Unsung Auteurs: Ida Lupino

July 8, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: 1950s-era trailblazing director, writer, producer and actress Ida Lupino.

“Welcome gentlemen and Miss Lupino.” This is how meetings of The Directors Guild Of America were called to order in the 1950s, which provides an instant thumbnail indication of just what a true pioneer Ida Lupino was. And while this extraordinary figure has certainly been celebrated, acknowledged and praised over the years, Lupino’s position as a true ground zero kick-starter in the film world – “the mother of independent cinema” has been one appropriate descriptor – has not really been properly affirmed. There has certainly been recognition, but Ida Lupino should be taught in every film course, and there should be an abundance of film awards and scholarships named in her honour.

Though there now might be political and gender-based problems with her films, Ida Lupino was writing, producing and directing movies in the 1950s, an era in which women were expected to stay at home and raise families, and little else. While it’s certainly difficult for a woman to begin and maintain a career as a film director today, in the 1950s, it was practically unheard of. Ida Lupino achieved the imaginable, and she should be a familiar name to anyone interested in cinema, and particularly to those female filmmakers often unknowingly indebted to her. “I didn’t see myself as any advance guard, or feminist,” Lupino once said. Despite her protestations, that is exactly what she was.

Ida Lupino on set.

Born into an English acting dynasty in 1918, Ida Lupino appeared in a number of UK productions as an actress. “My agent had told me that he was going to make me the Janet Gaynor of England,” Lupino has said of her early career. “I was going to play all the sweet roles…whereupon, at the tender age of thirteen, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.” Lupino was eventually discovered by the talent scouts at major Hollywood studio Paramount, who signed her to a five-year contract.

Lupino’s sultry, unconventional beauty marked her as a favourite for bad girl roles in crime thrillers and actioners. Lupino made a number of films for the Hollywood studios (High Sierrra, The Hard Way, Deep Valley, Pillow To Post), but would often clash with directors, executives and studio heads over the quality of films she was being assigned, her dialogue in said films, and the very nature of the industry itself. “I cannot tolerate fools,” Lupino once said. “I won’t have anything to do with them. I only want to associate with brilliant people.”

Ida Lupino

While on contract at Warner Bros, Lupino spent much of her time on suspension due to her habit of rejecting roles assigned to her, rewriting the scripts of the films in which she was to star, and antagonising belligerent studio boss Jack Warner. It was during these suspensions, however, that the desire to become a director firmed in Ida Lupino. Located at the studio, but unable to actually work or act, she had ample time to observe the filming and editing processes. “Someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work,” Lupino was quoted as saying in the book Hollywood Ambitions.

Refusing to subscribe to cultural, industry and societal norms, the feisty actress set her sights on becoming a director. She and her then-husband, producer and writer Collier Young, formed an independent production company, which they named The Filmmakers Inc. Lupino even jumped the gun on the whole auteur concept by laying out distinct guidelines for the type of films that the company would produce, focusing on low budget, issue-oriented projects. The company was formed in 1948 with Lupino as vice-president, Collier Young as president, and screenwriter Malvin Wald as treasurer. The company produced twelve feature films, six of which Lupino directed or co-directed, five of which she wrote or co-wrote, three of which she acted in, and one of which she co-produced.

Ida Lupino on set.

Directing at a time when the very concept of a woman controlling a movie set was utterly alien to all in the industry, Lupino’s approach to the task was very much prescribed by the time. She had the word “Mother” on the back of her director’s chair, and created a sense of nurturing warmth amongst her cast and crew. “Keeping a feminine approach is vital,” Lupino once said of directorial style. “Men hate bossy females. Often I pretended to a cameraman to know less than I did. That way I got more cooperation. I had no desire to crash a man’s world. Any woman who wishes to smash into the world of men isn’t very feminine.”

Per the mission statement of The Filmmakers Inc., Ida Lupino’s films for the company all burned with a sense of a social justice, and dealt with taboo subjects untouched by the major studios. Her first major work behind the camera was uncredited on 1949’s Not Wanted, a co-direct with Elmer Clifton about a young unwed mother who gives up her baby for adoption, and then, distraught, kidnaps another child. Lupino made her official co-writing/directing debut in 1950 with Never Fear, the story of a dancer stricken with polio. Her next film, 1950’s Outrage, dealt with the very difficult subject of rape with sensitivity and intelligence, and marked Lupino as a true humanist.

A scene from Outrage.

“That film is about rape, how 1950s society dealt with that, and how the character who is assaulted ultimately learns to heal,” says Anne Morra, who curated a programme of Lupino’s films at MoMA in Manhattan. “Ida was always very modern in looking at different kinds of therapies. In Never Fear, we have the physical therapy at the Kabat-Kaiser Center. With Outrage, Ann sees a psychotherapist. There’s value in that, as opposed to society saying, ‘You’ll get over it.’ Outrage is probably her strongest film, and when you watch it, you’re seeing this great director blooming.”

Lupino’s other directorial efforts with The Filmmakers Inc. included two low budget potboilers (1951’s Hard, Fast & Beautiful, 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker) and 1953’s The Bigamist, an issues-based taboo-themed drama about a man married to two women, and the obvious difficulties that his deceit and deception causes. Lupino also did uncredited directing work on Nicholas Ray’s thriller, On Dangerous Ground, in which she starred with Robert Ryan. When her director fell ill for a few days, Lupino jumped behind the camera to keep the project on time and on budget.

Ida Lupino on set.

The Filmmakers production company ceased operations in 1955, at which point Lupino turned to work in the burgeoning television industry, where she became a truly prolific force. She directed episodes of pretty much every show screened during the 1950s and 1960s, including Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, The Virginian, Daniel Boone and many, many more. Lupino also continued to act during this period, and made one final feature film in 1966 with The Trouble With Angels, a raucously funny teen comedy with Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell.

While Ida Lupino deserved better than spending the bulk of her career directing high turnover television, she boasts a small but powerful body of big screen work. She pushed the boundaries, courted controversy, and made films that mattered deeply to her. Ida Lupino is unarguably one of the most important female directors in Hollywood history, and she should be discussed as such a lot more frequently than she currently is. Ida Lupino should be nothing less than a major touchstone for every woman who gets behind a camera. “I’d love to see more women working as directors and producers,” Lupino said before her passing in 1995. “Today, it’s almost impossible to do it unless you are an actress or writer with power. I wouldn’t hesitate right this minute to hire a talented woman if the subject matter were right.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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