The Ida Lupino Blog-a-thon: Don’t Mess with this Dame
As an actress, Ida Lupino referred to herself as “a poor man’s Bette Davis,” and as a director, she called herself “the poor man’s Don Siegel,” but for me, she wasn’t the poor man’s anything. For me, Ida personified the hard-boiled, scotch-drinking, tough-talking dame from the wrong side of the tracks. In one of her films, she says, “I’ve seen and heard it all, buster.” That’s Ida Lupino to me.
Ida was born in London on February 4, 1918 – according to legend, she was born under a table during a zeppelin raid in the first World War. She had a real show-business family. Her father, Stanley, was a famous dance hall performer, her mother was once known as the fastest tap dancer alive, her paternal great-grandfather was an acrobatic ballet dancer and singer, and her great-uncles were stage headliners.
Ida really wanted to be a writer, but she said that it would break her father’s heart if she didn’t follow the family’s footsteps into show business. So at the age of 13 she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and her cousin helped her to get work as a screen extra. Her first big break in films came in 1932 when she was cast in Her First Affaire. It was her mother, Connie, who had originally tested for the part – Ida was just along for the ride. But the film’s director took one look at Ida and gave the role to her instead. She was only 14 years old – but she didn’t look it – or act it.
At the time, Ida was a bleached blonde – she was even billed as “the English Jean Harlow.” She appeared in five films the following year, and caught the attention of Paramount studio executives in Hollywood, who signed her to a six-month contract. Paramount announced plans to cast her in the title role of Alice in Wonderland. But this part just wasn’t for Ida — her sophisticated manner and mature voice didn’t conjure up the image of the ideal Alice, and the actress herself later said, “you can’t play naïve if you’re not.” Instead, she was cast in two lightweight features, Search for Beauty and Come On, Marines.
After these two films, Ida began to display her spirited temperament through some outspoken comments in the press. She told one reporter: “I cannot tolerate fools – I won‘t have anything to do with them. I only want to associate with brilliant people.” Although she was getting steady work, Ida complained: “If I don‘t get a part I can get my teeth into, I‘m going back home.”
Shortly after she made this declaration, she was given five lines in Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert, and was ordered to stand behind the star waving a large palm frond. When Ida refused this tiny role, she was put on suspension. It was the first of many. Ironically, it was during some of those suspensions that Ida would go on movie sets, hang around with the directors, and learn the behind-the-camera tricks that she would later use in her second career.
Ida was given a new Paramount contract after a small part in the prestigious film Peter Ibbetson, but she wasn’t happy with the roles that followed, including Anything Goes (1936) and The Gay Desperado (1936). One film in 1937 – Artists and Models – was a hit at the box-office, but Ida thought that her part was beneath her. She told the press that she didn’t “care a fig about being pretty-pretty on the screen,” and asked to be released from her contract. Paramount not only granted her request, they also banned her from the lot.
Leaving the studio was a turning point in Ida’s career. She took a year off to study acting and she also got some good advice from actress-turned-columnist Hedda Hopper, who told Ida that she might be taken more seriously if she “didn’t look like a hussy.” She let her bleached blonde hair return to its original auburn and let her pencil-thin eyebrows grow in, which transformed her into the Ida Lupino that I grew to know and love.
In 1939, Ida came back strong as a hot-tempered Cockney streetwalker in The Light That Failed. In landing the part, she demonstrated her strong will and determination by stealing a copy of the screenplay, memorizing a scene, and storming into in the office of producer-director William Wellman to demand that he let her read for the part. She got the role – despite the fact that the film was being produced byParamount – the studio that had banned her from its lot just two years earlier.
Ida was even more successful in Warner Bros. They Drive by Night, which is one of my favorite Ida Lupino movies. In it, she plays Lana Carlsen, a rich, married woman who is obsessed with a truck driver played by George Raft, and will stop at nothing to get him. There was a popular song several years ago about Bette Davis eyes, but there was nothing like Ida Lupino’s eyes, especially in this movie. Through them, she could express fury, disappointment, hope, sorrow, contempt, longing, resignation, and triumph – all without saying a single word. It’s one of her most mesmerizing performances.
After the release of They Drive By Night, Warner’s signed Ida to a contract, starring her in 1941 in her first film noir, High Sierra, where she played Marie Gossett, a former dime-a-dance girl who falls hopelessly in love with notorious ex-convict Roy Earle, played by Humphrey Bogart.
Ida and Bogart were perfect for their parts, but their relationship toward each other was a little rocky at first. Ida said, “I have a way of kidding with a straight face – so does Bogie. Neither of us recognized the trait in the other. Each of us thought the other was being nasty, and we were both offended.” Fortunately, as the shooting went on, they grew to appreciate their similarities, and together they made one great movie.
