Ida Lupino: Pioneer

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If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s you probably remember Ida Lupino as a television and sometimes film actress. Perhaps you did not know that in the late 1940s she began a successful career as a writer/producer/director in both television and films. She was one of the first female directors and had her own production company.

“Keeping a feminine approach is vital – men hate bossy women,” she remarked.

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Ida Lupino in High Sierra.

Ida Lupino was born in London and got her first acting experience on stage and in some English films.  After arriving in Hollywood in the early 1930s she got small parts that gradually led to better parts.  In 1941, she scored with parts in The Sea Wolf and High Sierra.  Her supporting roles were as hard boiled, tough luck dames mostly, up against some of the best leading men in Warner Bros. films.

After leaving Warners, she chased roles but made no headway in breaking into starring roles.  Her break came on a script she co-wrote.  Her moved behind the camera happened when she took over for Elmer Clifton who suffered a heart attack early during the shoot.  Although her work was uncredited, it was a career-defining break.

Partnering with her writer husband, formed a production company they cranked out some low-budget but saucy films, with her in the director’s chair.  In the 1950s, she also produced a television series that she and her next husband starred in.  She also found time to pen some scripts. Today, an actress that is a writer/producer/director is a reality, in Ida Lupino’s time, she had to blaze the trail.

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Lupino had over 100 acting credits starting in 1931 and ending in 1978. Acting paid the bills. Ironically, she moved behind the camera when good acting roles dried up and returned to character roles when directing jobs grew scarce. Imagine a woman, in the 1940s, breaking into the nearly exclusively male directing profession.

She was the second woman to be admitted to the Director’s Guild and the first to direct herself in Hollywood film.  Her films in the early 50s took on social issues and featured characters at odds with society, quirky subject matter, but it was what differentiated these films from more traditional Hollywood fare and it fed the appetite for noir films.

In the 1960s, she moved primarily into directing series television but did not quit acting, you learn to never close a door. She directed both situation comedies as well as hour-long action series such as Daniel Boone, The Virginian, The Wild Wild West and The Untouchables. Imagine, a 5’2″ middle aged, and mild-mannered woman, giving direction to male stars with a male crew.

 

I remember Lupino primarily as an actress.  She starred in two Columbo episodes and many dramatic programs of the 1970s.  I knew that she had directed a film, The Trouble With Angels, a 1966 teen comedy, thinking how unusual for a female to direct a feature film.  Frankly, it was unusual, but I didn’t know much about Ida Lupino.  She had as much tenacity as some of the dames she portrayed in her noir films.


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