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From Teen Vixen to Trailblazer: The Career Arc of Ida Lupino

By John C. Alsedek:

Ida Lupino

It is a deeply unfair truism that women in Hollywood are held to a different standard than men, particularly regarding appearance and the aging process. Male actors can grow old and grey and still be considered "leading man" material, often cast opposite on-screen romantic partners much, much, much younger than themselves (the 25-year difference between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade immediately jumps to mind). But for their female counterparts, that has very rarely been the case (though it’s become a bit more even in recent years), and the road to stardom is littered with fresh-faced ingenues who saw their careers disappear before they’d reached their 35th birthday.

The actresses who have best avoided this fate and remained motion-picture/television stars are the ones who were able to best adapt to different roles over the years. Helen Mirren is a prime example, as she continues to get starring roles in major films even as she approaches 80. But for me, the ultimate example is Mirren’s fellow Brit, Ida Lupino.

Ida Lupino

Born in 1918 into a London-based theatrical family, Lupino was pushed toward acting from a very young age. And there was no denying that she had an aptitude for it; having memorized the leading female roles for all of William Shakespeare’s plays by age 10, she was a member of a touring theatre company through most of her childhood before moving into film work at British International Studios. She made her first film appearance in 1931 and starred in Her First Affaire one year later. Playing a prostitute in Money for Speed (Lupino was just 15 at the time), she found herself on the radar of Hollywood-based Paramount Pictures and ended up signed to a five-year deal. Over the next decade, she became (in her own joking words) “the poor man’s Bette Davis,” starring in dozens of films for Paramount, Columbia, and Warner Bros. and building a reputation as a dramatic actress with some serious chops. A prime example was in the Raoul Walsh film They Drive by Night (1940), where she completely owned the screen in every scene she was in, even against heavyweights such as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, and Ann Sheridan.

Yet, while Ida Lupino was a very much in-demand actress throughout the forties, she never truly reached the heights she seemed capable of. The single biggest reason for this was she was often at loggerheads with studio executives over the sorts of roles she was offered. Lupino refused to take parts that she considered poorly conceived or in general beneath her dignity as an actress, to the point where she spent much of her time at Warner Bros. under suspension. But she held firm to what she believed in, a task made easier by a very simple truth: you see, Ida Lupino had never actually wanted to be an actress. As a child her true love had been writing, and she’d only become an actress because she didn’t want to disappoint her parents. This situation had only been exacerbated by her time in Hollywood, and by the end of the 1940s Ida Lupino had developed an interest in not just writing but also directing and producing.

This was no passing fancy, either. Lupino spent countless hours (including all the time she was on suspension at Warner Bros.) learning every facet of the director’s art from the best in the business. And she was an excellent study. Oscar-winning cinematographer Archie Stout said of her: “Ida has more knowledge of camera angles and lenses than any director I’ve ever worked with, with the exception of Victor Fleming. She knows how a woman looks on the screen and what light that woman should have—probably better than I do.” His sentiments were echoed by Emmy-winning editor Stanford Tischler, who said of Lupino: “She wasn’t the kind of director who would shoot something then hope any flaws could be fixed in the cutting room. The acting was always there, to her credit.”

In 1948, she formed her own independent production company, The Filmakers Inc., in conjunction with her then-husband Collier Young. Her goal was to create low-budget, issue-oriented movies that were something more than Hollywood hokum . . . and boy, did she ever. The Filmakers produced a total of twelve feature films over the next decade, generally shot in two weeks and with a budget under $200,000 each. Yet the tight schedules and money didn’t keep them from creating something worthwhile, as motion pictures such as 1950’s Outrage (one of the first films dealing with rape) and 1953’s The Bigamist received rave reviews for their portrayal of realistic people in realistic situations. Of those dozen films, Lupino directed/co-directed six, wrote/co-wrote five, and acted in three. She also did some films for RKO Pictures after new owner Howard Hughes became a fan of her work; her lauded 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker was the first film noir to be directed by a woman.

But even before creating The Filmakers, Ida Lupino had already been in the director’s chair; her very first job had come in 1949 while she was starring in a film she co-produced and co-wrote, Not Wanted. Director Elmer Clifton was stricken by a heart attack during filming, and Lupino took over for him to finish the production. Though she had earned a directorial credit, she refused to take it out of respect for Clifton (she reportedly did the same during the filming of 1951’s On Dangerous Ground when Nicholas Ray became ill).

The Filmakers ceased producing motion pictures in 1955, at which point Lupino carried her directorial talents to television, where she would end up directing over 100 episodes of various shows, including my two all-time favorites: The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Given that I’m a huge Twilight Zone and Thriller fan, I’m very familiar with her work on those two shows. She directed one episode of The Twilight Zone (season five’s "The Masks," one of my very favorites) and starred in season one’s "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," where she essentially plays herself had she followed a different path and never grown beyond being the romantic lead.

But it’s her work on Thriller that really shows her ability as a director. She directed nine episodes in total, third-most by any director behind only Herschel Daugherty and John Brahm. And in those nine episodes, Lupino showed the ability to take even a poor script and make something very watchable out of it. In particular, I’m impressed by her attention to detail, her skill at getting the best performances from her actors, and most of all by the fact that she really, truly cared about every episode she did. Even on a high-quality series like Thriller, there are individual episodes that you can just tell the director (and therefore the actors) were just going through the motions to get the show in the can. Not Lupino, not ever. Even an otherwise mediocre episode like "The Bride Who Died Twice" looks amazing and has acting performances to match. She also wrote one episode of Thriller: the circuitous, darkly funny "The Last of the Sommervilles."

Lupino’s directing career came to an end with a 1968 episode of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, though she would continue acting for another decade. But her impact on television and motion pictures can be felt to the present day. Film critic Ronnie Scheib compares Lupino’s directorial style and overarching themes to other modernist filmmakers breaking through at the same time as Lupino, such as Robert Aldrich and Nicholas Ray. Meanwhile, no less an authority than Martin Scorsese has referred to her thematic film work as “essential.” Having seen films such as The Hitch-Hiker and Outrage myself, I couldn’t agree more.

Besides her vast catalog of film and television work, Ida Lupino also did a whole heck of a lot of radio, including 15 episodes of the most popular anthology series of the 1940s and 1950s, Lux Radio Theatre. We’ll be discussing that classic program next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!


SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.

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