After her performance in this film, Ida was pronounced by one magazine as “Hollywood‘s Hottest Star.” She next starred in two great films, The Sea Wolf and Out of the Fog, but she racked up another suspension when she rejected parts in Kings Row and Juke Girl, both of which would be played by Ann Sheridan. Ida began to develop a reputation for being temperamental and difficult, prompting screen magazines to feature articles with titles like “Loony Lupy” and “Ida – the mad Lupino.”
Ida rebounded in the 1942 film The Hard Way, where she played a domineering woman who is determined to make her little sister a star no matter what the cost. She earned raves from critics and won the New York Film Critics’ Award for Best Actress that year.
During the next few years, Ida appeared in several memorable films, including The Man I Love, where she played a blues singer with a tough exterior and a vulnerable heart, and Deep Valley, where she was a shy country girl with a speech disability. She also showed her versatility by collaborating on a screenplay called Miss Penington, and she composed dozens of songs, many of which were recorded and broadcast on the radio.
Ida turned down Warner Bros.‘ offer of a high-paying, seven-year agreement in 1947. Instead, she accepted a starring role with Richard Widmark and Cornel Wilde in Road House, her second film noir. In this successful film, the actress played the quintessential Ida Lupino role as a hard-as-nails singer who didn’t take any guff off of anybody. The movie was physically demanding on the actress, though – she was left heavily bruised after one scene, and suffered a pulled neck tendon and a painful back injury in another. She even lost her voice after screaming in one scene at Richard Widmark. In a letter I received several years ago from Cornel Wilde, he remembered Ida as “so real, offbeat, and just lots of fun.”
In her personal life, Ida was about to enter her second marriage. Her first husband was actor Louis Hayward, who was best known for his title performance in The Man in the Iron Mask. The couple married divorced after six years and Ida became involved with Collier Young, who was a Columbia Studios executive and, incidentally, a close friend of Louis Hayward. They were married in 1948, less than two months after Ida became an American citizen. The couple formed an independent company, Emerald Productions, and worked together on Not Wanted, a film about illegitimate birth that Ida co-wrote and co-produced. It would become a milestone in her career. When the picture‘s original director suffered a heart attack three days into shooting, Ida took over as director. The picture was a huge success. The following year, Ida became only the second woman to be inducted into the Director’s Guild of America.
Ida returned to acting in Woman in Hiding. The film was supposed to star Ronald Reagan, but he suffered a fractured thigh and was replaced by a newcomer by the name of Howard Duff. Ida would later recall that initially she and Duff “couldn‘t stand each other,” and Duff would admit that the actress “scared” him. But Ida‘s feelings began to change after she got a bouquet of white orchids with a card reading: “From Howard Duff to Ida Lupino – whether you hate me or not.”
As the attraction between the two performers grew, Ida’s marriage to Collier Young began to suffer. The couple, who had by now changed the name of their company to Filmakers, often clashed on their artistic ventures. After Ida directed her second film in 1950, called Never Fear, Young told the press, “It’s pretty hard to have an argument over a script at five-thirty … and be romantic and husband-and-wifely at six-thirty.“
The marriage suffered its biggest blow when Young signed a deal to team up Filmakers with RKO Studios, which had recently been acquired by Howard Hughes. Filmakers got financial backing out of the deal, but they had to surrender complete control to Hughes. It would turn out to be a big mistake. This act, combined with Ida‘s affair with Howard Duff, signaled the end of the marriage. Ida divorced Young on October 20, 1951, and married Duff the next day. Their daughter, Bridget, was born the following year. Surprisingly, Collier Young, who was still Ida’s business partner, was named the child’s godparent, along with his soon-to-be-wife, actress Joan Fontaine.
Back on screen, Ida appeared in two film noir features, both with Robert Ryan — On Dangerous Ground and Beware, My Lovely. But between acting gigs, Ida was becoming one of Hollywood’s top female directors. In the span of three years, she directed three pictures: Outrage, the story of a rape victim; Hard, Fast and Beautiful, about a tennis champion who is forced into success by her ambitious mother; and The Hitch-Hiker, the tale of two businessmen who pick up a murderous passenger while on a fishing trip. The Hitch-Hiker would be the first film noir directed by a woman.
The Hitch-Hiker was based on the life of a serial killer named Billy Cook who kidnapped two hunters and held them for eight days in Baja. He was sentenced to 300 years in Alcatraz. When Ida heard his story, she knew she wanted to make a film about his life, and to me, it was her best effort as a director. And critics agreed. They praised her expert direction and the movie’s intelligence and imagination. One critic said that Ida used a “close-in technique that was so close in that it practically has us crouching in the car with the killer and his pigeons.”
Ida also directed and starred in The Bigamist in 1953, becoming the first woman to direct herself in a major motion picture. The film was produced by Ida‘s ex-husband and his new wife Joan Fontaine. You can imagine the raised eyebrows that these tangled relationships caused during filming.
