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The Bigamist

The Bigamist(1953)

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teaser The Bigamist (1953)

Imagine for a moment that you are a woman in a man's world: an actress turned director, with your own production company. Your company has overextended itself into unfamiliar territory, and its future rests on you. You assemble a bunch of Oscar®-winning actors and convince them to work for free, in exchange for a share of the profits. But those profits are in doubt, thanks to your decision to venture into self-distribution.

Now, let's say that your investors for this no-budget marvel have rejected every one of your story ideas save one: a story about a man with two wives. And just for toppers, let's imagine that you've cast yourself as one of these wives, and as the other woman you've brought in your own real-life rival in your own, very public, romantic entanglements.

Stressful? Perhaps, but you've just assembled the pieces of a bona fide soap opera so fascinating that you're all but guaranteed popular attention regardless of how well-or how poorly-you do your job.

Meet Ida Lupino-actress, writer, director, producer, and all at the tender age of 33. Not another woman in Hollywood even came close to such an accomplishment, not at the dawn of the Father Knows Best 1950s.

Not that strong women were few and far between back then-in fact, quite the opposite. During the war years, sisters were doin' it for themselves. When the boys came back, they found a capable and confident workforce dominated by women. Men retook the reins, but it was not so simple-their gals had gotten used to playing the same games, and the economy favored two-earner couples. Social mores continued to expect that good hubbies were the sole breadwinners, and believed that if a wife worked it was a matter of scandal, but the misfit between those increasingly outdated attitudes and the changing economic landscape caused no small amount of sexual tension. Just the stuff for dramatic movies.

Ida Lupino and her then husband Collier Young founded their own independent production company The Filmakers (where's the missing m? You tell me) in 1950 and launched a series of "social issue" pictures about: a dancer who gets polio, a strained mother-daughter relationship, rape. These were made-for-Lifetime movies two generations beforehand.

But Lupino was more complex than that. She could play steely-hard better than anyone, and she had a hard-boiled sensitivity. So she dabbled in noir as well, and her 1952 thriller The Hitch-Hiker was a white-knuckle suspense flick about a killer who takes a pair of philandering husbands hostage; it stands today as one of the most intense thrillers of the noir era. It was her biggest commercial success, but while the critical accolades flowed easily her way, most of the cash flowed into the coffers of distributor RKO.

So, Collier Young suggested that they simply walk away from RKO and distribute their own films. It would mean more risk up front, but substantially increase the (hoped for) rewards. The plan was to produce a quorum of flicks for $125,000 apiece, but in the end the investors only backed one, The Bigamist (1953).

Despite the provocative title (and the fact that it only barely passed muster with the Production Code censors as it was), The Bigamist is a solidly melodramatic and not at all sexy piece of work. Doughy frontman Edmond O'Brien (see also The Hitch-Hiker, D.O.A. (1950), The Killers (1946), and other noir fare) plays Harry Graham, a traveling salesman based in San Francisco. His wife Eve (Joan Fontaine, Hitchcock's Rebecca, 1940) is an ice-bitch corporate executive. In a reversal of typical women's movie tropes, Harry is hungry for family, intimacy, and emotional connection--but she's all business. In a cruel stereotype, it turns out she is literally barren, unable to have a child of her own any more real than the tin robot she buys in anticipation of a kid unlikely to ever come. Lacking any human closeness at home, Harry wanders. On a sales trip in Los Angeles, he kicks off an affair with Phyllis, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant (Lupino). This chick is tough as nails, unsentimental, and a little coarse, but she's a little more earthy and real than Eve. When Phyl (50s films often featured rugged dames with mannish names) turns up pregnant, Harry does the honorable thing and marries her-but as his wife is grieving her father's death and trying to adopt a child of her own, he feels unable to divorce her just yet. So, he straddles the two marriages. Neither life is particularly desirable, neither woman is a "bad guy," and the whole situation is more sad than tawdry.

When the investigator for the adoption agency (Edmund Gwenn, Santa Claus himself from Miracle on 34th Street, 1947) starts to look into Harry's squirrely-ness, the jig is up. Cue a flashback and a courtroom scene - but because this is a low-budget art film and not a formulaic major studio release, don't expect a tidy conclusion or satisfying coda.

