To become a major movie star in the earliest decades of American cinema was no small task. You had to have the looks, the talent, and that intangible “it” factor. Ida Lupino (1918–1995) had “it,” but she didn’t necessarily want it. “I’ve never really liked acting,” she said. “It’s a torturous profession, and it plays havoc with your private life.” Instead, Lupino yearned to unleash her creativity behind the camera, to take on a role very few women laid claim to within the studio system: director. Though she’s perhaps not a household name today, Lupino’s work as an actress and director holds a special place in film history. As an independent writer, producer, and director, she challenged a systemic status quo to tell stories often ignored by major studios—or, as she put it, “films that had significance, yet were entertaining.”
“Every so often Hollywood ‘discovers’ Ida Lupino,” note Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman, the authors of a 2017 monograph on the director. Thankfully, we are in a period of rediscovery. In honor of her centennial last year, New York City’s Film Forum ran an extensive retrospective of her work, and more streaming services have chosen to highlight her career. Most recently, The Criterion Channel’s July programming introduced several of her films, including MoMA’s restoration of Never Fear (aka The Young Lovers, 1950).
Curator Anne Morra recalls encountering that film: “When I arrived at MoMA quite a long time ago, I remember seeing Never Fear for the first time…and was really blown away by it, because it’s so different from films that were made in that transitional, postwar moment in the late 1940s.” That viewing led Morra to champion Lupino’s work at the Museum via programming and restoration efforts, as well as in personal appearances on the Turner Classic Films (TCM) network and at film festivals where Lupino's works were featured. We sat down with Morra to dive deeper into Lupino’s first credited directorial role, and to run down what made her a singular director.
Isabel Custodio: Tell us a little bit about Ida Lupino.
Anne Morra: She was an A-list actress in the 1940s, mainly under contract to Warner Brothers, where she made some classic films like They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and The Sea Wolf (1941). Her demeanor in films was always as a woman who was pushed aside, who may have been from what was called in those days the “wrong side of the tracks.” She played the strong female character who always had to prove herself and protect herself.
Her relationship with the studio system is a very unique one. She was such a famous actress, but then consciously separated herself from that world in an effort to make things that appealed to her specifically and not necessarily to what the studios would want. At what point did she decouple herself to focus on trying to create her own films?
I think the key word you just used is consciously. She would often battle with the studio bosses—in her case, Jack Warner. Being a contract player, you were under the thumb of the studio executives. He’d suspend her, and she’d say “fantastic,” and then use that time to learn about directing films and honing her craft. There were no film schools at the time, but she had the best film school of all: she sat next to iconic directors and watched and listened.
In the late 1940s, Ida gave a lot of thought to creating her own film production company with her then husband, Collier Young, and Malvin Wald, who were both experienced in how studios worked. The three of them formed a production company called The Filmakers. Ida Lupino wanted to make films that had messages, that were accessible to the audience, that no typical studio would make.
The films she made with The Filmakers address many social issues that the studios rarely touched. Could you talk about some of those?
Many of Ida’s films deal specifically with women’s social issues. There’s the subject of an unwanted pregnancy, rape, illness, women in the workforce; there’s also bigamy and crime. At the end of her career for Columbia Pictures she makes The Trouble with Angels. It’s a rather frivolous film, but it’s about a community of women, many different kinds of women really trying to figure out their identities.
Was there a lot of pushback from the studios when someone did something that bold? Specifically someone who had been so intimately involved with the process as it was?
Frankly, I think the studios didn’t care. They didn’t see her as a threat, and went about their business, maybe keeping a little bit of an eye out. But since she wasn’t tethered to a studio, she was really free to do what she wanted.
Something that I admire a lot about her is how persistent she was in getting that first film off the ground.
Yes—that’s why she acted in films during the time when The Filmakers was really at the height of their production, because she needed the money to drop into The Filmakers and make the movies that she wanted. She just kept plowing her own money in. Ultimately, sadly, that’s what is the eventual undoing of The Filmakers. They knew how to make movies, but they didn’t know how to distribute or advertise them. That part of the business (which Collier and Melvin should have been taking care of) really eluded them, and that’s what dissolved the company ultimately.
Her films are grounded in reality. Many locations are real, the background characters are real, and some of her characters’ costumes came directly from Ida’s closet. What do you think that that adds to the film?
Ida Lupino appreciated the films that were made by the Italian Neorealists like Roberto Rossellini. She actually had an opportunity to meet Rossellini. It’s said that he remarked to her, “When are you going to start making films?” Because she had told him how much she admired his work and she wanted to make realistic films, but not documentaries. By dressing Sally Forrest’s character out of her own closet, you took away the artifice of the costume designer. There was always this sense of realism. One of the things that Ida rebelled against for her entire professional life was the artificiality of being in a studio movie. When she was ready to make her own films, that’s what she took out of the equation, to have as much realism as possible.
How does that fit in context with other films that were being made in the 1950s? For example, Douglas Sirk presented a very different version of life.
Absolutely. I think your example of Douglas Sirk is perfect. Those films have heightened artificiality, such intense colors, and interpersonal relationships that are strangely inflated. He didn’t make films about realism, that was his thing. Think about films in which you had the bombshells of the ’50s—there was nothing real there. But then you had films like On the Waterfront, films that really dealt with social issues. I think Ida’s films are more aligned with those, even though those were studio pictures and had tremendous A-list actors in them. Again, Ida didn’t want that. She wanted to make a different kind of movie.
They address the realignment of the American society in an anxious postwar period.
