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Austin Chronicle Both Sides of the Screen (2)

By Cassandra Knobloch

OCTOBER 5, 1998: 

"I never planned to become a director. The fates and a combination of luck -- good and bad -- were responsible." -- Ida Lupino, 1967

Between 1949 and 1954 Ida Lupinobecame a film director, producer, and screenwriter, even as she continued her acting career. In five of the six films she directed during these years, she tackled subject matter that was controversial, even taboo -- unwed mothers, rape, physical disability, the domineering mother, bigamy. In each of these social melodramas, Lupino places a woman at center stage. Each is traumatized, victimized, or pressured by society to conform to traditional female roles; each suffers great personal loss yet perseveres. Recurring themes for Lupino's characters in all six films (many of which she also co-scripted) are flight and displacement, loneliness and alienation.

In 1949, Lupino formed Emerald Productions with Anson Bond and Collier Young. Their only feature film was Not Wanted (1949), which Lupino directed when Elmer Clifton became ill just after shooting began. She adopted a semi-documentary style and shot much of the film on the streets of Los Angeles. A young woman, discovering she is pregnant by an itinerant musician, leaves her hometown. Eventually, she enters a home for unwed mothers, where she has a little boy and gives him up for adoption. Regretting her decision, she tries unsuccessfully to get the baby back and, in desperation, takes a baby from a carriage outside a store. She is arrested, but the baby's mother drops the charges and she reunites with a sympathetic war veteran who has earlier asked her to marry him. The final scene, in which the crippled veteran painfully pursues her through silent streets, is fraught with tension and despair.

Following the release of Not Wanted, Bond left the partnership, and Lupino and Young formed The Filmakers. In an interview with Francine Parker, Lupino said that their intent was "to do high quality, low budget, independent films on provocative subject matter, to tell 'how America lives.'" She next directed Never Fear (1950), in which a young woman who is part of a duet dance team is transformed from dancer to patient when she is stricken by polio. Much of the film was shot on location in a Santa Monica rehabilitation clinic; it also has a documentary feel. Lupino strikes a powerful emotional note during a scene in which the wheelchair-bound patients stage a square dance. Ultimately the film is optimistic, yet Lupino depicted in detail both the emotional anguish and physical trauma of the young woman.

Again venturing into difficult film territory, Lupino directed Outrage (1950), portraying a young woman who is a rape victim. After working late one day, she is followed and raped in a frightening scene. The incident is publicized and, like the young woman in Not Wanted, she flees her hometown, leaving behind her family and her fiancé. On the way to Los Angeles, she encounters a young minister and begins to recover, until another man insists on kissing her; recalling the rape, she attacks and nearly kills the man. Eventually, he drops the charges against her, and she is released into the minister's care provided she undergoes psychiatric treatment. After he convinces her to return to her family and her fiancé, she leaves him reluctantly, uncertain whether she will ever find a real home after her brutal experience.

Lupino's fourth feature film was Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), in which a domineering mother attempts to cash in on her daughter's athletic talents by pressuring her to become a professional tennis player. Lupino skillfully sets out a complex set of family relationships in the film, then uses composition in her mise-en-scene to create and build tension between characters. She escalates conflicts between sexes and generations by the way she positions characters within the frame. Finally, when the tensions become too great, she ruptures the family unit entirely, which overshadows the superficial "happy ending" that reveals the daughter's decision to marry and quit professional tennis.

The only film in which Lupino directed herself was The Bigamist (1953).She plays one of two women a traveling salesman marries. Already married, he meets the Lupino character when he travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Several months later, when he discovers that she is pregnant, he marries her also. When he and his first wife decide to adopt a child, the second family is discovered during a thorough background check by a social worker. In the final courtroom scene, the judge doesn't actually sentence him; both women are present, and the ending is ambiguous. In the man's confused attemptto do the right thing for both women, it appears he has lost them both forever. Again, characters are in flight, alienated from one another.

In The Hitch-Hiker (also 1953), Lupino turned her attention away from the problems of women but retained her themes of flight and displacement. A fishing trip planned by two friends turns into a nightmare when they are captured at gunpoint by a psychopathic murderer, then forced to drive him across the Mexican desert. The only film noir directed by Lupino, the movie is taut and suspenseful; it powerfully demonstrates that anyone can become a victim, and how unexpected and terrible that experience is.

The films Lupino directed may be considered early feminist work. Independently produced, bold, and unorthodox in their choice of subject, they unflinchingly depicted social issues relevant to ordinary women. Some critics have devalued Lupino's films, however, asserting that her women characters are passive victims. Yet neither the mother nor the daughter in Hard, Fast and Beautiful can be called passive. And her male characters, notably the father in Hard, Fast and Beautiful, the two friends in The Hitch-Hiker, and the salesman in The Bigamist, are frequently passive, confused, and bewildered by the world around them.

Lupino went on to direct approximately 100 television episodes. She also guest-starred in many roles, and co-starred with husband Howard Duff in the series Mr. Adams and Eve, and directed 1966's The Trouble With Angels.

Cassandra Knobloch is a professor of Drama at Austin Community College.

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