November 6, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (The Young Lovers)

These notes accompany screenings of Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (The Young Lovers) on November 8, 9, and 10 in Theater 3.

Ida Lupino (1918–1995) played a nearly unique role in the history of film directing. Failing to heed Lillian Gish’s warning that, based on her experience, directing was no job for a lady, Lupino tested the waters in her early thirties. Compared with her substantial acting credits over nearly a half-century, directing six or seven movies and quite a few television shows appears relatively inconsequential, unless one appreciates that being “ladylike” was not her highest priority. To reinforce her iconoclasm, in addition to directing, she also took on writing and producing responsibilities on several projects. (She had actually gone down that path pretty early, having written and performed in a school play at age seven.)

The Lupino family had a distinguished history in British theater, and her mother’s family had been on the stage since the 17th century. Uncle Lupino Lane appeared in numerous silent films in both Britain and America; his most familiar role is in Ernst Lubitsch’s early musical The Love Parade. In her case, ancestry was destiny, and Ida’s first significant movie role came when she was as a teenager, in Her First Affaire, a British film made by American director Allan Dwan (who will be the subject of a major MoMA retrospective next year).

Although she would eventually work with many of the top directors in Hollywood, she had a particularly fruitful relationship with Raoul Walsh, with whom she made four films, including the Humphrey Bogart classics They Drive by Night and High Sierra. (Walsh was an icon of masculinity. He once made an appearance at MoMA in his 80s, blind but immaculately attired as a cowboy, in keeping with his having directed the first sound Western of consequence (In Old Arizona), the first widescreen Western (The Big Trail) introducing John Wayne, and numerous other Westerns featuring the likes of Wayne, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and even Troy Donahue. My colleague Anne Morra, whose essay on Lupino appears in Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, attributes her considerable involvement with Westerns and other macho subject matter to Walsh’s influence.)

The theatrical film The Hitch-Hiker, which she directed and co-wrote three years after Never Fear, has no female characters. It is a film about male bonding, in which the two main characters, captured by a sadistic murderer, are explicitly being punished for their devotion to each other. So, in effect, Lupino as director becomes a kind of female voyeur gazing on a violent drama enacted by men. It is a highly competent and compactly focused film noir made independently for practically no budget. It was photographed by the great Nicholas Musuraca, who had also shot several of the Val Lewton horror films and made noir classics for Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. (Actually, Lupino was quite astute in choosing her cinematographers; she used Archie Stout, then in the midst of his John Ford collaborations, for Never Fear and two of her other films.) The location shooting in the Mexican desert must have entailed a good deal of what Ms. Gish would have considered “unladylike.”

Never Fear (The Young Lovers) reunited Sally Forrest and Keefe Brasselle, the stars of Not Wanted, Lupino’s first directorial effort, in which she filled in for an ailing Elmer Clifton. Forrest worked for or with Lupino several times during her brief career, and the highlight of Brasselle’s oeuvre was an improbable portrayal of Eddie Cantor. (Hugh O’Brian, on the other hand, debuting here as the “other man,” went on to portray Wyatt Earp on television and enjoy a long film career.) Never Fear definitely brought out a distinctively feminine side to Lupino’s direction. It’s difficult to define precisely, but there is an unusually physical, tactile quality to the way the film’s characters relate to one another. So although it would be hard to argue that the film has a conventionally feminist sensibility, it would also be hard to imagine it having been directed by a man. Never Fear must have had a special resonance for Lupino (who co-scripted it with then-husband Collier Young), since she had, like her heroine, experienced polio as an adolescent. The fact that she had to direct the film from a wheelchair (due to an injury) must have been a constant reminder of how close she came to a grim early fate. Instead, she recovered and, as Anne Morra has written, her work “remains singular, a vital contribution to the evolution of women in cinema and of American independent film production in general.”