Of course, it was expected, maybe even pre-destined given her family’s show business roots, that she would become an actress.
But it was what Ida Lupino did after securing a successful career as a movie actress that was truly remarkable for her time. She had the courage to challenge the status quo and in doing so, became a trailblazing film director.
Ida Lupino was born in Britain during a German Zeppelin attack in 1918. Perhaps this dramatic entry into the world signaled the excitement that would follow her throughout life. The Lupino family were “acting royalty” with a long history in the dramatic arts. It was assumed young Ida would enter the family business so when she asked her father for her own stage, the die was cast.
Ida Lupino in, Cavalcade of America
Of course, Stanley Lupino did not build just any stage. Ida’s had an orchestra pit, lighting and seating for 100 people! And, at the age of 15, Ida accompanied her mother, actress Connie Emerald, to one of her auditions. While her mother did not get the role, Ida did and went on to star as a sultry “Lolita” type in Her First Affaire. After acting in five more British films, Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures came calling.
In Hollywood, Ida was cast as the token blond in decorative roles until getting her break in the film The Light That Failed (1939). Ida’s critically acclaimed role as a vengeful prostitute lead to a contract with Warner Brothers and meatier roles starring alongside Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1941) and The Sea Wolf (1941) with Edward G. Robinson.
Armed with success and hungry for more meaningful roles, Ida refused roles that she thought were trifling. By challenging the status quo, Ida was often suspended for insubordination but didn’t care. She went on to be named Best Actress in 1943 by the New York Film Critics for her role in The Hard Way (1943).
Despite the win and her success in a number of movies, Ida considered herself little more than a “poor man’s Bette Davis.”
Eventually, after a few more unfulfilling roles with Warner Brothers, Ida knew it was time to make a change in 1947.
Together with her second husband, Collier Young, Ida formed a production company, Emerald Films, named after her mother. This launched Ida’s new career starting with the film, The Judge (1949), directed by Elmer Clifton, and later Not Wanted. The first project made a profit and her second tackled the controversial topic of unwed mothers.
When the director suffered a heart attack during the pre-production of Not Wanted, Ida took over and because she wasn’t a member of the Director’s Guild, Ida gave Clifton full director credit.
This didn’t bother Ida who knew she had gained valuable experience filming on the streets of Los Angeles in a documentary, gritty style. Not Wanted was made for $150,000 in 1949 and grossed $1 million-a bonafide success!
Ida hatched a plan, now popular in the industry, to film quickly to keep the budget low. Under her newly renamed film company, The Filmakers, Ida kept her budget to just $200,000 but ensured, like all her films, that it had a “ring of truth”. It explains why they resonated with middle class America in very real and empathetic ways.
During 1949-1955, Ida directed her most important and memorable films using a distinct and singular style that highlighted the psychological upheaval of the characters. Again, she wanted to compensate for the discriminatory and diminutive roles that women were usually given.
She once wrote: “There was an absolute and ironclad caste system in the film capital in the 1940s and 1950s. Its primary purpose was to exclude females.”
Small in stature (5’2”tall), Ida was feminine and soft-spoken, but she never felt she needed to rationalize her ideas and instructions to her mostly male crews for who she was. Instead, she gained their respect by “keeping a feminine approach [knowing] men hated bossy females.”
She was savvy and used her power saying, “You do not tell a man; you suggest to him.”
In the films that followed, Ida received full directorial credit for Never Fear, which focused on the plight of a young dancer who contracted polio. The illness was greatly feared at the time because there was still no vaccine. Critics called her next film Outrage a directorial masterpiece.
Outrage told the compassionate tale of a rape victim’s journey without ever showing the actual rape scene or using the word “rape”, as censors at the time would not allow it. By addressing the issue of rape, Ida called out the nuanced acceptance of male aggression in society.
Ida Lupino and Howard Duff in Mr. Adams and Eve, 1958
This was a bold move with far-reaching implications knowing that women today still face it, especially in light of the “Me Too” movement.
Over time, Filmaker continued to gain prominence, especially when Clair Trevor starred as the power-hungry mother of a young tennis star in Hard, Fast and Beautiful,. This turned the tables with the portrayal of strong women and weak men. This movie led to new and more explorative films like her popular all-male cast in the film noir, The Hitch-Hiker. The story is loosely based on Billy Cook, a serial killer who murdered 6 people during a 22-day trip between Missouri and California in 1950-51.
As a director, Ida went to great lengths researching and interviewing two men Cook had held hostage during this spree. She also visited Cook when he was imprisoned at San Quentin. This detail made Hitch-Hiker, for some critics, the only true film noir ever directed by a female.
One of the last films Ida made under Filmaker was The Bigamist. Both the title and the subject matter were unusual, as was the casting. The film’s protagonist (Edmund O’Brien) is a traveling salesman with two wives, portrayed by Joan Fontaine and Ida; one living on each coast. The film was reflected Lupino’s situation – divorced from Collier in real life yet still a business partner. And, Fontaine, became the second Mrs. Collier but only when he was in Hollywood!
When distribution problems with RKO Pictures (one of the big five studios in the Golden Age) arose, Filmaker was dissolved and Ida stepped back into acting. She took roles in television and directed for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables and Have Gun Will Travel. She worked through the 1970s and made her last movie The Trouble With Angels, starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills.
Nominated for three Emmy Awards for acting, Ida also became the second woman accepted as a member of the Directors Guild of America. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for film, one for television) and her work leaves no doubt. Ida left an indelible mark on 20th century American cinema, inspiring future female directors.