Dame in the Game: The Groundbreaking Women of Classic Hollywood

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Maureen LenkerWelcome to “Dame in the Game” – a new column that takes a look back at women who’ve paved the way in the film industry, both onscreen and off.

While the industry still has a long way to go to improve the representation of women, the opportunities we’re afforded today would not be possible without the women who crashed through barriers, studio rules, and gender norms & expectations over the course of Hollywood’s first one-hundred-years.

This column will seek to elucidate their contributions and achievements, while also perhaps serving as inspiration for us contemporary “Mizzes in the Biz.”

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We begin our series with a woman who began her career as an actress, most notably as a hard-boiled dame in film noir, but who is lesser known for her remarkable career as a director beginning in the late 1940s. The lady in question: Ida Lupino.

Ida Lupino

Lupino not only broke barriers as a female director in both film and television, but she also unflinchingly examined touchy, female-centric subject matter in her work, focusing on such issues as unmarried motherhood, rape, and bigamy. In addition to her prolific directing career, Lupino was also a screenwriter, composer, and producer. An impressive resume for a woman who was initially signed to Paramount as “The English Jean Harlow.”

Lupino was born in London on February 4, 1918 to a theatrical family stretching back several generations. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she came to Hollywood via a contract with Paramount, where she made a string of forgettable pictures. Her most memorable work as an actress came with her next contract at Warner Bros. as a tough-girl in films like They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941).

But in 1947, Lupino struck out on her own as an independent artist and that is where she would truly make her mark – both as an actress, appearing in her most celebrated role in Road House (1948) for Columbia Pictures, and as a content creator, founding three independent production companies in quick succession. In 1949, she partnered with television producer Anson Bond to form Emerald Productions, but then quickly transitioned to the independent company The Filmmakers, which she co-founded with her husband at the time, Collier Young.

Lupino reportedly first became interested in directing in the mid-1940s while on suspension for turning down a role, which gave her time to study the filmmaking and editing process. But her first real experience as a director came almost accidentally—she had already co-written and was co-producing Not Wanted in 1949 when the director of the film, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack and Lupino stepped in to finish the project. Making her directorial debut, Lupino was actually not credited for the film—she left Clifton’s name on the project due to her not yet being a part of the Director’s Guild. The film is a gritty, unsentimental look at unmarried pregnancy telling the story of a young woman who ends up pregnant after falling for a guy she thought was “the one.” Shot on a small budget, the film makes extensive use of location shooting and lighting, adding to its hard-nosed, realistic take on a social issue.

Lupino and Young’s company, The Filmmakers, would go on to produce twelve feature films, six of which she directed or co-directed and five of which she wrote or co-wrote. They all followed the same pattern as Not Wanted –low-budget, independent films that focused on social outcasts and social issues that the studios either avoided or tackled with a moralistic and saccharine eye. Though to today’s eyes, the films may seem dated in their representation of gender roles, Lupino broke new ground as a writer and director, daring to examine the consequences of female sexuality and independence in a repressive era.

Furthermore, not only was Lupino pioneering as a prominent female writer and director, but she was making a name for herself directing projects with distinctly “unladylike” topics. Let’s look at her filmography and its subject matter: unmarried pregnancy (Not Wanted, 1949), polio and the challenges of disability in the workplace (Never Fear, 1949), rape and post-traumatic stress from rape (Outrage, 1950), bribery and corruption in sports (Hard, Fast and Beautiful, 1951), a wandering murderer (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953), and bigamy (The Bigamist, 1953). She handled these hot-button social issues head-on with realism and a sympathetic eye that tried to avoid moral censuring.

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In the 1950s, Lupino’s production company went bankrupt attempting to underwrite their own distribution deals, which led to a falter in her cinematic directing career. She would direct only one more feature, The Trouble with Angels, in 1966, but she would go on to have a burgeoning career as a television director. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, she made a career directing over fifty episodes of around thirty different shows, including Gilligan’s Island, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun Will Travel, The Fugitive, and Bewitched. Her reputation as a television director specializing in action and mystery shows earned her the nickname “the female Hitch,” a moniker of the highest honor. Lupino also earned the double distinction of being both the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as the only person to be both an onscreen performer and director of an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Though many remember her first as an actress, Lupino had a far more prolific career as a director and broke major ground, both in her accomplishments as a female director of film and television and the subject matter she chose to tackle with a compassionate, realistic eye. Today, her work is met with greatly varied critical appraisal. While Martin Scorsese cites her as a pioneer and her work as “a singular achievement in American cinema,” other critics believe her strides as a female director are greater than the quality of her films. Either way, Lupino was a woman ahead of her time, who paved the way for female directors in the industry today working both within independent cinema and the studio system.

For more on Ida Lupino, see two excellent books “Ida Lupino: A Biography” by William Donati and “Queen of the ‘B’’s: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera” edited by Annette Kuhn. The article “The Resurrection of Ida Lupino” by Susan Fegley Osmond was invaluable in my research for this piece.

Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.