Tuesday, July 26

Ida Lupino

Few would doubt that she was one of the premier actresses of the 1940s, a superbly gifted dramatic actress who more than held her own against the likes of Hepburn, Stanwyck, Davis and Crawford but never attained the glittering reputation that those women acquired.  Housed at Warner Bros during her peak years, she was often referred to as the poor man's Bette Davis and, in fact, assumed a number of parts that Davis turned down.

I own maybe four of her films and have seen a lot more and the truth is, good as I think she was, I never really warmed to her.  She was even one of those smart-mouthed actresses I generally rub up against but Lupino and I never got that close.  For one thing, she seemed devoid of humor and that's a big no-no for me, on or off the screen.  When I read once that her father wanted a son and treated her as one, I wasn't surprised because along with no humor, I found her femininity quotient a bit low and her hardness too untidy.

On the one hand, her demeanor was a perfect fit for the generally rough crowd at WB and yet she never really warmed their hearts. She was not only never much of a team player but harangued a number of productions with her manipulations, outspokenness and fierce temper.  A number of people said they'd never work with her again, although contractually, they had little choice.

So, ok, she was never one of my favorites, but I have long admired her acting, more than aware that she turned in a number of glorious performances. Two of her films we have already discussed in my tributes to good 40s films.  And I think more importantly she became just the second woman to become a noted Hollywood director.  The town remembers her fondly as a director and she always said she liked it far more than acting. In fact, she has been quoted as saying she never really liked being an actress.  Then why did she become one?

She was born into it, that's why.  Her parents were both noted British stage performers and there was simply no doubt, no question that she would follow in their footsteps. From the time she was born in London in 1918, her future was all mapped out. Both parents were music hall performers as was an uncle and the Lupino acting dynasty had been around for centuries.  With that type of pedigree, her entrée into show business was a given.

She has said, however, that the only reason she pursued it was to please them and secure their attention.  Their hectic work schedules and travels often found little Ida left behind in the care of relatives and she developed fierce feelings of abandonment that she was never able to shake off.  Much of her bad behavior in adult years, particularly with her three husbands, her daughter, bosses and some friends, is because of perceived or real threats of abandonment. With that looming in her mind, perhaps it's a bit more understandable why she lacked humor and was always controlling. She was always plotting how to make them stay.

She wanted to be a writer but pursued acting because her father asked her to do so.  After he built a theater in the family back yard for her and her sister, complete with seating for 100, it was a foregone conclusion that an actress she would be.  While attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, a little parental arm-twisting got producers to notice the newly bleached-blonde Ida who got her first film at age 14. She played hard-luck dames from the very beginning.  Even as a teenage actress, she was playing prostitutes, molls, killers and the like. Nobody did it better. 

Throughout the 1930s she made a number of mainly forgettable films.  It wasn't until the 1939 Paramount production of The Light That Failed that she gained true fame.  It is a sentimental love story starring Ronald Colman that saw Lupino playing a wicked cockney girl.  The studio was impressed enough to put the young English lass under contract.

She had come to America with her beloved mother in tow and grateful that she had her all to herself.  Her father found a younger woman and left the family.  She needed the support of her mother when Lupino's boyfriend died in an accident. 

She then met South African-born actor Louis Hayward when he visited one of her film sets and though they initially disliked one another, that all changed and they were married in 1938.  His manner always seemed brusque and detached to me but she painted him as loving and completely devoted to her. Their acting styles were wildly divergent but it never got in the way.

On loan to WB Lupino appeared in the film noir They Drive by Night (1940), about a pair of embittered truckers played by George Raft and Humphrey Bogart.  She played a crazed and murderous wife in the one of the most vicious female roles ever put on the screen. I was not of the earth when this film was released but saw it after I was first introduced to Lupino's work in 1950s films and I was astonished at how evil and cold she was.  Her face was untouched by emotion and when it showed some, it was scary.  Ann Sheridan had the female lead but it was Lupino I have forever remembered. Most impressive.

