I’ve been trying to crash out ever since I can remember.”
Marie Garson in High Sierra
Ida Lupino is unique in the history of Hollywood. A little blonde Briton playing Jean Harlow-style gold-diggers in the mid-30s, by the early-40s she had clawed her way up to stardom as a depression waif. By the early-50s she was one of only two women to have directed talkies in classical Hollywood.
It is perhaps a traditional British reluctance to appreciate the visual in cinema that has hampered recognition of Lupino’s work on this side of the Atlantic. Researching in the British Film Institute Library will certainly uncover British cuttings which chronicle or celebrate early British Lupinos such as Money for Speed and The Ghost Camera (Vorhaus, 1933/1934). But for appreciation of her heyday as actor and director, we must turn to American writers. When I first saw High Sierra (Walsh, 1941) in 1976, I assumed that Lupino was American. Her dress, her accent, her mien seemed to place her in soup kitchen lines back East in the ‘30s, maybe a dime-a-dance joint in San Francisco. Of the early-40s, Lupino herself has said: “My fan mail used to come from Brooklyn saying, ‘You’re one of us, baby.” (1) In 1998 critic Manny Farber summed Lupino up as “a specific woman in a cliché pushed-around-gal role.” (2) Belonging to that naturalistic school of prewar American screen acting which produced James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Henry Fonda and John Garfield, it comes as a surprise that Lupino was born the daughter of London entertainment legend Stanley Lupino, heiress to a theatrical dynasty going back to 17th century Italy.
The season of Lupino’s work opening in April a bus ride from her Brixton birthplace at the National Film Theatre may prompt a British re-assessment of this British contribution to American cinema. Lupino’s oeuvre features a gallery of sexy and tough-minded characters in such realistic dramas as The Light that Failed (Wellman, 1939), They Drive by Night (Walsh, 1940), High Sierra, and The Sea Wolf (Curtiz, 1941). With her high delicate cheekbones, liquid eyes, and a way of talking out of the side of her mouth, this insolent young woman seems to epitomize the slump’s legacy of pinched dreams and dashed hopes. In High Sierra, Marie appears in a black beret, Lupino’s slightly Latin features recalling one of those French street angels offering respite to the desperate fugitives of ‘30s Poetic Realism. In They Drive by Night, Lupino’s bored wife degenerates into psychosis. In The Sea Wolf, she has escaped the reformatory. In Out of the Fog (Litvak, 1941), she falls in love with a mobster. Of Lupino’s directed works, Martin Scorsese writes of films “resilient with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.” (3) He could have been describing high Lupino.
Influenced by the
naturalistic writings of A. I. Bezzerides, Jack
London and Mark Hellinger, these films hail not from
the genteel literary tradition epitomized by such
British exports as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh
and Charles Laughton. Directed by veteran Hollywood
picturemakers with an innate feeling for the racy
tale told through a smooth union of image and talk,
these genre movies have never gone down well with
middle class British audiences. For Farber, Lupino
“works close and guardedly to the camera, her early
existentialist-heroine role held to size: she’s very
unglorious, has her place and, retracting into
herself, steals scenes from Bogart at his most
touching.” (4) The Marie of High Sierra, her
name evoking a character Arletty might have essayed,
could be seen as a dry run for Bacall’s Marie
opposite Bogie in To Have and Have Not
(Hawks, 1945). “Like a downtown train, Lupino had
moxie”, writes Rick Donovan. (5)
In lots of ways, Lupino’s directed works seem to emerge out of her previous career. High Sierra finds a man torn between Joan Leslie’s nice girl and Lupino’s drifter. In The Hard Way (Sherman, 1942), Lupino plays the ambitious and ruthless older sister to a character also played by Leslie. Lupino’s own Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) finds Claire Trevor (a stock Warners player in the ‘40s), playing ruthlessly ambitious mother Millie opposite her tennis prodigy daughter Florence (Lupino discovery Sally Forrest). Also echoing High Sierra, The Bigamist (Lupino, 1953) finds a man torn between one wife, a middle-class professional played by Joan Fontaine, and another, a working waitress played by Lupino. Lupino’s most celebrated film as director and her personal favourite, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) returns to the unforgiving sierras in which Roy and Marie’s life-and-death struggle is played out. In the ‘50s, Lupino’s appearance in While the City Sleeps (Lang, 1956) prompts a number of ironic references to her other life as director. (6) In television work in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Lupino was renowned for smoothly linking scene to scene as Walsh, Wellman, Sherman and Curtiz had done in the ‘40s. Whilst there is much to be said for seeing Lupino as an early feminist filmmaker, Ronnie Scheib, perhaps her most rigorous interpreter, felt that she was more a “product of her time than a product of her sex.” (7)
In May, 1948, a month before Lupino became an American citizen, the US Supreme Court voted in antitrust legislation to effectively divest Hollywood studios of their cinema holdings, ending their monopoly over production, distribution and exhibition, and triggering the decline of Old Hollywood. Increasingly, stars and directors went into production. Emerald Productions (named after Lupino’s mother, actor Connie Emerald), was established in 1948. In 1949 Not Wanted was released, co-written, co-produced and directed by Lupino after director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack. The same year, Lupino, husband and former Columbia executive assistant Collier Young, and Malvin Wald, protégé of Mark Hellinger, set up Filmmakers. With its poverty row pedigree and commitment to social realism, Filmmakers embarked upon a series of projects around what were then difficult subjects.