Ida next planned to direct and star with her husband in The Story of a Cop, which she had written with Collier Young. But before production began, Duff announced that he wanted a legal separation. The couple later reconciled, but they were becoming well-known for their public and private battles, and this would be only the first of many break-ups and make-ups. Ida and Duff continued their plans for the movie, which was renamed Private Hell 36, and became Ida’s fifth film noir. To avoid conflict with her husband, Ida decided not to direct, and chose Don Siegel to take her place. Years after the film was released, Don Siegel recalled that his experience on the film was not a pleasant one. (He said there was too much alcohol in the air.)
With Filmakers’ continuing to lose money because of distribution costs, Private Hell 36 turned out to be the company’s last film. After the loss of her company, Ida focused her energies on acting, starring in another picture from the film noir era in 1955, The Big Knife. Later that year, she joined with Dick Powell, David Niven, and Charles Boyer as one of the four rotating performers on television’s Four Star Playhouse. She also appeared with her husband the following year in her last film noir, While the City Sleeps, where she played a newspaper columnist. In this film, she was part of a large ensemble cast, but she made her mark as a character who was a lot like Ida herself – a successful working woman who was sexy but not obnoxious, smart but not threatening, shrewd but subtle, and willing to use whatever means she had available to achieve her ends.
In 1956, Ida accepted a cameo role in the film Strange Intruder — it was her last appearance on the silver screen for more than a decade. She continued her appearances on Four Star Playhouse, then starred with Howard Duff on the couple’s new television comedy series Mr. Adams and Eve. The series lasted for 66 episodes and earned Ida an Emmy nomination. (She lost to Jane Wyatt for Father Knows Best.)
Over the next several years, Ida was seen on a number of television shows and directed more than 100 episodes in series that included Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, Bewitched, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel, Gilligan’s Island, and The Untouchables. She was also the only woman ever to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, and the only Twilight Zone director to star in an episode. Despite her success in the field, Ida would later say that she “never planned to become a director. The fates and a combination of luck — good and bad — were responsible.”
Despite Ida Lupino’s hard-boiled persona on the screen, her success as a director seemed to be due to her ability and willingness to play up her feminine charms. The back of her director’s chair read “Mother of Us All,” and she once admitted that she often pretended to cameramen that she knew less than she did. In one interview, she explained how she directed men by saying, “You don’t tell a man – you suggest it to them. You say, ‘Let’s try something crazy here. That is, if it’s comfortable to you.’ I’d say, ‘Darlings, Mother has a problem. I’d love to do this. Can you do it? It sounds kooky, I know. But can you do this lil’ ol’ thang for Mother?’ And they do it – they just go and do it.”
And in another interview she said, “I retain every feminine trait. Men prefer it that way. They’re more cooperative if they see that fundamentally you are of the weaker sex, even though you are in a position to give orders, which normally is the male prerogative, or so he likes to think, anyway.”
Ida directed her last feature film in 1966, The Trouble with Angels, starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, which is a wonderful comedy that I loved as a child, long before I knew who had directed it. She was back on the big screen in the 1969 feature Backtrack, and three years later in the Sam Peckinpah western Junior Bonner. But by this time, her career, both as a director and an actress, was on the decline. Although she continued to make guest appearances on such television shows as The Mod Squad and Family Affair, she would only make five more feature film appearances, most of which are best forgotten. One of these, Food of the Gods, was a low-budget horror film in which Ida’s character is eaten by a giant rat. (This movie is unintentionally hilarious — at least, I don’t think it was intentional. If you’ve never seen it, give it a look!)
Off-screen, it looked like the stormy Lupino-Duff marriage had finally reached an end in the early 1970s, when Duff left his wife yet again, informing her that he was in love with a young stage actress. They finally divorced 10 years later.
Meanwhile, with Ida‘s final television role in a 1977 episode of Charlie’s Angels, and her final film appearance the following year, the career of the talented actress came to an abrupt halt. During the years that followed, Ida became somewhat of a recluse, once telling a reporter, “I’m happier now, leading more of a peaceful existence…. I have retreated from the whole Hollywood scene.” A decade later, though, she did admit that she would be willing to appear before the camera again if presented with a challenging role or if “it pays one hell of a lot of money.”
In June 1995, Ida was diagnosed with cancer, and following a stroke, she died two months later at her home in Burbank,California. At her request, no memorial service was held – before her death, she’d said, “If you give me a funeral, I won’t go.” But although the career of the actress and director ended more than 30 years ago, Ida Lupino is still thought of today as a true talent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. (Despite this, she not only never won an Oscar for her work, she was never even nominated.) As one of the first great women directors, she was a pioneer whose influence can still be felt today, and as an actress, she will always be remembered for that special glint in her eye, the raw quality of her speech, and the hint of intensity that let the audience know that she was one dame you didn’t want to mess with.