Ida Lupino, one of the top Warner Bros. stars of the '40s, will have her “Summer Under the Stars” day on Thursday, Aug. 27 '09.
More than a second-rank Bette Davis but less than a truly great talent, Ida Lupino – whether at her best or at her worst – was invariably interesting. Yet, I can't say that I'm an inveterate Ida Lupino admirer. My problem with the likes of Lupino, Anne Baxter, Susan Hayward, and, oftentimes, Bette Davis is that when they emoted, they ***EMOTED*** – in caps, italics, bold, and with asterisks all around it. Just in case you didn't get that their characters were going through some really rough times.
That said, what makes those actresses interesting – as opposed to irritating or downright revolting – is that underneath all the histrionics there was a core of genuine emotion. Their characters did feel – passion, anger, fear, pain – and had no qualms about showing you what went on inside them. Their fearlessness was their willingness to show others, both on- and off-screen, that they could get hurt, that they were vulnerable.
Consequently, those tough women come across as complex human beings, which is (much) more than can be said of the characters played by male emoters like Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster (who, admittedly, did become an excellent actor as he grew older), or, more recently, Tom Cruise and his myriad imitators. With precious few exceptions (e.g., Edward G. Robinson), tough guys always have to present a veneer of invincibility, which in my view makes them less interesting, less honest, and – paradoxically – considerably less tough than their female counterparts.
So, whether or not you think that trembling voice and those watery eyes are for real, make sure to check out Ida Lupino's movies on Turner Classic Movies. It's an eclectic list, ranging from her early, pre-stardom days (The Gay Desperado, The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt) to one of her (unfortunately) few latter-day roles (Junior Bonner).
Of the scheduled Ida Lupino films I've seen, the one I like best is Peter Godfrey's B spy comedy-thriller The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, which stars the debonair Warren William, who happens to be one of my favorite performers. Lupino isn't very good in this one, overacting shamelessly, but she does look pretty – and so does Rita Hayworth, then still a brunette. William, for his part, was always a sleaze-class act of his own; I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but in most of his films there's no mistaking what goes on inside his characters' head underneath that top hat, those fancy clothes, and that very British poise (though the actor was born in Minnesota).
Directed by Vincent Sherman, The Hard Way earned Lupino a best actress award from the New York Film Critics. (She was one of the few actresses to win in New York but to miss out on an Academy Award nod.) In this Warner Bros. melodrama, she plays an ambitious woman – “Lady Macbeth of the slums,” according to the British film magazine Picturegoer – who pushes her younger sister (Joan Leslie, above) to stage stardom.
Now, Lupino (who during production lost his father, comedian Stanley Lupino, and who fought fiercely with director Sherman) may have been the one who got most of the raves at the time, but Joan Leslie's younger sister is the one that I found unforgettable. Thanks to the near-sightedness of the Warner brothers, Leslie was wasted in sugary roles for most of her career. The Hard Way, in fact, was one of the few productions that allowed this incredibly pretty and talented performer to display her acting skills. (Whoever says that the old-time moguls knew how to make good use of the talent they had under contract clearly knows nothing about studio-era history.)
Raoul Walsh's High Sierra, from a screenplay by John Huston and W. R. Burnett (based on Burnett's novel), is best remembered as the movie that turned Humphrey Bogart into a major star. Yet, it's top-billed Lupino who has the more complex role, as the lover of Bogart's antiheroic ex-con. Joan Leslie, for her part, just about steals the show as the handicapped, sweet young thing, who eventually proves to possess a surprisingly steely core. As far as I'm concerned, Bogart becomes invisible whenever he shares the screen with either of those two actresses. (And keep an eye out for Cornel Wilde in a small role.)
Directed by Lupino, who became the first major (or at least mid-level) female Hollywood filmmaker since the advent of talking pictures, The Bigamist is a potentially cheesy melodrama that turns out to be more affecting than expected because of Joan Fontaine's outstanding performance as Edmond O'Brien's other woman – or rather, other wife. Just try keeping a straight face when Lupino, ever the Actress, calls O'Brien a “big lug.” (I should add that Joan Fontaine was at the time married to Lupino's second husband, producer-screenwriter Collier Young, who both produced and wrote The Bigamist. Nope, the movie isn't autobiographical. Young and Lupino divorced in 1951; he married Fontaine the following year.)
