Hollywood obituaries are generally written at the time of a movie star's greatest fame & a series of updated facts, unilluminated by analysis, are then grafted onto the original article. In the case of Ida Lupino, such cobbling led to a mess of a report.
Lupino's contributions, both as an actress & as an independent filmmaker were enormous. She entered the industry in her native Britain where her father and uncle were stars and after making several films there in the early thirties, she moved to Southern California and dutifully paid her dues as a bleached blonde ingenue. Two of her 1939 efforts changed all that. In William Wellman's "The Light that Failed", she played the vindictive brunette model of an artist with failing eyesight. Working opposite the legendary Ronald Colman, who did not want her in the role, Lupino didn't pull a single punch or try to soften her character in any way. Her notices were spectacular and after making a striking impression opposite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", she was signed to a long-term contract at Warner Bros. where Bette Davis was queen of the lot.
Lupino's first assignment, in fact was "They Drive By Night", Raoul Walsh's 1940 remake of the 1935 Davis classic, "Bordertown". In many ways the remake, and Lupino, were superior to the original version, but Davis-type roles were harder to come by in the forties than they had been during the Great Depression. For one thing, strong onscreen woman were less of a threat when their offscreen counterparts had a negligible chance of becoming anything like them. For another, both Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland had to sue Warner Bros. for better parts. Ida Lupino did her supernatural best with the retread jobs she was given to do, (check her out in "High Sierra" or "The Hard Way" or any movie she had to make with Joan Leslie, for example) but her meatiest characters were usually offered to her on loan-out.
In "Ladies in Retirement", she stripped her face of make-up and played a cold-blooded killer devoted to her two daft sisters. In "Roadhouse" and "Lust for Gold", she played intriguing variations of women gone wrong because of the need for men or money. But even as she was delivering some of her finest performances, Lupino had her eye on a director's hat and although she wore it most often on television, she also made seven theatrical features as a director, producer, writer & sometimes all three. There was no American Film Institute to support her dream, which made its fulfillment with low-budget gems like "The Hitchhiker" all the more remarkable.
Lupino herself credited her own strong stomach. There had never been anyone quite like her in Hollywood before she arrived and the fact that she was able to achieve so much helped to pave the way for women who wanted to be taken seriously in a town where most of the guys only wanted to look at them.
Copyright 1995 Monica Sullivan
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