Ida Lupino was born one hundred years ago this month - February 4th 1918, in Herne Hill, south London - and, insofar as she's remembered in today's Hollywood, it's in a kind of special-pleading way: She was "the first female director". Wow! Awesome! So she, like, shattered the glass ceiling? Well, yes, she did: The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is regarded as the first "mainstream" female-helmed movie; when television took off, she was the only woman asked to direct episodes of "The Twilight Zone". On set her director's chair bore the designation "MOTHER OF US ALL", and the transcript of her off-camera directorial instructions from a Sixties TV western captures the maternal encouragement:
Any rocks up there to give you a problem, darlin'? Now, Walter baby, while we're here... You read my mind, love... That's it, sweetheart... Are we lathering the horses in this sequence, sweetie..? That's divine, love. Okay, follow Mother, here we go, kiddies!
Of course, post-Weinstein, any male director would be ill-advised to try any of that darling/baby/love/sweetheart/sweetie stuff. But it's somehow right for a woman in a man's world - which was a role she played on-screen long before pulling it off so successfully off-screen. Still, my favorites of her own films are those like The Bigamist, in which she also acted.
She came from a long line of tireless troupers. Her father Stanley was a staple of the music halls, her grandfather George did panto with Dan Leno at Drury Lane in the 1890s, her great-grandfather was the most famous Harlequin of his day. The last had been born George Hook, but changed his name to Lupino after being taken in by members of the original Lupino/Luppino family of Italian puppeteers, who came to England as political refugees in the 17th century. There are Lupinos in dance and theatre in Britain to this day. Her younger sister Rita died a little over a year ago, and herself had a modest acting career, including in Ida's film Outrage. But, of all their many kin in the biz, the only one to enjoy a real enduring boffo hit was her cousin Lupino Lane, who introduced "The Lambeth Walk" in Me And My Girl, a long-running smash in the West End in 1939 (and revived half-a-century later with my Sweet Gingerbread gal Jessica Martin).
But by then cousin Ida was a Hollywood star and all those English pantos and music halls were far behind. She made her screen debut at the age of thirteen in a British comedy called The Love Race, directed by Lupino Lane and starring her father Stanley and her cousin once removed Wallace Lupino. Ida wasn't panting for the smell of the greasepaint: As a child, she wanted to be a writer, but she went to RADA to please her dad, and one thing led to another. By fifteen, she was playing female leads on screen opposite John Mills and Ivor Novello. In 1933 Money for Speed, a self-financed Bernard Vorhaus film born out of his love of speedway (and edited by a young David Lean), brought Ida to the attention of Paramount, who had her shipped over to America to audition for the part of Alice in Wonderland.
Which would have been ridiculous, as they quickly realized when the sultry, worldly 15-year-old minx landed on their doorstep. So Ida found other work, and before she turned twenty had two-dozen screen credits to her name. In They Drive By Night (1940), she was third-billed, below George Raft and Ann Sheridan and above Humphrey Bogart, but Lupino, as the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Lana, is the reason to watch the picture. They reunited her with Bogart the following year in High Sierra, giving her top billing. But Bogey took his revenge and it was the movie that made him a bona fide bankable leading man. Ida called herself "the poor man's Bette Davis", but that's not quite right, although she certainly took parts that Miss Davis declined. In High Sierra, for example, she plays Marie, a dime-a-dance girl picked up by a small-time hood who's decided to take her along for the ride on his latest caper. John Huston's script (for director Raoul Walsh) is super-lean, sketching backstory with a line here, a line there. So we never actually see her in the dime-a-dance joint. Yet you know she's been there. Were Bette Davis to make such a claim, I'd want to see the evidence. But Huston understood, even this early, that casting is part of the screenplay: You don't need to see Marie getting "mighty sick of being pawed over" by her customers, because by the time we meet her what it's done to her is written on her face.
Warner Bros was the studio of gangster pictures - Edward G Robinson, Cagney, tough guys shoving grapefruits in their molls' faces and contempt in the cops'. But the glamorization of cocky, strutting hoodlums was out of sync with a world at war, and High Sierra marks the evolution of the genre into Forties film noir, and subtler shades of moral ambiguity. Bogart plays Roy Earle, a lifer in prison pardoned by the governor - but only because an aging mob boss wants him sprung for the usual last big job before they all cash in and retire - or "crash out", as Earle calls it.
"Yeah, I get it. You always hope you can get out. Sorta keeps you goin'," says Lupino's character. "I been trying to crash out ever since I can remember" - and you believe her.
She and a dog (played by Bogart's own dog, Zero) latch on to Earle, but he prefers the pooch, although that will prove an ill-advised choice. Marie hugs him, and he feels nothing. "I got plans, see? An' there's no room in them for you."
Roy Earle is smitten by an insipid girl called Velma (Joan Leslie, natch) with a clubfoot and a gram'pa (Henry Travers - Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life) who can't afford the operation for her. So Bogey pays for it in anticipation of his imminent heist windfall. He seems to be drawn to the helpless and incorrigible, whether canine or feminine. Gramps thinks he gets the picture: "Are you figuring on marrying Velma, Roy?"
"I ain't got that far in my figuring," says Roy.
But Marie's figuring. The hardboiled lifer can't help spilling the beans on this cute kid he's doing a good turn for. "Mighty pretty girl," he tells Marie.
