Ida Lupino, director
This is a guest post written by Molly Silverman
Ida Lupino is one of those iconic figures that many people seem to overlook. A lot of the time, Lupino is recognized for her role as Humphrey Bogart’s gal in High Sierra. Even though Ida Lupino, the actress, is quite wonderful, Ida Lupino, the director, is absolutely groundbreaking.
In Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman’s book, Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, the authors highlight the career the actress had behind the scenes. The book goes into depth on how Lupino was in the boy’s club of directing, and how she wanted to represent women’s stories as honestly as the Production Code would let her. Let’s look through the lens and discover more about Lupino the director.
During the 1950s, America’s post-war society held the belief that men should return to their jobs and women should return to their homes. Hollywood has always operated a little differently, but when it came to directors, Lupino was literally the ONLY female. Meetings with the Directors Guild would start with “Hello Gentlemen and Madam (31).” The reason she was allowed into this male-dominated field is because she co-owned a production company called The Filmmakers.
Not only did she get to direct the films she wanted, she also produced them. So in a sense, she was also paying some of the bills. It is sad that this was the only way she could direct, but in a time where sexism was prominent, it makes sense. To feed into the misogynistic ways of men, Lupino had to make it seem like the men were just helping her out, instead of doing what she told them to do. Her nickname was Mother, and in a 1967 interview, she explains why she would act like a mother to the men. Lupino says,
“You do not tell a man; you suggest to him. ‘Darlings, mother has a problem. I’d love to do this. Can you do it? It sounds kooky but I want to do it. Now can you do it for me?’ And they do it- they just do it” (quoted on page 32).
A woman working in a man’s world during a time where women were seen as inferior was complex; however, Ida knew exactly how to act the role of a doting mother to produce the product she wanted. She also knew what type of storyteller she wanted to be and how she had to sometimes bend her own convictions to be able to tell her stories at all. Those stories would be about real women dealing with real life situations.
Ida is quoted as saying that she wanted to have “message pictures” that had a realistic documentary style but also entertained people (47). A lot of the messages surrounded women who went through traumatic experiences and who had to guide themselves through the pain to be truly living again. An example of this is in her film Outrage where viewers witness main character Ann go through a rape that causes her to run away from her fiancé and the town she knows. Ann then meets Reverend Ferguson who helps her on her journey to cope with her trauma (42–43). A lot of films during that time period did not discuss women’s issues as openly as Lupino did and because of that, the Production Code Association was constantly in battle with her.
Tackling the subjects of rape victims, unwed mothers, and serial killers, the PCA was terrified of audiences finding the “taboo” subjects offensive. Lupino worked her way around their objections by changing up camera angles (specifically in the movie Not Wanted, where she films a labor scene in the point of view of the mother giving birth — page 22), writing letters explaining why she needed to keep scenes the way they were written, and using clever visual metaphor to represent adult situations (20–22). Ida played nice with the PCA so she knew her pictures would be made. Ida knew she had the responsibility to represent women in film since she was the only female director and she did the best she could. In her own way, she was a feminist.
A lot of second wave feminists would disagree with the sentiment that Lupino was a feminist director. Many described her stories as “sexist”, “conservative”, and “passive” (30–31). The criticisms were a bit closed-minded due to the fact that there was no consideration to the fact that Lupino was a filmmaker in the 1950s. It is understandable that during the 1970s and 1980s, these adjectives would hold true to highly outdated films from decades before. However, considering how misogynistic the 1950s were, Lupino was extremely innovative. She told stories about women that would not generally be told by any of the male directors during that time period. She represented her women characters the best that she could, especially with a lot of restriction from the PCA. She worked very hard to break through barriers when women had very minimal opportunities to do so. Men ruled Hollywood, but Ida fought hard to be a filmmaker and give women more of an accurate voice then what they had. Ida might not be perceived as trailblazing because she could not do as much as feminists in different time periods, but when she was only given a little room to wiggle, she stretched as much as she could. As a director, Lupino was most certainly a feminist.
Director Ida Lupino worked in films and television until the late 1970s. Her films should be discovered by anyone wanting to have a better glimpse into a woman in a man’s world. If anything else, they should be a celebration of a female director. Ida Lupino, the director, shall go down in history as a hard-working, brilliant woman.
Grisham, Therese, and Grossman, Julie. Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition. Rutgers University Press, 2017.