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Though Paramount had imported her from England as an ingénue, Ida Lupino proved more than merely wise beyond her years when she landed in Hollywood in 1934. The 16-year-old scion of a British acting dynasty, Lupino evinced a husky sensuality that had won her a reputation in her homeland as the British Jean Harlow. Plugged into programmers, the progressive Lupino swiftly grew dissatisfied and shifted to Warner Brothers, landing edgier roles in Raoul Walsh's "They Drive by Night" (1940) and "High Sierra" (1941) with Humphrey Bogart. A lead role as a steely murderess in Charles Vidor's "Ladies in Retirement" (1941) proved an apt showcase for Lupino's acting abilities, but she always had her sights set higher. With second husband Collier Young, Lupino crafted a string of mostly independent dramas with an emphasis on social issues, among them the unwed mother meller "Not Wanted" (1949) and "Outrage" (1950), which concerned the aftermath of a brutal rape. Lupino's "The Hitch-Hiker" (1952) was at once a skewering of the fragile male psyche and an important entry in the suspense subgenre of film noir. Diverting her efforts as a director-for-hire to television following her marriage to actor Howard Duff,...
Though Paramount had imported her from England as an ingénue, Ida Lupino proved more than merely wise beyond her years when she landed in Hollywood in 1934. The 16-year-old scion of a British acting dynasty, Lupino evinced a husky sensuality that had won her a reputation in her homeland as the British Jean Harlow. Plugged into programmers, the progressive Lupino swiftly grew dissatisfied and shifted to Warner Brothers, landing edgier roles in Raoul Walsh's "They Drive by Night" (1940) and "High Sierra" (1941) with Humphrey Bogart. A lead role as a steely murderess in Charles Vidor's "Ladies in Retirement" (1941) proved an apt showcase for Lupino's acting abilities, but she always had her sights set higher. With second husband Collier Young, Lupino crafted a string of mostly independent dramas with an emphasis on social issues, among them the unwed mother meller "Not Wanted" (1949) and "Outrage" (1950), which concerned the aftermath of a brutal rape. Lupino's "The Hitch-Hiker" (1952) was at once a skewering of the fragile male psyche and an important entry in the suspense subgenre of film noir. Diverting her efforts as a director-for-hire to television following her marriage to actor Howard Duff, Lupino made occasional film appearances, albeit often in such drive-in fodder as "The Devil's Rain" (1976) and "Food of the Gods" (1976). At the time of her death in 1995, Lupino was only beginning to be reevaluated as a pioneering female director, as well as a guiding hand in the gestation of American independent cinema.
Ida Lupino was born in London on Feb. 4, 1918. In the weeks leading up to her birth during the First World War, German triplanes had rained bombs down on the city, killing 68. The terror from above had yielded to dense fog, punctured by a thunderstorm - a dramatic beginning for a future world class actress. Born into a theatrical dynasty, Lupino's father Stanley was a music hall sensation and her ancestry was rich in actors, dancers, singers, puppeteers and tightrope walkers. The success of Lupino's father, grandfather and uncles had resulted in family friendship with such literary figures as Charles Dickens and "Peter Pan" creator J. M. Barrie, while Edward VII, son of Britain's long-seated Queen Victoria, had dubbed the Lupino clan "The Royal Family of Greasepaint." With Stanley Lupino's increasing fortunes as a popular entertainer, the family was able to relocate from a modest home in Dulwich to a Tudor mansion in Streatham. Ida Lupino grew up in a home full of theatrical memorabilia, and sang her first songs with her younger sister and parents around the family piano.
When Lupino was eight years old, her parents departed for a tour of the United States and engagements on Broadway. While she and her sister were deposited at the Clarence House, a boarding school for girls in West Brighton, Lupino wrote plays in which she also played the lead roles. Over the next few years, Lupino matured into a young woman of remarkable beauty, particularized by alabaster skin and piercing blue eyes. She made her film debut as an extra in "The Love Race" (1931), starring her father and directed by her cousin, Lupino Lane. A German director visiting the set had taken note of her attractiveness and offered her a role in his upcoming production - later cutting her one scene because Lupino was prettier than his leading lady. Choosing education over furthering her career at this young age, Lupino enrolled in London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In her second term, she was cast in a production of "Heartbreak House" by playwright George Bernard Shaw himself. When not performing or studying technique, Lupino often accompanied her father to jobs at Elstree Studio, where she observed Stanley Lupino perfecting his craft before the camera.
Lupino returned to cinema with a lead role in Allan Dwan's "Her First Affaire" (1932). The role of a Lolita-type homewrecker had been pitched initially to her mother, Connie Emerald, then in her mid-thirties; accompanying Emerald to the try-out, the 14-year-old Lupino caught the eye of Dwan, who cast her instead. With her hair bleached for her star turn in the Sterling Films release, Lupino was promoted as the English Jean Harlow, yet she made relatively few films in Great Britain. She played the resourceful sister of accused murderer John Mills in the quota quickie "The Ghost Camera" (1933), edited by David Lean, and a princess in the musical "Prince of Arcadia" (1933). Tapped by Paramount Pictures in America to star in their upcoming production of "Alice in Wonderland" (1933), Lupino proved too mature for the role (which went instead to Charlotte Henry) and was slotted into Erle C. Kenton's "Search for Beauty" (1934), in which she starred with Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe as a pair of professional swimmers navigating the uncertain waters of the publishing industry.