Bogie was as new to stardom as she was but he hit the bullseye in High Sierra (1941). They hadn't particularly gotten along on their earlier film but it came to a head on this one. It was another strong role for her and more sympathetic than she was used to playing. She received top billing as the woman who accompanies a criminal on the lam.  She was more smitten with him than he was with her and it helped that in real life the two mended their fences before filming ended. The film was an enormous success for everyone and WB offered her a chance to join the family which she reluctantly did. Their fractious relationship would last for one contract period (seven years).

Warner's clearly saw the hardness in Lupino and her best roles are unquestionably involving that trait.  She played an escaped convict in The Sea Wolf (1941).  She did not get along with star Edward G. Robinson but bonded with John Garfield.  The powers at WB generally conceded that they had another Bette Davis on their hands.  On the talent level, they were gratified but they were less than thrilled to have another behavior problem.  Meanwhile, fan mail, so important in those times, was pouring in.

Lupino always said she only had two favorite acting roles and the top spot was reserved for the noirish Ladies in Retirement (1941). She absolutely nailed it as a stolid housekeeper who kills her employer so that she can bring in her two insane aunts as residents. Her husband costarred, making it an altogether pleasant experience. 

She was loaned out to 20th Century Fox for Life Begins at 8:30 (1942).  It's a light drama about a young woman who sees her life passing her by as she cares for her actor-father in a cramped New York flat as he is swallowed up by drink.  Things, however, look up when a young actor enters her life.  Monty Woolley, one of my most cherished character actors ever, made this film a joy to watch. Lupino was reunited with Cornel Wilde (he, too, was in High Sierra), one of her dearest costars, and he would be her leading man in a third film, the other one of her favorite films.

The Hard Way 1943) was an incredible triumph for Lupino as a ruthless woman who propels her younger sister to stardom.  It stands as one of my two favorite roles of hers. Nobody but nobody could convey cheerless better than Lupino and one only needs to see this one to understand.  You no doubt remember reading about it earlier.

Hayward had joined the U.S. military.  When he returned home, after the horrific battle on Tarawa, he was a changed man and his wife hardly recognized him.  Tarawa had broken him.  She tried hard to do all the supportive things she could think of but in the end Hayward, who acted nearly catatonic since coming home, asked for a divorce.  She was heart-broken and the feelings of abandonment resurfaced as they were divorced in 1945.  

She acted out, as she always did and always would, and became a bear at the studio.  If folks used the term bipolar in those days, they would surely have used it about Ida Lupino.  She had highs that made her act a bit giddy and she made awkward attempts at being coquettish.  But those lows were the talk of the studio.  Those who were pals admitted she was strong-willed but her enemies said it in another way.  Few would disagree that she was just about the most sarcastic person they'd ever encountered.

She trooped on.  Devotion (1946), the fictionalized life stories of the writing Brontë sisters, was a dreary mess.  The Man I Love (1947), about a singer who gets on at a small-time hood's nightclub, was better.  Of course it showcased a wonderful Lupino performance and yummy Gershwin tunes, but it had a lackluster leading man in Robert Alda and is not well-remembered today. Deep Valley (1947) co-starred Dane Clarke, a male version of Lupino, in a backwoods story of a young woman who falls for a prisoner who is working on a local road. She and Eleanor Parker vied for Errol Flynn in Escape Me Never (1947), a stodgy tale of the love lives of composers.

These last four pictures did not strike the chord that the earlier work had and she and the studio agreed to say goodbye.  Like Davis, she always fought for better roles, and also like Davis, they had grown tired of the obnoxious behavior.  It was one thing if the films raked in the dough, but when that didn't happen, the party was over.  Lupino would say she left because the roles weren't to her liking.

She hightailed it back to Fox where she'd had some good fortune and made my other favorite Lupino film and her own second favorite, Road House (1948). Costarring Fox stars Wilde, Richard Widmark and Celeste Holm, it is one of those delicious film noirs I am so fond of. I also did a posting on it earlier.  Check it out if you're so inclined.

Lupino had said that she spent almost as many years at WB on suspension for refusing roles as she did working.  Often she would hang around film sets while on suspension because she wanted to learn everything about the movies.  Acting was just a piece of it to her and she longed to know more.  She tugged on many a director's arm and sat at their feet, anxious to learn.

