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Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection

by Glenn Erickson Oct 08, 2019

More than a movie star: America’s one female Hollywood director working in the 1950s receives a four-title boxed set well worth the investment — one noir mini-masterpiece is accompanied by a pair of independent social issue movies better than what the studios were turning out. It’s all thanks to Lupino’s fine dramatic direction. She emphasizes basic human values: cooperation over competition, and interior conflict. Her company ‘The Filmmakers’ lasted only about six years, but as an independent experiment it consistently turned out ‘special’ pictures anybody could be proud of.

 

Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection
Blu-ray
Not Wanted, Never Fear, The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist
KL Studio Classics
1949-1953 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen (1) 1:37 Academy (3) / 91, 81, 71, 79 min. / Street Date September 24, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Leo Penn, Hugh O’Brian, Joan Fontaine, Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman.
Cinematography: Henry Freulich; Archie Stout; George E. Diskant; Nicholas Musuraca
Original Music: Leith Stevens (4)
Written by Paul Jarrico, Malvin Wald, Ida Lupino; Ida Lupino, Collier Young; Lawrence B. Marcus, Lou Schor, Collier Young; Collier Young, Ida Lupino, Robert L. Joseph.
Produced by Anson Bond, Ida Lupino, Collier Young (4); Ida Lupino
Directed by
Ida Lupino

 

The welcome release of Kino’s Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection comes with celebratory articles proclaiming that the actress and director is finally getting her due. As this might be dubbed The Year of the Woman in Hollywood, it’s a fine opportunity to remember Lupino’s advances in independent filmmaking, 1950-style. But let’s get one thing clear up front — Ida Lupino was never a neglected talent, nor one barred by the Hollywood Boy’s Club. It is true that the studio system once actively suppressed women filmmakers at many levels. The documentary Without Lying Down makes it clear that when the talkies came, male bosses found ways to get rid of women writers, directors and editors, and give those jobs to ‘qualified’ men. I can attest to the fact that even in 1970, the guilds were practically a ‘sons of members’ club not likely welcome women. Lupino was a major exception. The industry knew here well, and knew how tough she was. When she wanted to direct, she found little resistance.

 

A genuine star in the 1940s, Lupino was a show-biz pro who knew the ropes and had studied the methods of her directors, in particular Raoul Walsh. As the ’40s wore on and front rank roles stopped coming her way, she took the opportunity to get into production — producing, writing and directing. Her second husband and creative partner Collier Young had contacts at numerous studios. Although their production company never achieved a real breakout hit, every effort was a quality picture. ‘The Filmmakers’ were pioneering independents, but they were not outsiders like Roger Corman or Stanley Kubrick. Young and Lupino got their pictures released by RKO, Eagle-Lion, and an even smaller outfit called Film Classics. They even tried to distribute one themselves.

The Filmmakers distinguished their product by taking on subjects that the majors shunned. With uncommon sensitivity, Lupino’s pictures addressed issues of unwed motherhood, rape, polio, and bigamy before such themes became exploitation fodder. The earliest films starring Mala Powers (not represented here) and Sally Forrest are made with such integrity that even the rigid Production Code could not object.


 

The first movie Not Wanted is signed by Elmer Clifton, but Lupino directed most of it after the elderly director fell sick. It handles with uncommon honesty what would later be known in exploitation movies as ‘teen preggers panic.’ Disenchanted waitress Sally Kelton (Sally Forrest) falls hard for the stylish, attractive pianist Steve Ryan (Leo Penn of Fall Guy) and runs away from home to be with him. Given the brush-off in the big city, she finds out that their one night together has left her pregnant. This news arrives just as Sally is getting serious with Drew Baxter (Keefe Brasselle), a nice-guy gas station manager whose war experience has left him with an artificial leg. Sally panics, and again runs away. She finds herself in a home for unwed mothers, where she must face more hard decisions.

Not Wanted avoids the pitfalls of later, more exploitative out-of-wedlock stories that would attract the label ‘sordid.’ 1958’s Unwed Mother must drag in an abusive seducer, a drug-crazed abortionist and questionable adoption policies to jazz-up its drama. Sally Kelton suffers an all-too understandable depression and feelings of low self-esteem; dishonor and failure seem her fate. Lupino’s naturalistic approach glamorizes nothing. Ms. Forrest supplies the youthful exuberance that turns to despair, and eventually finds the strength to carry on. The ending is dramatic and upbeat but fully realistic.

