Ida Lupino was the second woman inducted into the DGA. It’s the reason I felt like I should review this box set and should is the accurate word, unfortunately. No other female directors were working in Hollywood when she was, and her films are important. You have to know a director exists to call them one of your blind spots and until this box set came out, I only knew Lupino as an actress (and more by name than that I’d seen any of her roles). That alone can be said for Kino Lorber putting out these movies, all newly restored (in 4K for The Bigamist (1953) and Not Wanted (1949), and 2K for Never Fear (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953)). They’re making sure Lupino’s name gets recognized. You see someone’s name on a box set and it makes you take notice and while there are plenty of deserving directors who haven’t had the honor, that doesn’t take away from the fact that people will discover these films thanks to Kino’s efforts.
It doesn’t hurt that Kino sweetened the deal by adding an all-female roster of audio commentaries. While the movies can be purchased individually (on Blu-Ray or DVD), if you get the box set (which is Blu-Ray only) you also receive a copy of the late Ronnie Scheib’s essay, Ida Lupino: Auteuress. Originally written for Film Comment, it covers the four films, plus some not contained in this box set (like Outrage and Hard, Fast and Beautiful). Scheib’s partner, filmmaker, Greg Ford, joins Barbara Scharres (director of
programming at Gene Siskel Film Center) for the commentary on Not Wanted and they provide a great a close reading of the film if the sound quality could be better.
The title for the box set is Ida Lupino: The Filmmaker Collection but the production company Lupino started with her then-husband, Collier Young (they divorced in 1951 but continued working together) was the Filmakers, with one ‘m.’ Not Wanted was the company’s first film but while it’s widely considered to be Lupino’s directorial debut, Elmer Clifton has the director’s credit. He would’ve been the director too but suffered a heart attack, and while Lupino stepped in, he continued to appear on set.
There’s a story behind Not Wanted’s title, too. Originally it was supposed to be called Bad Company and the film is about Sally Kelton (Sally Forrest), a young woman who falls in love with a piano player (Leo Penn, father of Sean) and ends up pregnant. Bad Company passes judgment on her, but if there’s one trait that’s shared by all four films, it’s the lack of judgment Lupino passes on her characters (and they’re partially hers since except for The Bigamist, she’s credited as co-writer).
Lupino’s films are bewilderingly non-cynical. Instead of seeing the worst in people, you’re constantly confronted with people who are understanding. Not Wanted and The Bigamist both end with the main character facing legal charges. (They also have out of wedlock pregnancies in common, though Sally doesn’t realize she’s pregnant right away). Given the subject matter and the times these films were made in, it feels too good to be true, that the courts would be lenient. Even if it’s not, by acting like this is the norm – people being kind and supportive – Lupino makes her stance clear. By providing an example for others to follow, she changes the world through sheer force of will.
Forrest reunites with Keefe Brasselle (Sally’s other love interest in Not Wanted) for Never Fear, about a dancer, Carrol (Forrest) who gets polio. Lupino had polio, too, and there are scenes filmed at the actual Kabat-Kaiser rehab center. Of the four films, Never Fear is the guiltiest of what film historian (and Diabolique EIC) Kat Ellinger brings up about “social problem films” in her commentary. They “often… played for sensationalism…” At one point, Carol yells that’s she’s a cripple and the music rises. She’s constantly criticized by men (when they’re not telling her to smile). It’s unclear how much time has passed to know if they’re ever justified. Film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ commentary gives an overview of Lupino’s career. She also points out a reason for watching the film today– when Never Fear came out there was no polio vaccine. With the anti-vaccine movement, polio isn’t as securely in the past as it once seemed. Carrol’s boyfriend, Guy (Brasselle), is one of those characters Lupino chooses to think well of. although his introduction doesn’t lead you to expect that at first. While Scheib chooses to see gardenias as a “signature throughout [Never Fear] of his constancy,” it’s also a way of assessing Guy’s financial situation. In the beginning, he can’t afford a gardenia, so he steals one. Carrol was his dance partner, so when she can’t dance anymore, his finances take another hit. His sticking around doesn’t feel like a given yet, without many complaints, he’s ready to switch careers.
That’s another thing about Lupino’s films that can come as a surprise: they’re not melodramas. A title like Not Wanted conjures up images of hysterical women. Instead, you get a subjective story told in flashback with dissolves, and piano music used as a substitute for Steve and a birth scene that drops you right into Carol’s unnerved shoes. The Bigamist deals with bigamy but also garnered attention for its casting, which saw Lupino co-starring with Edmond O’Brien (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953) and Joan Fontaine, otherwise known as Young’s second wife. While the situation sounds ripe for drama, it doesn’t appear that there was any and Ellinger talks about how other films would tackle bigamy without the same objectivity. The Hitch-Hiker has the distinction of being “the only classic film noir directed by a woman” (according to the Blu-Ray case) and in film historian Imogen Sara Smith’s commentary, you get to appreciate the different motifs and how the film approached masculinity and other noir staples. Smith also discusses the merits of letting the audience in on what the police are up to, Lupino’s decision not to translate any of the Mexican dialogue, and the true story behind the script (even Emmett (William Talman) having a bum eye derives from a real case).
Kino Lorber really put this box set together right. Lupino was a pioneer and her movies speak for themselves. Lupino championed subjects that were taboo and didn’t exploit them. Her films are visually stunning, and that would be true even if Hollywood hadn’t made things so hard for her. The fact that they did cement her standing as a trailblazer.