Particularly Outrage (1950), which is a very, for lack of a better word, nervous film. You have the main character, a young woman named Ann, who is walking late at night through the factory grounds. She is being watched by this guy who’s selling coffee there at the factory. The moment of the attack is just so debilitating, and when she goes home, she’s completely catatonic. Her mother opens the door and lets her in, and there’s this horror that both her mother and her father register on their faces and Ann has nothing left—it’s gone. The next day, there is a sensibility about what the neighbors will think. They’re living in a very traditional little town with picket fences and kids on bicycles. Ida is showing you both sides of the coin: the happy-go-lucky postwar America and also the nervous question: What are we doing now that the war is over?
The scene that occurs prior to the assault has some stunning cinematography. Can you talk a little bit about how she envisioned the aesthetic of her films?
It’s really a cat-and-mouse game. Ann leaves her office at night, and she’s walking through the darkened alleys of the factory. She starts hearing footsteps and whistling, and she begins to panic, rightfully so because she’s all alone. She begins hiding among cars, but her assailant gets her. There’s a moment where Ida comes right in [with the camera] on this poster of a clown’s face, and it’s quite terrifying. She uses a lot of long shots. But when the assailant gets very close to Ann, it’s edit, edit, edit, edit. She knows how to tell you that story: there are no words, it’s all imagery. There’s so much violence without seeing violence.
I was really struck by how savvy she was about who to butter up. She did this with the censors, as well as on set.
I think she was enormously intelligent and a great observer, particularly when she was on set as an actress. She saw how the machine worked and what would get you the resolution that you needed and what wouldn’t. My mom always said to me, “You get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.” I think Ida really got that. She would talk to the censors in such a way that she would ultimately get what she wanted.
She didn't sit in a chair that said director on the back; her chair said “mother.” She was very conscious of the fact that she truly was the mother of this entire family of people who she had on set every day, and that’s exactly what she did. It required a canny ability to figure people out.
Ida is quoted as saying, “You do not tell a man, you suggest to him, ‘Darlings, mother has a problem, I’d love to do this, can you do it? It sounds kooky I know, but can you do it for mother?’ And then they do it. And that way I get more cooperation.”
The first film that she directs is Not Wanted (1949), although she does not get the credit—it goes to Elmer Clifton. Clifton was a seasoned director who fell sick right before the production began. She was thrown into something that she wasn’t prepared to do. She had her money sunk into this film, so she decides direct it. That’s where I think all that cajoling comes from. She had to lead these people who were just so used to being told by Mr. Clifton and other men what to do and how to do it. With her own charm and powers of persuasion, she was able to get that first film done and it was successful.
There are some criticisms from a lot of feminist thinkers, especially from the 1970s, who accused Ida of making films about female passivity—that her characters weren’t active in their own problem solving, and that she more often praised the men in their lives. Do you think that that’s a valid criticism?
I think, in the 1970s, viewing her films and her characters through the lens of an emergent women’s movement, it was a valid way to evaluate the narratives. Her characters are women of their time. They are not out in the world and empowered. They are, in many cases, young women living at home with their families, young women who are recently engaged, young women alone. Their agency was incredibly limited. The sheer fact that they do resolve these issues in the film is a testament to the writing strength of Ida Lupino and how she creates these characters.
Looking back now, I think the characters, for their time, were extremely radical in what they did to survive. No matter the path the characters take, you have to say that Ida Lupino was a director who stood up for women, who was solely interested in women’s causes, women’s ideas, and the ways women were either subjugated or promoted in the ’50s. She was going to show it to us. Her films don’t show us the 1950s of Marilyn Monroe. She’s making you discuss real life, and I think that that’s the value of Ida Lupino as a filmmaker.
Where should people start if they want to see Ida’s work?
I would watch a film in which she acts, and then I’d choose a film she directs. As an actress, I’d recommend Road House. She is just perfection in this movie, as a dancehall singer who has seen it all and heard it all, and has to be as strong as she can. Then I would watch Outrage. That film is about rape, how 1950s society dealt with that, and how the character who is assaulted ultimately learns to heal. Ida was always very modern in looking at different kinds of therapies. In Never Fear we have the physical therapy at the Kabat-Kaiser Center. With Outrage, Ann sees a psychotherapist. There’s value in that, as opposed to society saying, “You'll get over it.” Outrage is probably her strongest film, and when you watch it, you’re seeing this great director blooming.
What are some of the milestones that we can attribute to her career?
She was the second female member of the Director’s Guild. They would call the DGA meeting to order and say, “Welcome gentlemen and Miss Lupino.” If you look back at film history, there were opportunities for women and women seized them—women like Frances Marion, Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, and Ida Lupino. Then it kind of stopped. The studios restructured and then you have more contemporary models of film production with independent production. But it seems like unless you’re working on a big, big budget picture, you’re not as recognized. There are wonderful contemporary directors, like Kelly Reichardt, who are more in the mode of Lupino, as opposed to being in the mode of Barbra Streisand, for example. There’s now a cadre of scholars who are focusing on Ida Lupino—finally and thankfully. That makes me very happy because I think we can learn a lot from the films that she made and the arduous task that she had to make these films.
What do you wish people knew most about Ida Lupino?
She was independent in everything she did. Even though she was a contract actress at Warner Brothers, she assumed that she was an individual, not part of this pyramidical system. When she decided to make her own films, she was going to be independent, write about social issues that people didn’t want to talk about, cast her movies with unknowns, and be as good a filmmaker as possible. Those experiences lead her to her television directorial career, which is probably where people know her best, because she worked on series like Bewitched, Batman, and Gilligan’s Island. She’s touched her toe in all these different areas of the visual arts with respect to moving images, and each one is imbued with this radical independence. Ida was going to do it her way.