 

As with any great director, Ida Lupino’s handling of the actors is what makes the difference. It’s said more than once that Lupino saw herself in dancer-showgirl-actress Sally Forrest, whose three Lupino pictures made her an attractive proposition for other directors in Mystery Street, The Strip and While the City Sleeps. Forrest even holds her own against Howard Hughes’ RKO harem (Lili St. Cyr, Mari Blanchard) with her lead role in the girlie-show costume comedy Son of Sinbad. We’re also told that Forrest played ‘The Girl’ in the original stage play of The Seven Year Itch. Lupino makes good use of Forrest’s transparent face; when Sally Kelton is happy, the screen lights up. Keefe Brasselle had been playing bits for five years and was an agreeable pretty boy in search of exactly this kind of role. His Drew Baxter has exactly what Sally needs, a basic inner strength. Drew takes Sally’s early rejections in stride, and doesn’t even gripe about his plastic leg.

Not Wanted is my idea of a real feminist film, with a naturalistic lead role. Sally isn’t a superwoman, and in fact is an emotional wreck at times. The screenplay even veers into scary territory, when the disturbed Sally takes it into her head to pick up another woman’s baby and walk off with it. With no big production and no scandalous fireworks, Not Wanted bests most big-studio work for honesty and originality.

The film’s ‘morning-after’ location is Ferndell Trail in Griffith Park, which also features in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy of the same year.


 

The follow-up Never Fear bears Lupino’s first directorial credit. Released by Eagle-Lion, another off- Main Street distributor, it reunites the same two actors in an equally original and worthwhile script, this time by Lupino and her husband Young. Newly engaged young showbiz couple Carol and Guy (Forrest & Brasselle) are working on a jazz dance piece with a fencing theme, choreographed by Billy Daniel. They’re just beginning to get bookings when Carol is struck down by polio. In her violent reaction she rejects Guy; she also resents the attentions of fellow polio patient Len Randall (Hugh O’Brian). Guy tries to make good by selling real estate instead of dancing, and almost gets involved with Phyllis (Eve Miller), a receptionist. Carol’s recovery involves teaching her legs to move again, a slow therapeutic process with ups and downs. But her pessimistic fatalism persists.

Lupino again succeeds in making a ‘problem’ picture into mainstream entertainment — all of her actors are good, and her staging of medical and therapy scenes is excellent. The clinic we see looks real. The dance number is rather long, but professional. A singalong scene is weak but a square dance with the clinic’s patients in wheelchairs must have seemed innovative in 1950. Star Sally Forrest extends her range this time — even when she’s unreasonably defeatist and contrary, we’re on her side. Brasselle is better as well. When he turns on the personality to land his real estate job, he reminds this viewer of the actor Carleton Carpenter. Lupino fine instincts for casting give Hugh O’Brian his first substantial role, and although his makeup looks a little overdone, he comes off well. His Len supposedly has polio complications that may not make a full recovery possible; he also must face the fact that Carol isn’t going to be his. It’s all fairly well worked out.

 

Again, neither the script nor the direction trip up — the story of Carol and Guy is positive yet realistic, not a string of mawkish setbacks and tragedies. Time is allowed for normal human behavior — Carol can be having fun in the clinic’s pool, and then still reject Guy quite cruelly. One detail, though, is so dated that it can’t help but generate laughs: everybody smokes, practically all the time. Carol’s doctor offers her a cigarette right in his consulting room. If this weren’t before the era of commercial tie-ins, would think a tobacco company helped underwrite the movie.

The Lupino biographers emphasize that Ida Lupino’s own troubles with polio prompted the subject matter. Other ‘social problem’ pictures at this time were ‘daring’ to cover things like war injuries (Marlon Brando in Stanley Kramer’s The Men obviously) but Never Fear holds its own. I was part of the generation of Baby Boomers that lined up for the polio vaccine, later in the 1950s. We all know people, mostly just a few years older than me, who were stricken in ways ranging from troublesome to life-threatening.

The dance studio location at the beginning appears to be one of the old commercial courtyards in Westwood, also seen in Republic Pictures’ 1955 murder tale No Man’s Woman. A second unit shot of an ambulance rushing Carol to the big city was taken on Beverly Blvd. not from from my house — panning from Van Ness Blvd to an Easterly view looking toward Western avenue. A cameraman might have camped out there waiting for an ambulance to come by, as a dispatch lot is still right there at Beverly and Western.

The collection skips Lupino’s impressive RKO movies Outrage with Mala Powers, and Hard, Fast and Beautiful with Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor — they’re now controlled by Turner, I believe. The commentary biographers also note that Lupino directed a bit of Nicholas Ray’s noir classic On Dangerous Ground, one of her better acting showcases. Howard Hughes must have liked Lupino; when he finally decided to finish Ground, after keeping it on the shelf for a year, he let Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan direct revised scenes, including the effective upbeat ending.


 

The Hitch-Hiker is the most familiar Ida Lupino picture of the four. It shows more frequently on TCM because it’s a film noir, in fact, the only official-era film noir directed by a woman. Lupino bears down on the claustrophobic ordeal of a pair of fishermen car-jacked and kidnapped by a mad killer on the loose; much of the movie plays out on a process stage, but nobody ever compares it to Detour. Released by RKO, the highly commercial Hitch-Hiker saw plenty of bookings. It came out within a month of MGM’s Jeopardy, a more expensive thriller with a somewhat similar theme.

