July 15, 2010  |  Modern Women, Publications
Preserving Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (1950)

Film still of Ida Lupino in The Big Knife (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich. The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection

The name Ida Lupino became a part of my cultural consciousness when I was about ten years old. I grew up watching classic American television shows such as Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir—all shows which featured Lupino as a guest director at one time or another in the mid to late 1960s. Not only was I entertained by the antics of Island castaways Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey, I thought it odd that a woman—and a peculiarly named woman like Ida Lupino, at thatdirected the program! How could that be? All the other names I noticed on the credits of my preferred shows were those of men.

Fast forward to the mid 1980s, and I am beginning my career at The Museum of Modern Art as a cataloguer in the Department of Film. In those days, the entire film collection was recorded on 4×6-inch index cards; the notations, some going back to the late 1930s, were hand- or typewritten. They offered an extraordinary history of acquisitions and technical and filmographic information that was unique to MoMA. I recall coming across the catalog cards for the film Never Fear, directed by Ida Lupino and released in 1950. I was unfamiliar with the film, but knew something about her work as a director because of the television shows I watched as a child. While I was working on various cataloguing tasks, Never Fear was the subject of a Film Department preservation project. It happened that MoMA owned the holy grail of all film elements: the 35mm nitrate original camera negative. The original camera negative (OCN) is the film that was in the camera, on the set during the original principal photography. The OCN reflects exactly what the director intended on set; in the pre-digital-fix world of the 1950s, any special effects were cut into the OCN (and matched to the soundtrack negative) at a later stage.

MoMA’s good fortune to acquire the OCN came in 1978, when ABC Pictures International donated a large collection of nitrate materials they picked up when they purchased the Selznick International Pictures library. Contained in this noteworthy collection were films by Alfred Hitchcock (Spellbound [1945], Rebecca [1940]), William A. Wellman (Nothing Sacred [1937]), and John Cromwell (Since You Went Away [1944]), as well as the OCN for Never Fear. As the physical condition of the nitrate OCN was excellent, the course of film preservation to acetate film (nonflammable safety film stock) was pretty much a textbook case. New 35mm acetate negatives and a fine-grain master were made along with exhibition copies. Luckily, the nitrate OCN responded very well as source material during the preservation—meaning no special fixes were required, and the exhibition copies look and sound faithfully to what audiences saw in 1950.

Publicity still of Ida Lupino. Date unknown. The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection

Recently my colleague, film conservator Peter Williamson, and I were discussing the work of women in the collection and wondering how many sound-era feature films by women directors had been preserved by MoMA. It appears there are only two: Ida Lupino’s Never Fear and Shirley Clarke’s nonfiction feature Portrait of Jason (1967). As Clarke worked primarily as an independent filmmaker, it turns out Lupino’s work is the only feature film preserved by MoMA that was directed by a woman working in the Hollywood studio system. Quite an auspicious achievement.

Never Fear was Ida Lupino’s directorial debut. The film stars unknowns Sally Forrest and Keefe Braselle as Carol and Guy, a dance team up-and-coming on the Los Angeles night club circuit. The night after their triumphant performance, Carol is sick and later learns she has contracted polio. (Lupino was diagnosed with polio in 1934.) Carol’s dancing career is over and she turns away from Guy, now her fiancé. As part of her rehabilitation, Carol enters the famed Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Santa Monica to regain her ability to walk and her diminished self-worth. Never Fear was produced by Lupino and her then husband Collier Young for their production company, The Filmmakers.

Today, Never Fear is safely preserved longterm for the life span of a 35mm celluloid print—which we estimate at about one hundred years under ideal storage conditions and proper use. This film will screen at MoMA on August 27 and September 9 as part of Ida Lupino: Mother Directs, an exhibition presented in conjunction with MoMA’s publication Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art and organized by yours truly! I hope local readers will consider joining us for this fascinating film—a work significant both for film history and for the history of MoMA itself.