Never Fear (1949)
Directed by Ida Lupino
November 8-9 at MoMA, part of its Auteurist History of Film
World War II informs every scene of Ida Lupino’s directorial debut, a polio rehabilitation drama. It’s the story of Carol (Sally Forrest), a beautiful young dancer, and her partner Guy (Keefe Brasselle); things start to go right for the duo, with a string of nights booked at the Wilshire, and Guy tendering an engagement ring on the beach at Balboa. Carol says, “I’m so happy I don’t know what to say!” and Guy replies, “Then why don’t you be different from other women, and shut up?” They kiss. But the next day, Carol begins to wobble feverishly and then falls to the ground. Awake in a hospital bed, she’s told she may never dance again. Lupino stages moments of both triumph and failure with just a hint of detachment, usually in long wide takes that stress the performers. Carol & Guy’s onstage act is observed with the camera neither choreographed in sync, as in a musical, nor clinically, as in the audience. (Like the original title,The Young Lovers, these techniques take on added significance in retrospect, but are more likely side effects of a low budget.)
Guy—a former pickpocket and all-around con man—needs to quit dancing to pay the hospital bills, so he becomes a real estate agent. (His new boss stresses the importance of giving a good deal to veterans, noting casually that his punctured eardrum kept him out of the draft.) Their double bind has extra resonance given Lupino’s showbiz family history, but Carol’s true malaise is internal: unwilling to acknowledge her power to recover, she treats Guy awfully, and he says awful things back. When she pleads for him to leave her alone, he grins: “That’s the way you feel now. But I know my girl.” This is where Never Fear distinguishes itself from sundry low-budget postwar melodramas: if florid, the dialogue seems painstakingly crafted toward keeping both Carol and her viewers uncertain, loyalties shifting both away from and toward Guy scene by scene.
My hunch is that Lupino instructed Brasselle along the same lines; the film’s central preoccupation is less the couple breaking up than Carol finding what’s right for her as a woman. A serious contender emerges in the chiseled, wheelchair-bound form of Len (Hugh O’Brien). He makes a more gentlemanly play for Carol while struggling with his own illness. (The kindly, cigarette-puffing doctor supervising the clinic explains that Len’s peace of mind is "very precious.") Meanwhile, after a blow-up, Guy drunkenly attempts wooing with a coworker in her apartment, surrounded by her ex-husband’s Japanese souvenirs. “They used to call them hasty wartime marriages,” she says. “We just... weren’t right for each other.” They kiss, too—kissing being much more insidious per 1949 than it is today.
Never Fear daringly interrogates the era’s rules for romantic drama from a woman’s perspective without blatantly choosing sides. The score by Leith Stevens flares up nervously, almost atonally, whenever Guy confronts Carol; he has a certain clout over her given that she’s incapacitated, so when he pitches the doctor on taking Carol for a ride she is powerless to deny him. But during her physical therapy exercises, Carol will replay dialogue in her head from both Guy and Len, usually from arguments; words that stung at first but linger with added meanings afterward. Navigating everybody else’s advice, she has her own inner dialogues too. One of them, a thought directed at Guy but never said out loud, encapsulates both the heartbreak and the purity Lupino and her characters are wrestling with: “I feel almost beautiful. I wish you could see how beautiful I feel.”