Hitch-Hiker generates big tension on a small scale. Fishermen Gilbert and Roy (Frank Lovejoy & Edmond O’Brien) make the mistake of giving a lift to Emmett Myers (William Talman, excellent) a psychotic murderer who wears his menace on his face. One twitchy eye never closes; his victims can’t even tell when he’s asleep. It’s an ordeal all right — Myers holds a gun on the two men and openly admits that he’s going to kill them when their usefulness runs out. The men have no choice but to play along and hope for a break.

 

Normally, nothing kills dramatic development more surely than one character pointing a gun at another. Ida Lupino and her cooperative actors exploit the dynamics of three men toughing out the ordeal in the cramped car interior. It all boils down to a final stop at a Mexican fishing village. The realistic surface is aided by excellent scenes in which the locals speak in un-translated Spanish, as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The well-filmed exteriors in Lone Pine make us think that Randolph Scott might show up at any time. Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography enriches the nighttime scenes, emphasizing the feeling of entrapment on the dock of the Mexican fishing town.

Before the kidnapping, the two fishermen toy with the idea of forgetting that they’re married and stopping off in Mexicali for some illicit recreation. Reversing the expectations of ‘moral’ stories, we realize that if they had indeed tarried in the sin town, they might never have connected with Emmett Myers. Even more surprising is the avoidance of sentimentality. Although one of the captives mumbles a prayer or two, faith doesn’t figure into their deliverance. Order has been restored, but no ‘lesson’ has been learned; it’s not like we should ignore people in trouble, stuck in the desert. Gilbert and Roy just stagger off into the night, knowing that they’re just plain lucky.

The industry trade papers lauded Lupino’s work in this show. If aware that the rugged, violent Hitch-Hiker was directed by a woman, local reviewers might consider themselves generous to comment that she directs as well as a man. But the show is excellent by any measure. The early ’50s witnessed plenty of cost-cutting studio thrillers shot on small sets with few actors, where male directors promptly fell on their faces. The polished script is a big help, as we believe the dialogue between the trio — Collier Young and Ida Lupino worked with Robert L. Joseph and (reportedly) Daniel Mainwearing, who at this time was using a cover name, Geoffrey Homes.

Odd thought — the cop that interacts with the Mexican Federales to track the murdering Myers looks as though he could be Harrison Ford’s father… same mouth and chin, almost exactly.


 

The final film in the set, Ida Lupino’s last feature for about 13 years, takes us into the widescreen era — it’s the only show here formatted at 1:66 instead of the older flat Academy ratio. I was also self-distributed by The Filmmakers, as they did with their production Private Hell 36 the next year, directed by Don Siegel. Self-distribution is likely what stopped The Filmmakers, if the accounts in books like Kings of the Bs are true. Exhibitors at war with brutal business practices likely paid distributors only when necessary, to insure future product flow. One-horse distribution outfits were handicapped coming and going. Locked out of the better venues, they then had difficulty collecting. The real distinction for Ida Lupino is that she could compete in a system so rigged that gender issues were only a tiny part of the problem.

By 1952 the dynamic was changing for The Filmmakers. The biographer-commentators make hay from the fact that Lupino and Collier’s marriage broke up, but not their partnership. He married Joan Fontaine, while she married actor Howard Duff the day after her divorce came through. Romance must have come second to show business, for all four parties kept making movies together!

The Bigamist is a good movie, but it’s the least cinematic and least interesting film of the four. Returning star Edmond O’Brien splits his time between his new wife in San Francisco (Joan Fontaine) and his other wife and child in Los Angeles (Ida Lupino). Ex- Santa Claus and exterminator of giant ants Edmund Gwenn is a detective who uncovers the guilty secret when Edmond and Joan apply to adopt a child. Since we know what’s up from the outset, there’s no suspense; the movie instead offers a realistic impression of how such a situation could come about. O’Brien’s traveling salesman is just (sigh) a nice guy who falls in love a lot and doesn’t like to disappoint women. He appears to be making both wives happy, until that inconvenient law rains on his parade. I don’t think the nice-guy defense would work for me, or a lot of other husbands. If such a deception were discovered, I’d likely not live to see the inside of a courtroom.

Nobody makes a case for Free Love or ‘everything is possible under the sun.’ Although the film’s approach is fair and the acting and directing excellent, we just don’t enjoy watching O’Brien mislead his wives; his getting involved with Lupino just seems wrong. I imagine that cellphone communications would make arrangements like this near-impossible today. The show ends rather tamely, with speeches by a defense attorney (Kenneth Tobey) and the presiding Judge (John Maxwell).

