Ida Lupino, the Mother of Us All

08/25/2010 1:00 AM |

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.