Acting in such films as “Out of the Fog” (1941), “The Sea Wolf” (1941), “High Sierra” (1941) and “Road House” (1948), Ida Lupino became a role model for future generations of actresses playing tough, independent women. But it was as a director that Lupino blazed new trails, becoming the only notable female filmmaker of her era in Hollywood.
Bristling under the Hollywood studio system, she and her then-husband, Collier Young, set up an independent production company, Filmmakers, at RKO Studios in the late ‘40s. Over the next few years, Lupino directed and co-produced -- and in some cases wrote -- six low-budget B films that explored such socially conscious topics as unwed motherhood (“Not Wanted”), rape (“Outrage”) and bigamy (“The Bigamist”). (Elmer Clifton is listed as director of the 1949 film “Not Wanted.” But he took ill three days into the production; Lupino directed the film uncredited.)
“She was electric,” says Sally Forrest, whom Lupino discovered and directed in three films, including “Not Wanted.” “She never had the popularity she should have had. She was a fine actress. She was beautiful. She had a fabulous figure and was a great director. Maybe she was too strong for those days.”
As an actress, Lupino often got roles that were turned down by another tough gal, Bette Davis -- but if it weren’t for Davis, the UCLA Film & Television Archive probably wouldn’t be celebrating Lupino’s acting and directing career with a three-week tribute that begins Saturday.
During the 1940s, the lithe British actress with the big brown eyes was under contract to Warner Bros., where she always played second fiddle to Davis, the studio’s grande dame.
“They gave Bette Davis first choice of all the parts Ida wanted,” recalls actress Mala Powers, who starred in the Lupino-directed “Outrage” in 1950. “Then they would hand something to Ida she didn’t want to play. So she would take a suspension -- she couldn’t work anywhere else during suspension, so she would go on the sets of movies. Most of the directors knew her and liked her, and she’d watch them direct.”
And she would tell the directors she wanted to learn the craft. “She’d say, ‘Chum, I’d really like to learn about all of this.’ So she’d sit there and watch. And the cameraman would say, ‘Come over and look at this’ -- this is what the shot would be. So she learned to direct on her suspension times. I often wondered what my destiny would have been had I never met her.”
For UCLA’s Andrea Alsberg, curator of the film festival, Lupino is “just an amazing figure both for her acting and for the direction of these films that sort of came out of nowhere. There is nothing else like them. When did you see a film about rape or bigamy? She took on these challenging social dramas.”
Alsberg acknowledges these films may seem a bit tame now, but they were quite brave in their day because of what Lupino had to do “with the censorship board and Howard Hughes [who owned RKO] and anybody else who was involved in green-lighting the films.”
Lupino stated when she began her company that she wanted to make films that were about something -- “not about faces or stars,” Alsberg says. “I think Sally Forrest and Mala Powers are interesting figures because they are her stand-ins. They really do resemble her in a way. She said she cast actresses for two reasons -- personality and large eyes.”
Born in London in 1918, Lupino was from a famous family of entertainers that could be traced back to the 17th century. At 13, she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her film debut. At 14, she got her first starring role in “Her First Affaire.” The following year she came to Hollywood, where she appeared in a series of forgettable films at Paramount, usually in the ingenue role.
Her big break came in 1939 when she appeared opposite Ronald Colman in William Wellman’s “The Light That Failed” as an embittered streetwalker called Bessie Broke. Warner Bros. was so impressed with her turn that they gave her a contract. While at the studio, she built a reputation for professionalism and intelligence. “I think, ultimately, directors preferred her over Bette Davis,” Alsberg says. “She was a star, but without the star’s attitude.”
Forrest and Powers say that Lupino was an exceptional director. “She was so knowledgeable in every area,” Forrest says. “She was wonderful with actors. She was the best I ever worked with. She was completely understanding and knew exactly what she wanted and how to explain it.”
Powers, who is the co-executor of Lupino’s estate -- the actress died in 1995 -- says that as a director she was very protective of her performers, “so you dared to be wrong because if you did anything wrong, she [wouldn’t] print it.”
Lupino’s marriage to Young broke up early into their partnership, and their company came to an end in the mid-'50s. Lupino then segued into a successful career as a TV director.
She did direct one last feature, the 1966 Rosalind Russell-Hayley Mills comedy “The Trouble With Angels,” about two unruly teenagers sent to a convent school. “It’s very different from the other films,” Alsberg says. But, she adds, Mills’ character is just as much an outsider as Forrest’s in “Not Wanted.”
Noted Alsberg: “I think that her interest was in exploring the lost, the disenfranchised and the outsiders, and that continued all the way through her career.”
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“Ida Lupino--Hard, Fast and Beautiful”
When: Saturday to Nov. 3.
Where: James Bridges Theatre at UCLA.
Price: Admission is $7; $5 for students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. members with ID. Kids’ Flicks admission is $5 for all ages.
Saturday: “Not Wanted” and “Never Fear” at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday: “They Drive by Night” and “The Sea Wolf” at 7 p.m.
Oct. 24: “Outrage” and “Hard, Fast and Beautiful” (Mala Powers is scheduled to appear) at 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 27: “High Sierra” and “Deep Valley” at 7 p.m.
Nov. 2: “Road House” and “The Light That Failed” at 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 3: “The Trouble With Angels” at 2 p.m.
Nov. 3: “The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Bigamist” at 7 p.m.
Information: (310) 206-FILM.