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Defying convention, Ida Lupino wrote and directed her own Hollywood story.
It doesn’t matter if the legend of Ida Lupino’s grand entrance into the world--beneath the shelter of a dinner table while zeppelins rained phosphorus bombs on London--is completely factual or not; it would be difficult to disprove. The year was 1918, the city was London, and her parents were entertainers.
Connie Emerald and Stanley Lupino imbued their child with a love for the stage, and enrolled her in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at thirteen. Two years later, in 1933, she auditioned for and landed the first of several British film roles. Under heavy make-up and bleached hair, she was briefly touted as the “Jean Harlow of England.” By 1935, this nonsense had abated, and she was under contract to Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
One can still hear London in her voice in those early Paramount films, which are numerous and primarily forgettable. Things would improve when she moved to Warner Brothers, the home of another outrageous Lupino legend. She reportedly stole a script and broke into William Wellman’s office, where an unsolicited audition led to her role in The Light that Failed, opposite Ronald Colman. True or not, she got the part originally intended for Vivian Leigh. Her performance received critical acclaim and was a popular favorite in 1939. Ida Lupino was beginning to attract attention, and in 1940, High Sierra--a bellwether film for Humphrey Bogart, as well--would put her on the Hollywood map. Her portrayal of the love-besotted Marie, who sticks by her man and his dog until the bitter end, could be considered the real beginning of her career in Hollywood.
She stayed with Warner Brothers, playing all the tough, hard-luck dames she could tolerate until 1947, when she finally grew weary of reading scripts with Bette Davis’ fingerprints on them. She had spent much of her time at Warner Brothers on suspension for refusing assignments, so becoming a freelance actor may have seemed like a lateral move. And, in some ways it was, as the parts she wanted continued to elude her. Audaciously, she took matters into her own hands.
With her second husband, Collier Young, she formed the production company eventually known as The Filmmakers. By 1954, The Filmmakers had produced a dozen low budget movies, the majority of which Lupino either produced, directed, co-directed, wrote or acted in. Her lifelong love of writing and her habit of lingering on movie sets to learn the techniques behind the art and craft of filmmaking had paid off. She became the second woman to be inducted into the Director’s Guild, and the only working female director in Hollywood in the 1950s.
Instead of playing the Hollywood game, or waiting for a break, Ida Lupino had taken the artist’s way out. When she could find no work, she created it. The Filmmakers strove to create low-budget, fast-paced movies of substance, and several explored subject matter considered controversial and provocative in the 1950s. All were considered B-movies, and none could be called a traditional Hollywood hit. Critics primarily ignored them. Today, the fact that they were made at all is impressive enough for many historians. One in particular, The Hitch-Hiker, garnered Lupino the distinction of being the first woman to direct a bona fide film noir.
In 1952, Lupino and fellow actors Dick Powell, David Niven and Charles Boyer formed Four Star Productions, which would create programs familiar to anyone who grew up mesmerized by the eerie glow of 50s and 60s black and white television, or anyone who has watched classic television since. These include Four Star Playhouse, Richard Diamond, Zane Grey Theater, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Honey West, Burke’s Law and The Big Valley. Beyond the Four Star aegis, Lupino directed episodes of The Untouchables, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Fugitive, Daniel Boone and many more.
Her work on action and suspense programs engendered the nickname “the female Hitch,” a left-handed comparison to Alfred Hitchcock she may have lamented as much as her designation as “the poor man’s Bette Davis” a decade earlier, especially in light of her expressed desire to build a more diverse resume. In spite of Hitchcock's gravitas and legacy, this moniker is less complimentary than it may sound. These were the days when a woman who directed movies or television would have just as often been referred to as a lady director as simply ... a director. And, unlike Hitchcock, Lupino did not wield absolute power over the specific trajectory of her directorial journey. She was now working in television, which is a producers medium with time constraints and budgetary limitations … and work is work. The auteur who once brought The Hitch-Hiker to the silver screen, would eventually pay the bills with sitcoms like Gilligan's Island and Bewitched.
Ida Lupino also directed nine episodes of Thriller, a mystery/suspense/horror anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff, and is the only woman to have directed an episode of The Twilight Zone. Between 1959 and 1961, she left her mark on the popular half-hour western Have Gun--Will Travel, directing eight episodes including The Lady on the Wall, a character-rich whodunit scripted by Twilight Zone legends Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. In interviews, series star Richard Boone pointed to Lupino as a director who challenged him and inspired work beyond his comfort level.
Even with all this work and acclaim behind the camera, Ida Lupino was still a performer, and appeared on more television programs than she directed. Earning considerably more money as an actor, she still preferred directing … even claiming it was the easier of the two jobs. She continued acting until 1978, primarily on the small screen. Although some of the later work is forgettable–perhaps even regrettable–in 1972, Lupino turned in an earthy and heartfelt performance as Steve McQueen’s mother in Sam Peckinpah’s underrated Junior Bonner. This low-key tale of a rodeo rider in the process of cresting the proverbial hill failed to connect with audiences, who may have been expecting (or avoiding) a typical Peckinpah bloodbath. Critics applauded vigorously, however, and the film’s reputation continues to grow.
Ida Lupino was an actor, a writer, a director, a producer, a wife three times and a mother once. From an early age, she refused to do the expected, charting her own course and writing her own story. She was not the British Jean Harlow or the poor man’s Bette Davis … or even the female Alfred Hitchcock. She was the original and very authentic Ida Lupino.
She died of a stroke in 1995 while battling cancer, and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, not far from her Escape Me Never costar, Errol Flynn.