September 02, 2010
of Classic Movie Blog
There are few artists who have made as rich a contribution to movies and television as Ida Lupino. She would be among the greats for any one of her major accomplishments, be it as a diversely talented actress, a director and producer of gritty, hard-hitting movies or as a prolific and efficient television director. That she was one of the first women to have a successful career behind the camera only adds a new dimension to an already impressive legacy.
Ida was immersed in show business from the moment she was born in London, England, on February 4, 1914. The Lupino acting dynasty stretched back to the Renaissance. Her father, Stanley, was a popular London music hall comedian and her mother, Connie, was an actress. True to her family history, young Ida would write and perform plays for the theater people who frequented her parent’s home.
By the age of eighteen, she had made her first appearances in British films and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Hollywood soon took notice, and she eagerly accepted an invitation from Paramount Studios to test for the title role in Alice in Wonderland. However, upon her arrival in Los Angeles, it was clear that precocious, bleached-blonde Ida was too sophisticated to play a little girl. She was instead cast in the racy comedy, Search for Beauty (1934), which was a modest success.
Ida’s image in the thirties was that of an apple-cheeked, lively bombshell. Though she had acting chops, she found herself bouncing from one lightweight role to another. Near the end of the decade, Ida finally caught a break with her intense, damsel-in-distress supporting performance in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).
Feeling encouraged, Ida stole the script for The Light That Failed (1939) and memorized the coveted part of streetwalker Bessie Brooke. She then cornered director William Wellman in his office, demanding an audition. Her bravado paid off. She won the role and changed the course of her career with a popular and critically-acclaimed performance.
Ida greeted the forties with a more sophisticated, hard-boiled image. She slimmed down and embraced her natural dark hair color. She also signed a contract with Warner Bros. In a tightly-wound performance as the neurotic, murderous wife of a trucking magnate in They Drive by Night (1940), Ida stole her first picture for the studio.
This was the richest period of Ida’s career. She displayed remarkable versatility--from her portrayals of struggling innocents in High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942), to the tougher, more world-weary noir queens of The Man I Love (1946) and Road House (1948). Still, she had to constantly fight off the roles rejected by studio queen Bette Davis.
In the late forties, determined to control the course of her career, Ida started Emerald Productions with then-husband Collier Young. Emerald’s first production, Not Wanted (1949), was the story of a young girl who is impregnated by a traveling musician and decides to give the child up for adoption. When director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack days before shooting was to commence, Ida stepped in to direct the film. Thanks to her efficiency and skill (acquired from careful observation on the sets of her movies), the low-budget flick was completed under budget and was a modest commercial success. Though the production had been Ida’s from day one, she refused to accept a director credit.
Ida and Collier then moved their operations to the Filmmakers Company. There Ida continued her work behind the camera. She tackled tough subject matter, such as rape in Outrage (1950) and bigamy in the aptly-named The Bigamist (1953) (in which she also starred). Ida also showed an early flair for suspense with the chilling thriller-noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953), her most successful movie as director. Filmmakers was sold to RKO in the early fifties, where it folded due to poor management. Collier and Ida also divorced, though they would still work together professionally.
In the mid-fifties, Ida began a prolific career as a television director. Building on the promise she showed with The Hitch-Hiker, Ida became known as the "Female Hitch" for her taut camera work in dramas, westerns and thrillers such as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Untouchables. She also helmed the odd comedy, including Gilligan's Island and Bewitched.
Ida knew her male coworkers disliked answering to a woman, and so on her sets she presented herself as an easygoing, maternal figure. Rather than give an order, she would say that “mother” had a few suggestions for a scene. Her tactics were not only successful, but brought her great admiration from crew members.
Though Ida made few movies in the fifties, her performances from this era were among some of her best. In On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Big Knife (1955) and Private Hell 36 (1954), she created characters with soul who were tough, but also achingly vulnerable. She also accepted a regular gig on Four Star Playhouse (for which she was Emmy-nominated) and began a prolific television acting career that would include guest appearances in everything from Batman to Charlie's Angels. She even had a short-lived (and also Emmy-nominated) run co-starring in the comedy series Mr. Adams and Eve with then-husband Howard Duff.
Ida directed her last feature movie, The Trouble with Angels, in 1966. She made the last of her movie appearances in the seventies, most notably as a lead in Junior Bonner (1972) with Steve McQueen. She reluctantly gave up acting after My Boys are Good Boys in 1978. She wanted to work, but good parts were scarce for a woman of her age.
In the early years of her retirement, Ida struggled to find happiness. She felt lost without a creative outlet, and longed for romantic companionship (Duff had left her in 1972—the pair divorced in 1983). With the encouragement of friends, she finally established a happy routine consisting of days by the pool and riding horses. Failing health led to a short bout in the Motion Picture, Television Country House. Ida then spent the remainder of her years in a lush Hollywood apartment, surrounded by friends and admirers. She suffered a stroke in 1995 and died in August of that year.
Late in her life, Ida resented that the industry had not properly recognized her remarkable contributions to her craft. Today, she has finally gotten her due. Many of her features are available on DVD and she has been the subject of numerous revivals, books, and articles.
There has never been an actress or director quite like Ida Lupino—her type lasted through her lifetime and died with her. She was a unique treasure.