Lupino is actually fine as a blind woman in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, co-starring with the always great Robert Ryan, but she sinks along with just about everybody else – Jean Hagen somehow managed to grab onto a buoy – in Robert Aldrich's godawful The Big Knife (above). The chief problem with this 1955 melo, adapted by James Poe from Clifford Odets' anti-Hollywood play, is that Aldrich made the mistake of keeping the drama as theatrical as possible. As a result, Rod Steiger, hardly the most subtle of actors, delivers what may well be the most bombastic performance not only of the decade, but quite possibly of the century. Not one to be left behind, Lupino comes in at a close second.
Now, for the ones I haven't seen, yet:
- The Gay Desperado earned Rouben Mamoulian the best director award from the New York Film Critics. Italian-born Nino Martini, a handsome singer with a pleasant personality, stars as a singing cowboy (!) kidnapped by a Mexican bandit (Leo Carrillo).
- The Lady and the Mob and Women's Prison sound like the sort of no-holds-barred B movies that remain infinitely more entertaining than most A productions then or now. And to think that tough-as-nails Lupino – who plays a sadistic warden in Women's Prison – was brought to Hollywood so she could be tested for the title role in the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland. Also in the Women's Prison cast: Jan Sterling, Phyllis Thaxter, Audrey Totter, Cleo Moore, Gertrude Michael, and Mae Clarke (the bride of Frankenstein back in 1931), in addition to Lupino's third husband, Howard Duff. Fay Bainter co-stars in The Lady and the Mob. Get your popcorn (or olives or chocolate chips or banana slices) ready.
- Directed by the underrated Charles Vidor, the suspenseful drama Ladies in Retirement has a capable cast. In addition to Lupino, there's Louis Hayward (Lupino's husband #1), Elsa Lanchester, and Evelyn Keyes. Murder is the icing on the cake.
- Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner also has a solid cast – including Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, and Ben Johnson – but to the best of my knowledge it lacks murder. Too bad.
Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart in They Drive by Night. Photo: Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
4:30 AM Lady And The Mob, The (1939)
A woman sets out to break a criminal gang controlling the dry cleaning business. Cast: Fay Bainter, Ida Lupino, Lee Bowman. Dir.: Benjamin Stoloff. Black and white. 66 min.
5:45 AM Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, The (1939)
A spy forces a reformed jewel thief to crack the safe where plans for an anti-aircraft gun are stored. Cast: Warren William, Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth. Dir.: Peter Godfrey. Black and white. 71 min.
7:00 AM Bigamist, The (1953)
A woman discovers her husband has another family in another city. Cast: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmond O'Brien. Dir.: Ida Lupino. Black and white. 79 min.
8:30 AM Out Of The Fog (1941)
A racketeer terrorizes a small fishing community until he falls in love with a fisherman's daughter. Cast: Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Thomas Mitchell. Dir.: Anatole Litvak. Black and white. 85 min.
10:00 AM On Dangerous Ground (1951)
A tough cop sent to help in a mountain manhunt falls for the quarry's blind sister. Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond. Dir.: Nicholas Ray. Black and white. 82 min.
11:30 AM Women's Prison (1955)
A crusading psychiatrist battles a sadistic female warden to improve conditions at a women's prison. Cast: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Howard Duff. Dir.: Lewis Seiler. Black and white. 80 min.
1:00 PM Big Knife, The (1955)
An unscrupulous movie producer blackmails an unhappy star into signing a new contract. Cast: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger. Dir.: Robert Aldrich. Black and white. 114 min.
7:00 PM Hard Way, The (1942)
An ambitious woman doesn't care who she hurts in her drive to make her sister a star. Cast: Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Jack Carson. Dir.: Vincent Sherman. Black and white. 109 min.
9:00 PM Ladies in Retirement (1941)
A housekeeper tries to manage her actress employer and her own emotionally disturbed sisters. Cast: Ida Lupino, Louis Hayward, Evelyn Keyes. Dir.: Charles Vidor. Black and white. 92 min.
11:00 PM High Sierra (1941)
An aging ex-con sets out to pull one more big heist. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Arthur Kennedy. Dir.: Raoul Walsh. Black and white. 100 min.
1:00 AM Junior Bonner (1972)
An aging rodeo rider tries to deal with his dysfunctional family. Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino. Dir.: Sam Peckinpah. Color. 100 min.