In 1948 she married Collier Young, whom she had met at a party and was immediately smitten with.  He had been a copywriter, literary agent, story editor and had even once worked for Lupino's boss, Jack Warner. Lately he'd been a writer for Columbia's gestapo boss, Harry Cohn, and was very unhappy. He found that Lupino made him very happy.  He found her feminine and fragile, which leads me, at least, to wonder whether he had a serious head injury. She found him witty and elegant.

Most impressive, perhaps, to her was his erudite manner.  He knew a lot about Hollywood's inner workings and its people and he wanted to go into business for himself but it wasn't until he met Lupino that it all came together.  And of course, despite the success of Road House, her career seemed stalled.  Night after night of barnstorming led them to form a company they would christen Filmakers.  He would produce and write, she would direct and write and like all independent production companies, they would be thrilled to be away from studio interference.

I want to concentrate on Lupino the actress rather than Lupino the director but just a paragraph or two on the latter.  She has always been well-regarded as an early female director and she was liked if not loved by her film crews and actors.  Oddly, she was not at all the pain-in-the-ass as a director that she was as an actress although there was always Young's steady hand. Together they wanted to make socially relevant, even controversial films.  She credited Italian director Roberto Rossellini, whose Rome: Open City (1945) she greatly admired, with telling her to make films about ordinary people in ordinary situations.  Her desire was also to cultivate new talent... Mala Powers, Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle and Hugh O'Brian are among four who signed up.

For the record here, the six theatrical films she directed for Filmakers are Not Wanted; Never Fear; Outrage; Hard, Fast and Beautiful;The Hitch-hiker and The Bigamist, made between 1949-53.  Her final and most unusual directorial chore for a theatrical film was 1966s The Trouble with Angels with Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills. 

Filmakers' capital was being used up and the business partners were getting on one another's artistic nerves which, of course, began to affect things at home.  At the same time, Lupino accepted another one of those films (you know, the ones that paid the salary that immediately went to Filmakers), Woman in Hiding (1950).  It was a well-worn story of a stalker ex-husband but what was wearing well was co-star Howard Duff.  

Mr & Mrs Howard Duff

He'd already made seven films but he was most popular on radio as gumshoe Sam Spade.  It was that voice... one of the best in movies. Lupino thought so, too, and when she finally saw the face, she was a gone girl. Goodbye Young, hello Duff.  She married Duff in 1951 but her business relationship with Young continued for a couple of years and she remained friends with him forever. She never wanted to say goodbye and she didn't want to hear it either.

She made back-to-back movies with Robert Ryan, arguably her most perfect costar.  As actors, they were both scary.  As people, only she was.  On Dangerous Ground (1951) was the better of the two but Beware, My Lovely (1952) was no slouch.  Both were film noirs and helped elevate both actors into the history of noir. Interestingly both were woman-in-peril plots with the main location being her home. 

The Bigamist (1953) I mention again for two reasons.  One is that it is the only film Lupino directed that she also starred in. Additionally, Young was producing and his current wife, Joan Fontaine, was the other star... or the other wife.

Because I first became aware of Ida Lupino in the mid-fifties with four films, I was certainly not aware at the time that they would pretty much signal the end of her lustrous movie career.  Not-so-lustrous continued til 1978.

In 1953 she joined up with Dick Powell, Charles Boyer and David Niven to form TVs Four Star Playhouse, an anthology series that featured one of them each week in some usually very well-written stories. 

Private Hell 36 (1954) concerned two cops who steal a bundle of money off a dead robber.  Film noir was still trying to hang on in 1954 and this wasn't bad.  Lupino, in another chanteuse role, romanced always bad-boy Steve Cochran while Duff was married to Dorothy Malone.  Duff and Malone's daughter was played by the real-life daughter of Duff and Lupino.

The two would make five films together, usually not paired romantically.  They were together in Women's Prison (1955), a flick I dearly loved at the time; the title alone gave me murky tremblings.  She was a cruel warden to Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter and Cleo Moore and gets her come-uppance at the cheering, whooping and hollering end.