At Paramount, Lupino's initial assignments were largely decorous. She played second female leads in Henry Hathaway's "Peter Ibbetson" (1935), as a potential love interest to star Gary Cooper, and Lewis Milestone's "Anything Goes" (1936), as Bing Crosby's shipboard chippy. It was not until she outmaneuvered Vivien Leigh for the role of a hot-tempered Cockney model in William Wellman's "The Light that Failed" (1936), opposite Ronald Colman, that Lupino began to attract attention as an actress of gravitas and dramatic merit. Signing a contract with Warner Brothers, Lupino scored in a string of well-received programmers. In Raoul Walsh's "They Drive by Night" (1940), she upstaged both George Raft and soon-to-be A-list star Humphrey Bogart as the scheming wife of a trucking magnate who is driven by lust to murder. She reteamed with Bogart for Walsh's "High Sierra" (1941), as a rootless gamine in love with Bogart's hardened recidivist Mad Dog Earle. In Michael Curtiz' adaptation of Jack London's "The Sea Wolf" (1941), Lupino kept the peace between autocratic skipper Edward G. Robinson and hunky landlubber John Garfield.
For Columbia Pictures, Lupino defaulted to her natural British accent to play a guilt-wracked murderess in Charles Vidor's psychological thriller "Ladies in Retirement" (1941), in which she co-starred with Louis Hayward, her husband since 1938. Back at Warners, Lupino enjoyed a salary boost but grew dissatisfied with roles she considered insignificant. She tangled often with studio head Jack Warner, refusing parts in "King's Row" (1942) and "Castle in the Clouds" (1942), therefore winding up on suspension more than once. In 1943, she was named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics for her poignant turn as a dying woman who recounts the bullet points of her tragic fall from grace in Vincent Sherman's "The Hard Way" (1943). Despite the honor, Lupino continued to despair over the dearth of good roles in Hollywood and often referred to herself as "a poor man's Bette Davis." Over the next few years, she found a niche in shadowy dramas that anticipated the postwar film noir thrillers, including Archie Mayo's "Moontide" (1942) with Jean Gabin and Jean Negulesco's "Deep Valley" (1947) with Dane Clark.
Lupino left Warners in 1947. After starring in Negulesco's scorching noir entry "Road House" (1948), she sought to improve her industry cachet by branching off into producing. With second husband, Columbia production executive Collier Young, she put money into the independent crime drama "The Judge" (1949), directed by Elmer Clifton. The feature was made under the banner of Emerald Pictures, which Lupino named for her mother, in partnership with Anson Bond, heir to America's first national chain of clothing stores. The film turned a profit, encouraging Lupino and Young to develop a Paul Jarrico script about an unwed mother that had been pressed upon them by Warners producer Jerry Wald and his brother Marvin. When Columbia head Harry Cohn refused to back "Not Wanted" (1949), Lupino stamped it as an Emerald Pictures film, overseeing all aspects of production, from script rewrites and budgeting to selecting the wardrobe. When director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack in preproduction, Lupino stepped in to take his place, calling the shots on set from the first day of shooting in February 1949.
Because the then 31-year-old Lupino was not a member of the Director's Guild of America, she downplayed her own significance behind the camera of "Not Wanted," deferring for the record to the ailing Clifton, who retained official credit. Working quickly, Lupino shot the film guerilla style on the streets of Los Angeles to reduce the necessity for and the cost of building sets. Despite the freedom of working outside of the restrictive prevue of the studio system, the first-timer remained dependent on her investors, some of whom evinced conservative inclinations. When one backer objected to a scene in which heroine Sally Forrest shares a boarding house room with an African-American woman, Lupino grudgingly cut the offending footage - but then included business featuring an Asian actress to spite her bigoted benefactor. Though she was not Hollywood's first female director it was still novel for a woman to be calling the shots on a feature film. Lupino's reputation spread quickly through the studios, with many A-list actresses demanding private screenings of "Not Wanted." Budgeted at just over $150,000, the film grossed over a million.
Retooling Emerald Pictures as The Filmmakers, Lupino and Young got back to business with "Never Fear" (1949), a drama concerned with a young dancer ankled by. Their next film, "Outrage" (1950), about the aftermath of a rape, was distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. Overseeing publicity and distribution, RKO head Howard Hughes gave the film an expensive push, complete with press junket and a splashy premiere preceded by a live stage show. Though Hughes' mishandling of RKO would soon bankrupt the studio, "Outrage" was one of its few moneymakers. Profits from The Filmmaker's next outing, the sports drama "Hard, Fast and Beautiful" (1951), disappeared due to RKO's creative bookkeeping. To keep her debts under control, Lupino continued to act, playing the blind sister of killer Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray's "On Dangerous Ground" (1952).
