Mother Directs: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera

by Ruthe Stein

Two of Ida Lupino’s strongest films as a director will be shown for free Sunday November 22 at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco. The Bigamist screens at 11 a.m. followed by The Hitch-Hiker at 12:30 p.m.

Ida Lupino liked to be called “mother” on a movie set. She even had

The Mother of Us All

inscribed on her director’s chair. She felt the cast and crew would try harder if they considered her as family.

In a broad definition of the word, Lupino, who directed seven feature films and more than 100 TV episodes between 1949 and 1968, was mother to future generations of actresses with the guts and wherewithal to secure their place behind a movie camera.

Ida magazineAmong those owing a debt: Angelina Jolie, whose third movie as a director, By the Sea, opened recently; Natalie Portman who helmed the Hebrew language film A Tale of Love and Darkness; and Elizabeth Banks, director of the surprise box office hit Pitch Perfect 2.

Lupino’s influence isn’t limited to actresses turned director. When Clint Eastwood was shooting Rawhide, in the early 1960s he would visit the next-door lot just to watch her direct Have Gun Will Travel. He found her riding a horse alongside the cameraman to get action shots.

Film critic Carrie Rickey interviewed Eastwood, “He said to me, ‘I believed that if an actress could become a director, it kind of made me think I could be a director.’’’

But Lupino’s contribution to cinema history is only faintly remembered. She never received the recognition she deserved — no Directors Guild awards or Oscars, not even a nomination. After accumulating three director credits, Lupino was trotted out at the 1950 Academy Awards to announce Best Director. The winner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, nervously joked about the only woman in the Directors Guild.

Belonging to that male fortress, whose members were routinely identified as “gentlemen and Miss Lupino,” is just one distinction. Lupino was the first marquee-name actress to helm a movie in the sound era, the first to direct herself (in The Bigamist), the first and still only woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker) and almost certainly the only one to have a jazz song written about her. Ida Lupino, composed by bandleader Carla Bley, has an upbeat tempo mixed with melancholy notes reflective of Lupino’s complicated personality.

Ida directing“Once I started directing I realized how tough it must have been for her and what courage she must have had,” said Lee Grant, the first prominent film actress after Lupino to turn director with Tell Me a Riddle in 1976.

“She could only do it because she was tough and funny and the men loved her for being one of the guys. She acted truthfully and with an intensity not many actors I can think of have, and she brought that same intensity of focus to directing,” Grant said.

Film critic and historian David Thomson believes Lupino was shortchanged as an actress. After High Sierra, in which she was billed over Humphrey Bogart, it looked like “she was going to become a very big star. It didn’t quite click for her. But I think she was wonderful in The Hard Way and They Drive By Night.”

they drive

Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart in They Drive By Night (1940) directed by Raoul Walsh.

Collier Young with Ida Lupino.

Collier Young with Ida Lupino.

Lupino often found herself suspended by the studio for turning down roles she considered beneath her. Restless and quick-witted, she turned to writing movie scripts and producing films with her second husband, Collier Young.

“Collier was a very smart guy and I think he encouraged her to direct. I am not trying to undermine her achievement. But I think he was an important element in what came to pass,” Thomson said.

When director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack a few days before cameras were to roll on Not Wanted, Lupino, the film’s co-writer and producer, took his place. All of 31, she proved a natural behind a camera.

IDA explainsShe soon established work habits like staying up all night dictating ideas for the next day’s shoot. Throughout her directing career she stayed on a tight shooting schedule by studiously preparing and never appearing indecisive.

“I would never think of indulging in what has come to be known as a woman’s right to change her mind,” Lupino says in Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati. “As soon as I get a script I go to work on it. I study and prepare and when the time comes to shoot, my mind is usually made up and I go ahead right or wrong.”

Lupino’s views on how women should act in a male environment would not be readily endorsed today. “Women who wish to smash into the world of men usually aren’t very feminine,” she says in her autobiography Behind the Camera.

“But I retain every feminine trait while directing (including maintaining manicured red fingernails). Men prefer it that way. They are more cooperative if they see you are fundamentally of the weaker sex. At times I pretend to a cameraman to know less than I do. That way I get more cooperation,” she said, adding that she never once blew up on a set. “A woman cannot afford to do that. They’re waiting for it.”

Ida Lupino directing Hard, Fast and Beautiful!

Ida Lupino directing Hard, Fast and Beautiful!

Lupino instinctively knew how to light her actresses and had a sharp eye for casting, giving Hugh O’Brien, Sally Forrest and Keefe Brasselle early breaks. Producers loved her because she looked for ways to save money, bragging about bringing in a film in 13 days and for under $200,000.

“There is no fat in her movies. She gave you the lean cuts and that is all you needed,” Rickey said.

Lupino’s cost-cutting devices included recycling a set from an old John Garfield movie and giving her female cast members access to her clothes. For a scene in Not Wanted of a woman giving birth, she engaged her personal physician to officiate at the delivery for free.

