By Don Stradley
A newspaper columnist caught up with Ida Lupino in 1977, hoping to get a “where are they now?” story. He was surprised by what he saw.
She was 59, and rarely left her Hollywood home. Her third marriage had ended, and she was flat broke.
She explained that her life was quiet now, a far cry from the days when she ran her own production company. She was content to stay in and watch television with her three cats.
“If people think I’m eccentric,” she said, “that’s too damned bad.”
It was an unlikely endgame for one of the most respected stars of Hollywood’s golden era. Then again, much of Ida Lupino’s career had seemed a bit unlikely.
The woman who starred opposite such hardy American males as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and John Garfield was born in Herne Hill, South East London on February 4, 1918. She went from a backyard stage her father had built for her and her sister – she came from a theatrical family that purportedly dated back to the 17th century - to becoming one of the top heroines of the 1930s and ‘40s. She often joked that she was “the poor man’s Bette Davis,” but in her rise from B movies to such big time thrillers as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and High Sierra, the girl from London created a uniquely American character, the good girl with the inner toughness.
Perhaps the most unlikely aspect of Lupino’s career was that she became such a fixture in American crime films, what would later be termed noir. Even a partial list list is staggering: They Drive By Night; Road House; On Dangerous Ground; Woman in Hiding; While the City Sleeps; Women’s Prison; Private Hell 36; Strange Intruder. She also appeared in comedies and radio shows, and the occasional costume drama, but directors enjoyed seeing her in peril. She became one of the quintessential “tough dames” who could spar with anyone. When she was locked in a house with the psychotic Robert Ryan in Beware My Lovely, we had a hunch she could take anything the big goon did to her. Not surprisingly, when Lupino stepped behind the camera to direct, she knew exactly what notes to hit while making The Hitch-Hiker, one of the classic noir films of the 1950s.
How did the delicate little lady with syrupy brown eyes enter the solely male domain of film directing?
It was a strained relationship with Warner Bros studio boss Jack Warner that led to Lupino forming her own production company with her then husband, writer-producer Collier Young. The plan was to make low budget yet socially relevant films. When the company’s first production was nearly derailed when the director fell ill, Lupino stepped in, uncredited. Why not? She’d worked with some of the greats, from Fritz Lang to William Wellman and Raoul Walsh, and she’d paid attention. In the coming years she would direct a series of strong titles, including The Bigamist and Outrage.
As a director she was solid, with a knack for whipping up atmosphere. She once described her movies as being about loners. “My films are about people who get lost, who really don’t have a home anymore,” she said. One of them, Never Fear, was a melodrama about a young dancer who comes down with polio. The story meant something to Lupino since she’d been diagnosed with the disease in 1934 and understood the long path to recovery.
Television was good to her during the 1950s and ’60s. She starred and co-created her own short-lived series, Mr. Adams and Eve, while many of the top programs of the era hired her as either a performer or director, including The Untouchables, Batman, Columbo. Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and The Twilight Zone.
Though she was often referred to as a pioneering figure for women in film, Lupino seemed unfazed by the accolade. “I never thought of myself as a crusader,” she told the LA Weekly in 1982. “It was all an accident.”
Just like her some of her contemporaries, Lupino reached a certain age and was relegated to lesser roles. In Food of the Gods she played a farmer’s wife who was eaten by a giant rat.
As for directing, no one had hired her since a 1968 episode of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. When journalist Ginger Varney paid Lupino a visit in the early 1980s, she noticed an odd gizmo balanced atop her cats’ scratching post. It was nothing less than a director’s viewfinder; the very instrument Lupino had once used seemed to be reduced to a cat’s toy.
Lupino occasionally appeared at small film festivals when she was being honored, but mostly she stayed home. She’d had a long career and deserved a rest.
Lupino died in 1995, brought down by several health problems at age 77. The obituaries described her as a kind of feminist innovator, which was true. Yet she’d gone on record saying she’d never enjoyed being in charge, and that taking the reigns of a production company was merely a survival tactic.
The final unlikely aspect of Ida Lupino was that she possessed a saucy sense of humor, one she often kept hidden. As a young girl, for instance, she’d been considered for the role of Alice in Wonderland. When she didn’t get the job, she laughed it off. “I would have played her as a hooker and danced on the table tops.”
Please, Hollywood, can we have a few more like Ida Lupino?