Her look in those 50s films

The Big Knife (1955) is an exquisite look at the harsh side of Hollywood with Jack Palance as an actor quietly spinning out of control, arguably his best role, and with Lupino remarkably understated as his wife.

While the City Sleeps (1956), directed by Fritz Lang, was an all-star exercise about newspaper reporters eager to get the first byline on the identity of a serial killer.  Lupino's reporter knew more of the ropes than some of her coworkers.

From here Mr. and Mrs. Duff embarked on a television series, Mr. Adams and Eve (1957-58).  It was a hit with the public but short-lived.  Purportedly it was a comical look at the Duff marriage.

The actual marriage wasn't so comical or even so much fun anymore.  It's not that Lupino didn't try... she did.  She never wanted it to end.  She was as gaga about him at this time as she'd ever been and they'd still have a few more years.  He was always full of himself, domineering and jealous, and often in conflict with the fact that at the highest point of his career, he was never as big as she was.  They both became big drinkers and in later years, it seemed to be the only way they could stand being around one another.  He was a serial womanizer and she went back and forth on whether that was ok with her.  

He, on the other hand, could no longer abide her mood swings, saying he'd never known a woman who was such a ball-buster.  He said she was too black and white; there was never any wiggle room. When her mood was up and she was funny and companionable, it was good but those times were rarer by the day.

He slipped on some weight and into supporting roles.  Lupino took to directing episodic television.  She would have preferred features but no one was asking her.  Before she was done working at all, she directed over 100 TV episodes and was always well-liked and respected by crews.

In 1972 she returned to the big screen as Steve McQueen's mother in the rodeo drama, Junior Bonner (1972). She loved working in Prescott, Arizona, but director Sam Peckinpah needled her constantly during production, often embarrassing her in front of the company, and she could never understand why.  She was thrilled at the good notices she received, but returning to films wasn't what she thought it would be.  It was the last decent movie she would make.

In 1974 Duff came home, much as Hayward had years earlier, and announced he was leaving.  He'd threatened it many times before but this time Lupino knew it was for real.  This time there was another woman... blonder and much younger.  Of course Duff wanted a divorce but she wouldn't give it and they would remain legally married for another decade.

The downhill slide had begun.  She was being left again and she could hardly bear it. She would love Duff forever.  She would never let him go, she said.  She still saw him as the young stud he was when she first met him.  And then her mother died as the result of a car accident and Lupino's dissent into hell was a little quicker. She was wicked to nearly all those around her.  Both she and Duff had always wanted their daughter to become an actress and she told Lupino that wasn't going to happen.  Lupino, as always, expected obedience, demanded it.  Not this time.  The daughter said goodbye.  Lupino was crushed when Young died in 1980.

She withdrew into herself, stopped seeing a lot of her friends and stayed behind drawn curtains and newly-built walls, all very Garboesque.  Her consumption of liquor continued with a vengeance.  Household staff would quit because they couldn't take it. She kept on a secretary-companion for a number of years but most people bailed... or died.

She had grown bald and was never without a wig.  Bloated and more hard-ass looking than ever, it was astonishing that she was offered a film role, a lead no less.  But she couldn't remember her lines and was fired. Terribly humiliated when it became public, she retreated more than ever.  I never expect anything to last, she said, neither success nor love.  I can't be hurt.  I suffer so much in anticipation of suffering.

In time she did finally agree to a divorce. Duff remained strong about wanting one and she was simply and finally worn down.  But her depression deepened and she never recovered.  After she had a seizure, she closed her doors forever.  

She had cancer when she died in Burbank, California, in 1995 at the age of 77, but the cause of death was a stroke.  It was a blessing.

She was always a reluctant actress but a damned good one.  To me she took some of the darker sides of who she was as a person and with edgy energy luminously became someone else on the big screen.  She would, however, want to be remembered as a movie director, an important auteur of the 1950s. Perhaps one day I will do a posting and give that some more attention. 

Next posting:
Movie review

1 comment:

  1. Great bio on a forgotten star. So glad you mentioned The Big Knife; it is one of my favorite films, have written about it on my blog.

    Lupino also directed some films, most notably the charming Trouble with Angels with Roz Russell and Hayley Mills in 1966.

    I always enjoy your blog!