Not Wanted, the story of a single woman enduring an unwanted pregnancy, set a pattern for Lupino of tackling tough social issues that male filmmakers wouldn’t touch. She went on to deal with rape in Outrage, bigamy in The Bigamist and the polio epidemic in Never Fear. Martin Scorsese has called these films “realistic with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.”

bigamistLike several of her movies, Never Fear grew out of Lupino’s personal experience. She was stricken with polio as a child leaving her with a bum hand. Born into a famed British acting family, she was pushed into films while still a teenager by her mother Connie Emerald, whose own desire to be a movie star had been thwarted. In Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Lupino created a stage mother based partially on her own who lives vicariously through her tennis prodigy daughter.

The Bigamist (1953) also borrows from Lupino’s life. She desperately wanted a baby but her husband had experienced a childhood disease that left him sterile.

In the movie the title character’s wife, played by Joan Fontaine, cannot conceive. When he (Edmund O’Brien) accidentally impregnates a woman he hardly knows (played by Lupino) in Los Angeles he feels compelled, though he has a wife in San Francisco, to marry her. Once discovered, he attempts to defend his messy arrangement to authorities.

Joan Bigamist Bigamist ida

By portraying his circumstances, Lupino paints him as a sympathetic character instead of a criminal.

Personal relationships on the set were a bit unusual. Lupino had an affair with Howard Duff, with whom she became pregnant, while still married to Young, a producer on The Bigamist. By the time the film was shot he was married to Fontaine, and the couple became godparents to Lupino and Duff’s daughter. Lupino directed herself for the first and only time—she found it stressful and confusing.

HitchhikerIn the early 1950s, Lupino turned down what would have been her fifth women’s picture in favor of a hard-edged noir, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) starring a primarily male cast. This was a departure for Lupino. Based on a real-life mass murderer, a psychotic escaped convict (creepily played by William Tallman– remembered from the Perry Mason TV show) terrorizes two fishermen (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) who make the mistake of picking him up. “This may be the first movie where I really felt the sweat and bile of male vulnerability,” comments critic Carrie Rickey.

idacameraAn Impressive Director’s Slate.

Here is more information on the other movies Ida Lupino directed:

Not Wanted (aka The Wrong Rut) (1949) – A young single woman’s life is thrown into turmoil when she becomes pregnant in a brief relationship. When director Elmer Clifton became ill Lupino, co-writer and producer took over helming. She avoids sensationalizing the subject by focusing on the distraught mother-to-be. The arrogant jazz musician who impregnates her is played by Leo Penn, Sean’s father. Released as a “sex-ed feature” by Something Weird Video with actual birth-of-a-baby color footage spliced in. not-wanted
Never Fear (aka Young Lovers) (1949) – While the subject is dated with the eradication of polio, this film is a brave attempt to shed light on a once terrifying disease through the story of a dancer struck down by polio at the height of her career. Lupino shot at an actual rehab facility for polio victims—there’s a touching scene of patients square dancing in wheelchairs. Never fear
Outrage (1950) – Lupino was way ahead of her time by daring to make a movie about rape and its catastrophic aftermath. The victim is a newly engaged office worker with a sunny disposition and everything to look forward to. In the rape scene, Lupino carefully implies more horror than she shows– the victim is seen running from her attacker, a shadowy figure, as background music builds tension, shifting from upbeat to ominous. outrage
Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) – Several of Lupino’s movies, including this entertaining one, were made for Howard Hughes’ studio, RKO. Hughes, who went for titles that implied action and sex, came up with Hard, Fast and Beautiful. Again proving beyond her time, Lupino foresaw the advent of big-time womens’ sports in this tale of a champion female tennis player pressured by her stage mother to accept thinly veiled bribes. Claire Trevor is truly scary in this Mommie Dearest role. Hardfast

Lupino was one of the first from the film world to recognize the potential of television and found a home there directing a wide range of shows, including The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, Thriller, The Bill Cosby Show, The Fugitive and the pilot for Gilligan’s Island.

Ida Lupino deserves the last word on her pioneering career:

“I held my own in the toughest kind of man’s world.”

An A&E documentary, Ida Lupino – Through the Lens (44 min)

Portrait of Ida Lupino by Scotty Welbounre, 1941

Portrait of Ida Lupino by Scotty Welbounre, 1941

A list of Lupino’s credits at IMDB as actress, writer, producer and director.

Senses of Cinema published an in-depth study in April 2009.

A terrific gallery of Ida Lupino photos is at The Red List

Movies, TV shows and books by and about Ida Lupino available on Amazon.

ida flower

Portrait by Madison Lacy, 1940s

Trailer Gallery

The Bigamist

Eddie Muller introduces The Hitchhiker.

Not Wanted

Never Fear


Hard, Fast and Beautiful

Mr. Adams and Eve, starring Ida Lupino and Howard Duff.

This Is Your Life, Ida Lupino

EDF FilmStrip(This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 15, 2015.)

Staff portrait of ruthe stein shot on 4/6/06. by Eric Luse Ran on: 07-08-2007Ruthe Stein is the founder and co-director of the Mostly British Film Festival, annually bringing the best cinema from the UK, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and India to the Bay Area. She is the movie correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the paper’s former movie critic and movie editor. Ruthe also produces special film programs, including movie tributes to Frank Sinatra and Ida Lupino. Ruthe teaches film courses at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Happy holidays

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s