Treating the ordeal of an unwed mother with intelligence and restraint, Not Wanted was well-received. Costing a mere $153,000, it grossed $1,000,000 at the box office. “Joan Crawford called me and asked if I could bring a print to her house. Lupino was hot.” (8) Always a knowing industry operator, Lupino herself negotiated with the powerful Production Code Administration to get Not Wanted viable certification. It seems tame today, but the film nevertheless anticipated depictions of sexuality that would become commonplace in the years ahead.
Shot on location and employing little-known actors, Lupino’s films typify a postwar Hollywood trend owing something to Italian Neo-Realism and something to sobering American experiences of depression and war. Lupino’s first husband, Louis Hayward, had famously shot footage of the Marines’ assault on Tarawa in 1943. Scheib writes of these films’ “strong social sense, heritage of her Warners days…” (9)
Establishing sharp polarities between restricting urban space and organic and regenerative rural space adds to the realism of Lupino’s rape drama Outrage (1950). Such polarity, and such an organic conception of space is echoed in On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1951). Partly directed by and starring Lupino, the film’s cabin seems to ‘grow’ out of the setting, while Mary has a tree growing in the living room. In order to generate the middle class and working class spaces inhabited by the two wives of The Bigamist, Lupino had different cameramen shoot each milieu.
But whilst shot on similar terrain as Warners’ High Sierra, The Hitch-Hiker’s tight framing recalls the work of arch B movie directors Phil Karlson and Joseph H. Lewis. Indeed, the foreword to Lupino’s film seems reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘girl-and-a-gun’ B film ethos:
“This is the story of
a man and a gun and a car.
Although heat and dust are everywhere, Lupino focuses upon the faces of the men in the car, bathing each in a pool of light come nightfall. In what Mark Cousins describes as a “snake-like performance”, (10) William Talman as the killer hitcher Myers sleeps with one eye open because it doesn’t shut properly. Reiterating the mood, Editor Douglas Stewart at one point dissolves from Myers’ face to a stream slithering nearby.
Lupino’s work shows great sensitivity to its female protagonists. But The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist display equal sensitivity in regard to trapped men. For Scheib, passivity is a recurring theme in Lupino. Breaking with the classical goal-driven Hollywood hero ethos, The Bigamist ends equivocally, a loving husband genuinely unable to choose. After all the rampant masculinist conflict of ‘50s Hollywood cinema, Lupino’s interest in lives lived provisionally, and her lack of traditional closure, is realistic and refreshing.
Symptomatic too of Lupino’s feeling for male characters is The Hitch-Hiker’s respect for ethnicity. At one point, two Mexicans discuss the killer and his latest hostages in Spanish. Because we know that Myers plans to take them to Santa Rosalia, even if we don’t understand the language we can make sense of what the Mexicans are saying, perhaps even pick out words, given what we are expecting. Because we see a witness to Myers’ flight, elsewhere we can translate what he tells the Mexican police chief. Hollywood films seldom treat Latino nationals and their discourse with such respect. Here it is the Mexican police, rather than the FBI, who capture the killer. Making no concessions to the literary, the film’s terse dialogue and Lupino’s economy conveys her feeling for a strong story well told: “You’re lucky I hit an empty chamber. I had to use it a while back.”
Lupino believed she had been lucky. The opportunity to direct had sprung from her acting. The choice of projects owed something to her image. The television work sprang from ability. Scheib echoes this organic quality, Lupino’s respect for history, when writing of “small-scale rites-of-passage films - passage into womanhood, into nightmare, into lack of control.” (11) For Margaret Hinxman, the director was “a woman to whom everything matters, everything is important: the presidential elections, the war in Korea, the crime wave, human beings in general - she talked quickly, urgently, occasionally chopping the air with her hands when the words weren’t strong enough to make a point.” (12)
Near the beginning of a career in which authored films resonate with acted realities and acting resonates with social vision, Marie walks away from her dead lover. Assured that he has found peace at last, she smiles, claiming the last word of High Sierra: “Free.” The control that Lupino took over her work in the late-40s has helped create the conditions in which increasing numbers of women have found work in the American film industry. For writers around the world, her career has poignantly symbolized the possibility of authorship in Hollywood. In 1998 a box set of Lupino’s directed films became available in America. Maybe a season on the South Bank will show us what we’ve missed.
1. Lupino to Margaret Hinxman in Picturegoer, 27 December, 1952.
2. Farber in the 'Introduction to Negative Space', Manny Farber on the Movies, da Capo, 1998, p.3.
3. Quoted by Georgakas in 'Ida Lupino: Doing it Her Way', Cineaste, June 2000, p.36.
4. Farber, p.3.
5. Donovan in "Hollywood's First Feminist", Film and History, Vol. 26, Number 1-4, 1996, p.112.
6. Like The Bigamist, Lang's film also revolves around a man torn between two women, one of whom is played by Lupino.
7. Scheib in 'Round Table: Ronnie Scheib', in Metro, Number 109, 1997, p.4.
8. Lupino quoted by Donati in Ida Lupino: A Biography, UKP, p.155.
9. Scheib in 'Ida Lupino, Auteuress', Film Comment, January-February 1980, p.57.
10. Cousins in his Introduction to the Moviedrome screening of The Hitch-Hiker, BBC2, 5 June 2000.
11. Scheib, p.54.
12. Hinxman in Picturegoer, 1952.
A tribute to Ida Lupino, appears on the Classic Movies site. This contains other useful links as well.
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