"Is she?" And again Ida Lupino's face speaks all the volumes her two-word question doesn't. She was pretty, but it wasn't a conventional golden-age screen beauty: large, liquid expressive eyes atop alabaster cheekbones tapering to a narrow chin; she had a small, cute mouth, with a tendency to deliver lines slightly out the side of it, rendering her asides unusually literal. She gets a lot out of "Is she?"
"Yeah," says Roy. "And decent," he adds, with careless cruelty.
But, of course, once she's not clubfooted, Velma is doing all the things Marie did - dancing and partying with lowlifes - and Roy Earle is just an old guy (Bogey with hair dyed grey at the temples) who was kind to her, once. And that's no reason to marry a fellow, is it?
High Sierra is famous for its location shooting, especially in the climactic car chase on the Whitney Portal road (then less than five years old) to the highest of the sierras, Mount Whitney. Bogart, too, is justly praised for his performance as Roy - "Mad Dog" Earle to the papers, but on the inside a sap who longs for "decency" and "niceness" even as every aspect of his life closes it off to him. His prison pardon can never be a second chance, because it's a scam designed to get him out for one last job. The heist goes wrong, as they all do, but it does so for Earle in a way that moves him further away from ever realizing his illusions.
No one ever called High Sierra an "Ida Lupino movie", but she's vital to it. When her hard-boiled drifter eventually meets Bogey's idealized virgin bride-to-be, she says coolly, "I feel as if I know you. Roy has often told me how nice you are." She loves him devotedly and unconditionally, but Roy can't bring himself to accept that, like it or not, Lupino's world is his, too. He wonders why she wanted to meet Velma. "You thought of her more than you did me. I just wanted to know why."
It's a good example of the truth Ida Lupino brought even to under-nourished roles. She was fussy about parts at a time when contract players weren't supposed to be. She turned down a lot, and so Warners punished her with suspensions. So she spent the suspensions hanging around the lot, and picked up on what editors did, and cameramen and cinematographers, and directors. And then she quit Warners and formed her own production company. Her first releases were "issue" films: Outrage (1950) was about rape, and, while its societal assumptions have dated, its dramatic reality has not. The two wives of the eponymous Bigamist (1953) are a childless middle-class career woman and a waitress who gets pregnant. Lupino played the latter, though she could just as easily have played the former. The double-husband is a weak man whose evasions march him relentlessly to the dénouement and a meeting between the two women that has a certain symmetry with the Marie/Velma scene in High Sierra. To underline the perfectly contained duality of his life, Lupino had the working-class and middle-class marriages shot by different cameramen.
There are parallels, too, between High Sierra and another film from the same year as The Bigamist. The promotional tag for The Hitch-Hiker lays out the premise: "When was the last time you invited death into your car?" Lupino's foreword expands on it:
This is the story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours - or that young couple's across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.
The Hitch-Hiker is based on the case of William Cook, who murdered a traveling salesman and a family of five and then kidnapped a sheriff's deputy and forced him to drive him deep into the desert. In contrast to her previous "women's pictures", Lupino assembled an all-male cast, departed from the "true-life story" in significant ways, but made a point of interviewing Cook's victims and contacting Cook himself to help keep a modified plot grounded in the real-life motivations.
High Sierra has mountains, The Hitch-Hiker is deserts: The killer hitcher has to get across them to reach the Gulf of Mexico and his getaway boat. But both films capture something of the loneliness of the open road before the age of interstates, and of the unrooted types who pass their lives thereon, always heading on to the next town, the next job, the next break. Lupino brings some distinctive visual touches to her tale: The murderer sleeps with one eye open, because it won't close properly.
Her directorial career like her acting career favored tales of lives lived at the margins, but pushed further beyond taboos and conventions than Warner Bros were comfortable with. She kept acting because it made her the money to fund the films she wanted to direct - although eventually years of paring budgets to the bone led her to remark that she'd gone from being "the poor man's Bette Davis" to "the poor man's Don Siegel". She retired young - at the age of sixty - but with just shy of half-a-century of movies behind her. For my part, I wish the Ida Lupino of the Warner contract had hung around a little longer. The critic Rick Donovan wrote that "like a downtown train, Lupino had moxie" - which is an almost absurdly American Americanism to apply to an English girl from Herne Hill who didn't take US citizenship till 1948. But she grabbed on to moxie early, and never lost it: She projected better than almost anyone the sense of a character's existence before the movie began - the hard edges of a rough life, but also the vulnerability underneath.
That same year she forswore King George VI and all other foreign potentates, she accepted a role that required singing, and eschewed the dubbers. In Road House she plays the in-house canary at said venue, in which capacity she introduces "Again", a lovely Lionel Newman tune that requires a smoother legato than Ida's prepared to give it, and also sings "One For My Baby". Fred Astaire had introduced the song five years earlier, and Frank Sinatra had made his first recording of it, but it wasn't yet an established standard. I always thought this was a great performance - not necessarily of the song, but of what the song would sound like if you wandered into some third-rate roadhouse and some dame was warbling. Many years ago I was talking to Bob Fosse about his film of Cabaret and remarked that, if Liza Minnelli were singing in a joint like the Kit Kat Club, by the end of the first week some talent-spotter would have whisked her away to the big time. "Yeah," he shrugged. "But it's a musical." That rationale wouldn't have sufficed for Ida Lupino: what mattered was the character in the story, and the song shouldn't depart from that. Hence:
That closing comment is quite right. I'll take that over "The Lambeth Walk".
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