malde. It travels from pestilent city streets and flophouses to snow-draped hills and isolated cabins, pushed by the frenetic modulations of Bernard Herrmann. It's a film with great range that can contain both the heights of pitiable fury ("You punks always talk!" snarls Ryan at a suspect before beating him) and the calm wisdom of Lupino, who betters the Magical Handicap grounding of her character by playing so sweetly against her more common impudent type.
Lupino's most satisfying feature as director is The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a compact morality play-cum-thriller based on real events, about a murderer who terrorizes two average bumpkins on a fishing trip. As the hitcher who sleeps with one eye open, William Talman is a lethal nuisance, and his emasculating pushing around of Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy might be Lupino's winking analogy for a male cast bossed about by a female director. The Bigamist, released the same year, musters a surprising quota of sympathy for the main character, when cruel circumstance prevents him from breaking it off with both Joan Fontaine (her parents are dying) and Ida (whom he impregnates). Lupino's character feels guilty that she "trapped" Roy (O'Brien) into a marriage with her pregnancy, an anxiety that the actress/director shared about her marriage to actor and frequent collaborator Howard Duff. Complicating the imitation of life, Fontaine at the time was married to Collier Young, then Lupino's ex.
After The Bigamist, Lupino didn't direct until 1966's nun romp The Trouble with Angels. Meanwhile, she appeared in Private Hell 36, a wicked cheapie with harsh lessons. Director Siegel attests to some struggles on the set, fueled by stars Lupino, Duff, and Steve Cochran's penchant for drinking vodka-and-ice during work hours. In Women's Prison, Lupino plays an elegantly dressed, hell-bitch warden with the always-evil name van Zandt. Playing off of the tartness of inmates like Audrey Totter, Lupino's evil matronhood elevates the delightful trash. The Mother of Us All had predecessors. Lois Weber was directing in the 1910s, and Dorothy Arzner preceded her into the Directors Guild (Lupino was only the second woman). Her seven films as director shouldn't be over-championed for the purposes of correction, though all contain numerous flashes of brilliance, and a couple are great. But no woman came close to being a threat on quite so many fronts (directing, acting, writing, and producing) as Lupino during her time.