 

We can see where The Filmmakers might decide to distribute this show themselves. In making a respectful and honest movie about the crime, The Bigamist leaves out the sensational aspect that’s its only commercial draw. In 1953 such a story would need a scandalous, shocking angle to even be noticed — the only movies getting attention were in CinemaScope or 3-D and cost millions. Ms. Lupino would soon shift to directing for television, where she flourished. She was likely one of very few women directing for TV as well.

The commentaries in The Ida Lupino Collection generate a ‘women first’ momentum that redresses unfair critical snubbing in the past. In his influential book American Film, Andrew Sarris grudgingly gave Lupino a slot in his ‘Oddities, One-Shots and Newcomers’ category, highlighting none of her movies as accomplished and saying that she had feeling but little skill. He then quotes Lilian Gish as saying that directing is not for women, full stop. Case closed, right?  Rather than discuss Lupino’s work, Sarris dismisses a string of lady directors as a ‘women’s auxiliary.’ Viewers in a position to compare can see that her direction blows that of the noted Dorothy Arzner out of the water; the only other woman director (before the 1950s; in conventional filmmaking) that to me shows equal ‘auteurist’ heft is Lois Weber. The fact that there are likely many more is the good business of critics promoting female empowerment in the industry. In the past it was enough for a woman director to earn laurels because she could Get the job; going forward, we want to see if they can Do the job.

Our image of Ida Lupino is one of glamour, as seen in the image at top, not associated with any of these films. But we’re told that she was a no-nonsense, aggressive director. That thought is borne out by stills from the set showing her hard at work and dressed to get her hands dirty. If Lupino’s films still impress, it’s because they share qualities with the best of Hollywood: interesting subject matter handled with intelligence, bright actors that can connect with an audience, a good feel for the camera and good storytelling in general. Her banner was raised high back in the ‘Women in Film’ movement of the 1970s, and we shouldn’t be claiming that she wasn’t appreciated because she didn’t receive honorary Oscars; by all but demanding awards and special recognition, Barbara Streisand did other women directors no favors. As with anybody’s good work, the benefit of this set finally seeing worthy video encodings of some of Ida Lupino’s best pictures.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection rounds up a quartet of restored features, all in B&W. The best-known title The Hitch-Hiker is a great improvement on earlier copies; older Kino DVD presentations were not pretty. Although its credits carry familiar RKO names, the end logo feels tacked on. Somebody interrupted the title sequence for a freeze-frame to jam in a ‘moral warning’ disclaimer with a last line that could have come from Criswell:

“What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”

And ever’thing is satis-fack-shul?   Actual facts are the most factual facts of all, I’m told. The well-spoken noir expert Imogen Sara Smith offers a spot-on commentary with plenty of production information.

The Bigamist looks clean and undisturbed in widescreen; the Los Angeles Locations appear to include the Echo Lake pond later seen in Chinatown. The irrepressible Kat Ellinger provides a nonstop commentary for this one, roaming amiably off subject now and then as she makes her sound arguments for the Lupino oeuvre.

Repair work was required for the earliest picture. Not Wanted is basically from prime elements, with occasional substitutions of dupe-ier material replacing lost or damaged sections. It’s done with care; we’re glad to have progressed beyond splicy 16mm on this picture. Barbara Scharres and Greg Ford’s commentary shows such enthusiasm that they almost oversell Lupino and the picture. All four commentaries are by qualified speakers with professional deliveries.

 

Ida Lupino cannot have been pleased that Not Wanted somehow fell into the hands of the carny-exploitation crowd, and was cut up for an illustrated lecture-feature about unplanned pregnancy, complete with diagrams and (originally) a color live childbirth sequence. As an extra, Kino presents a B&W excerpt from this mangled version.

The printing elements for Never Fear are in much better shape, for the most part looking brand new. Leith Stevens did the music scores for all four of these features, and finds some variety in the dance scene here. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides the thoughtful commentary, which happily does not automatically cover the same content as the other three tracks. Perhaps they were partly coordinated?

Included in the boxed set is a 70-odd page color booklet with a longform essay reprint by the late critic Ronnie Scheib, ‘Ida Lupino Auteuress.’ As the title suggests, it’s an old-school piece undoing the abuse of Andrew Sarris, analyzing all of Lupino’s films for auteurist themes and connections. Moments in the movies are connected to Lupino’s earlier acting performances, her private life and her show-biz background. It hails from the ‘Women in Film’ discovery year of 1973. Ms Scheib is eulogized by Variety’s Justin Chang.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection
Blu-ray
rates:
Movies: all Excellent or Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Four commentaries, trailers, excerpt of ‘sex higiene’ recut of Not Wanted.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Four Blu-ray in four keep cases in card box with booklet.
Reviewed:
October 6, 2019
(6102ida)

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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.