Arguably Lupino's best-regarded film outside of "High Sierra," "The Hitch-Hiker" (1953) pitted fishing buddies Edmund O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy against escaped killer William Tallman, who browbeats the married men for being soft while forcing them to drive deeper into Mexico. If her previous movies had allowed Lupino the opportunity to shore up the lopsided racial politics of Hollywood, "The Hitch-Hiker" gave her the chance to probe the fragile male psyche. She followed suit with the self-financed "The Bigamist" (1953), with O'Brien as a businessman juggling wives in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Lupino appeared in the supporting role of O'Brien's L.A. missus, while distribution was handled by The Filmmakers under their own aegis. Despite the apparent solidarity of forming their own distribution arm, Lupino and Collier Young had divorced in 1951. While Young had taken up with "Bigamist" co-star Joan Fontaine, Lupino sought solace in the arms of actor Howard Duff, to whom she would remain married for the next 30 years.
Over the course of the next two decades, Lupino continued to act sporadically in such films as "Women's Prison" (1955), "The Big Knife" (1955) and "While the City Sleeps" (1956). For "Private Hell 36" (1954), directed by Don Siegel for The Filmmakers, she shared a writing credit with ex-husband Young and co-starred with Duff. She also began directing episodic television for the networks. Helming multiple segments of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS, 1955-1962), "Have Gun, Will Travel" (CBS, 1957-1963), the anthology series "Thriller" (NBC, 1960-62) and Desilu Productions' "The Untouchables" (ABC, 1959-1963), she developed a reputation for understanding and anticipating the needs of actors. Lupino was famous for a punchy, unflinching directing style that was branded as masculine despite the fact that her aesthetic was in many ways a refutation of the patriarchal perspective. Paradoxically, Lupino's next opportunity to direct a feature came with the girls school comedy "The Trouble with Angels" (1966), starring Hayley Mills as a convent cut-up and Rosalind Russell as her autocratic Mother Superior.
Though she was finished in features by the end of the decade, the aging Lupino continued to work exhaustively in film and television. She had fun teaming with Duff as super-villain Dr. Cassandra in a 1968 episode of "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) and played a vicious jailhouse screw in the TV movie "Women in Chains" (ABC, 1972). As her looks coarsened with age, she was cast in earthier roles than those suggesting refinement. She played the matriarch of an Arizona rodeo dynasty in Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" (1972), opposite Steve McQueen, and headed another Western clan that is literally bedeviled in Robert Fuest's "The Devil's Rain" (1976), which featured a young John Travolta in a bit role. In Bert Gordon's ignoble "Food of the Gods" (1976), Lupino played an ill-starred farmer's wife whose use of goopy space stuff as chicken feed dooms her to a messy demise in the jaws of a giant rat. Her final film role was as another villain, the mastermind of an armored car heist carried out by teenagers, in "My Boys are Good Boys" (1978), executive produced by co-star Ralph Meeker.
Divorced from Duff in 1984, Lupino moved from fashionable Brentwood to the more affordable San Fernando Valley on the far side of the Hollywood Hills. Struggling with long-term alcoholism, she grew reclusive in retirement, estranging herself even from her adult daughter. Duff's death in July 1990 hit the former actress hard and her final years were marked by bouts of depression and assorted illnesses, among them a mental deterioration that had first manifested itself as a difficulty remembering her lines on the sets of television shows. Diagnosed with cancer, she suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995 and died in her Burbank home on August 3rd of that year, at the age of 77. Cruelly coincident with Lupino's passing was a burgeoning renewal of public interest in her feature film work and her championing among film historians as an important figure in the development of American cinema in the second half of the 20th Century.
By Richard Harland Smith
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Lupino's birth year is open to question: other dates given are 1914, 1916 and 1919.
"'My father once said to me, 'You're born to be bad,' she recalled. '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.'" --From TThe Hollywood Reporter, August 7, 1995.
"Although she won a best actress award from the New York Film Critics in 1943 for her role as a domineering sister in The Hard Way", she came to view her Hollywood acting career a failure and once referred to herself as 'the poor man's Bette Davis.'" --From The Hollywood Reporter, August 7, 1995.
"Her films [as a director] display the obsessions and consistencies of a true auteur. ... What is most interesting about her films are not her stories of unwed motherhood or the tribulation of career women, but the way in which she uses male actors: particulary in "The Bigamist" and "The Hitchhiker" (both 1953), Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir." --Richard Koszarski in "Hollywood Directors 1914-40" (Oxford University Press, 1976)
"She regarded her own directorial career as an unconventional choice for a woman, and had remarked in an interview that she'd rather be cooking her man's dinner. However, the content and technical virtuosity of her work belie this statement and point to a very wily director who knows the uses of conventionality as a tool." --Barbara Scharres in The Film Center Gazette (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, February 1987).
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