Mainstream movies were bifurcating in the 1950s. Exploitation pix aimed at teens dumbed the form down for big profits, while foreign imports tended to appeal to more refined tastes. Lupino savvily aimed her film at the latter crowd, expressly offering adult-themed drama that one couldn't find on TV and otherwise might have to endure subtitled pretension to enjoy in theaters. Along with the serious treatment of a controversial subject, Lupino giddily tossed in some fun in-jokes as well: at one point, Harry takes a "star tour" of Hollywood and sees the palatial retreat of Edmund Gwenn, who is of course one of the actors in the movie.

The press made much of the curious overlap between fact and fiction in the movie. The film depicts a man who is married to both Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino-a situation well understood by the film's screenwriter Collier Young, who could basically claim the same thing. Not long after founding The Filmakers, Young and Lupino divorced, but remained professional partners. Young quickly married Fontaine, while Lupino married actor Howard Duff; the two couples were on good terms and socialized together. "We want to be grown up about it all," said Young; "Ida and I are old friends," added Fontaine, "I knew her before Collier did."

According to Joan Fontaine, the original plan had Jane Greer playing the Eve role, and when Greer dropped out the production was left in a quandary, short of time, short of funds. Considering it her "wifely duty," Joan stepped up to take the role, and agreed to defer her salary so long as Ida agreed to direct-although Lupino had once vowed never to direct herself.

Unintentionally, the consequence of these choices would echo throughout the film in subtle ways. Joan Fontaine's onscreen character is a cold fish, barren in all senses of the word, while Ida Lupino's role is the more wifely, even if she plays it with a street-hardened edge. Privately, the two women were living similar roles. Ida Lupino had found what her biographer William Donati called "everything she wanted: fame, fortune, beauty, a career, Howard Duff and a child." By contrast, in her autobiography, Joan Fontaine writes bitterly about what she refers to as "the aridity of householding and child care," saying that "the web of domesticity tightened about us." The onscreen depiction of the two women also reinforces the distinction between them. Fontaine's scenes are somewhat flat, almost perfunctory, whereas Lupino's scenes are full of noir atmosphere and rich expressive shadows. Fontaine recalls, "after shooting all my scenes, director Ida saw the rushes, didn't like the photography, and changed cameramen before actress Ida began her own scenes!" What Fontaine remembers as a flash of feminine vanity may have been more than that-director Lupino had plenty of good thematic reason to depict the two households in fundamentally distinct lights.

Production took place in June and July of 1953 at a rental soundstage at Republic Studios. Director Ida hashed out a cut with one editor, then fired him and continued with Stanford Tischler until she was happy with the structure: a noir-style investigative opening, a flashback sequence delving into the characters and their drama, finishing with a melodramatic courtroom sequence. The finished 79 minute film was sent out on Christmas Day 1953 to positive reviews but performed poorly at the box office. The Bigamist spelled the end of The Filmakers. Lupino would not direct again for a dozen years, not until 1966's The Trouble with Angels.

Lupino's Filmakers group may have indulged in made-for-cable melodrama, but this oddball gem is something the Lifetime audience would certainly reject. The Bigamist stands today as a rare treat: a woman-made "woman's picture" that avoids sentimentality and obvious emotion, a low-budget film that eschews genre convention and revels in top-drawer acting talent, a somber study of life-altering decisions that makes marriage seem more like a curse than a blessing. For a happily married woman at the top of her craft, her film bespeaks a quiet anguish and cynicism one doesn't often find outside the world of film noir.

Producer: Robert Eggenweiler, Collier Young
Director: Ida Lupino
Screenplay: Collier Young, Larry Marcus (story), Lou Schor (story)
Cinematography: George Diskant
Film Editing: Stanford Tischler
Art Direction: James Sullivan
Music: Leith Stevens
Cast: Joan Fontaine (Eve Graham), Ida Lupino (Phyllis Martin), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Jordan), Edmond O'Brien (Harry Graham), Kenneth Tobey (Tom Morgan), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Connelley).
BW-80m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Donati, William, Ida Lupino: A Biography.
Kuhn, Annette, editor, Queen of the Bs: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera.
Fontaine, Joan, No Bed of Roses.

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