One of my favorite actresses from Studio Era Hollywood is Ida Lupino; in fact, she’s one of the reasons I love Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941). Many people know of Lupino as a Hollywood actress, but few know her as a director, screenwriter, and producer who worked in film and television from the mid- to late 1940s through the 1960s.
In her early career as an actress Lupino starred in films like Peter Ibbetson (1935) with Gary Cooper and Ann Harding; Raoul Walsh’s Artists & Models (1937) with Jack Benny; and, of course, High Sierra. The TCM Notes on Lupino share a quote of hers featured in the August 7, 1995 issue of The Hollywood Reporter: “My father once said to me, ‘You’re born to be bad.’…And it was true. I made eight films in England before I came to America, and I played a tramp or a slut in all of them.” Lupino was best in her roles as the bad girl, the hardened girl, or even the low-class girl—they were roles that allowed a certain kind of power to shine through. Media scholar Pam Cook states that many see Lupino’s acting “as transcending the limitations of classical Hollywood cinema, empowering the heroines she played” (Queen of the ‘B’s 59). There was a quality to many of Lupino’s early roles that came across as a hard kind of strength.
In the late 1940s Lupino showed a different kind of strength when she created her own independent company (first named Emerald Productions and then The Filmakers in 1950) with her then-husband. While still acting she began to write, direct, and even produce some of her own films. Many argue that Lupino actually conformed to certain norms of the American film industry (although she primarily produced low-budget, B films); however, a brief overview of a few of her films says something different.
- 1949’s Not Wanted: Lupino co-produced and co-wrote this film, and some say she even directed it without credit. It tells the story of a young woman’s struggles with unwed motherhood.
- 1950’s Outrage: Co-written and directed by Lupino, Outrage centers on the repercussions of its main female lead’s rape.
- 1953’s The Bigamist: Lupino directed and starred in The Bigamist alongside Joan Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien. It was about a bigamist husband with two different families.
Lupino wrote and directed films about the “invisible” issues of 1950s America, those issues that Hollywood would not explicitly make films about.
Around this same time Lupino was also working in the world of television. However, her work in TV was much more sporadic. She often took guest director positions for popular television shows like The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island, and even Bewitched. Interestingly, Lupino was known for dealing with masculine (or rather non-feminine) genres; yet she often made it a point to downplay any power she may have had in the industry, to emphasize her non-threatening position as a female director.
She was often called “Mother” by her crews, and some claim her films that grappled with feminist issues (like unwed motherhood, rape, or bigamy) came “from an antifeminist perspective” (Diane Waldman 14); but despite any personal conservative ideals, Lupino still had a successful career in the “man’s world” that was the American entertainment industry of the mid-20th century. And this was something extraordinary at the time. In the November 16, 1972 issue ofThe Hollywood Reporter Lupino was quoted to have said: “I really just thought that a woman directing was an oddity…I never felt like I was on a crusade for a cause” (Mary Celeste Kearney and James M. Moran 140). Lupino was, as The New York Times called her, “a Woman of Spine on Both Sides of the Lens,” and in 1998 New York Women in Film & Television posthumously awarded her the Muse Award. At the risk of sounding contradictory, and frankly not doing the actress, director, writer, and producer justice, I would argue that during her career Lupino was a regular “Renaissance Man” of American media.
All parenthetical citations come from Queen of the ‘B’s: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera, a collection of essays edited by Annette Kuhn. Each individual author’s names are noted in the text.
A PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture, Katherine studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been fascinated with film since she could remember.