IDA LUPINO, From ‘Ingenue’ to Actress

Above:  Lana Carlson (Ida Lupino) a manipulative, man-eating murderess attempts to devour her husband’s friend.  “They Drive By Night” (Warner Brothers, 1940, directed by Raoul Walsh).
Below: Ida Lupino as the neglected girlfriend of a private detective who is paying more attention to  his clients, than to her.  “The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt” (Columbia, 1939, directed by Peter Godfrey).

I first saw Ida Lupino while watching  a late night movie, one with Humphrey Bogart, an actor I found fascinating in my mid-teens in the early 1970s.  I was especially interested in the Warner Brothers crime and gangster epics from the 1930s.   The only way for me to see them was on a local TV station, one that had a pretty decent library of Warner Brothers and RKO movies from the 30s and 40s, after the 11 o’clock news on Sunday nights.  The movie was “High Sierra.”  Her name was vaguely familiar: Ida Lupino.  Curiously, her’s was the first name in the opening credits, above Bogart’s.  But it wasn’t until a good twenty minutes into the movie that I saw this woman, this girl, really, who captured my attention immediately.  Delicate, pretty, but tough.  Eyes wide, always searching.  Not afraid to trade barbs with the two callow mugs she was hanging out with.

She was wary but not afraid of Roy Earle, the legendary gangster, now an old ex-con out on parole, Bogart’s character in the film.  He was too worn and jaded to feel an attraction to her — the one that I certainly felt and couldn’t understand how Roy Earle, or anyone, could not.  But Earle wanted the “boys” to get rid of her, send her packing.  No place for a dame with men about to pull off a big jewel heist.  A woman was bad luck.  My jaw dropped — I couldn’t believe anyone would even consider sending her away.  Of course they didn’t — she was Ida Lupino, the name at the top of the credits.  She wasn’t going away soon in this movie.

After the film ended, I was amazed — dumbfounded, really.  How could anyone in movies be this good and not be as familiar a name as my other favorites of the period — Bette Davis, James Cagney, Bogart of course.  I wanted to find out more about her, what other films she had made.  Such information was neither abundant nor readily available back then.  I simply had to wait for another late late show movie and, fortunately for me, the late late show didn’t let me down.  There were other movies.  “They Drive By Night,” in which she played a horrible woman, but was every bit as fascinating to me.  “The Sea Wolf,” “Out of the Fog,” in which her screen time was disappointingly less than “Sierra” or “Drive,” but still worth staying up past 1:00AM.  Then later films, “Deep Valley,” “The Hard Way,” films that were centered around her character.

Ida Lupino's fourth film for Paramount, a mid 1935 release, "Paris in Spring," directed by Lewis Milestone.

A bit later, in college, I discovered the six volume New York Times Film Reviews and read reviews of every film she made.  I found it hard to believe, but Ida Lupino had been making movies long before she played the “girl” in High Sierra.  As hard as it may be for someone younger to understand today, aside from the occasional TV late show, none of her films were available outside of “revival houses” in major cities, or in college towns.  Home video was a dozen years in the future.  I still haven’t seen the majority of the early Ida Lupino films.  Most were Paramount productions, and Paramount sold the television rights to MCA/Universal decades ago.  Whoever controls their material now has done a piss-poor job of making it available to the public in any format, and by all indications seems to have no interest preserving these films whether they’re available for home video or not.

"Smart Girl," unlike "Paris in Spring," was decidedly a "B" picture for Paramount, but Ida Lupino did receive "star" billing. "Smart Girl," Paramount, 1935, directed by Aubrey Scotto.

At first glimpse, the career of Ida Lupino could be seen as that of a “late bloomer.”  She had been working in movies for so long, that it gave the illusion, the impression of age — she must be older than she looks in High Sierra, she couldn’t possibly have been in films that long before audiences and critics discovered her and still be that young.  She couldn’t possibly have been born in 1918, must’ve lied about her age like everyone did and still does.  She appeared in her first film at the same time she entered her teens, in 1931, and so was never thought of as a “child actress.”  But she was not a “teen star,” a label that in the modern sense did not exist at that time.  If anything she could have been referred to (and occasionally was) as an “ingenue,” to borrow the old theater word for a female playing roles more than a child, but not yet a woman (to borrow another phrase from a more recent time).

A lovely Paramount publicity still without identification except for the notation, "Ida Lupino - in Paramount Pictures."

In fact Ida Lupino was playing mature roles at the age of 16 and had by then already made a dozen films both in Britain, her home, and in America.  She signed a contract with Paramount who seemed to be marketing her as a platinum blonde with brains — an interesting combination, but about 2 years too late — the platinum craze was done by 1934.  Paramount either didn’t notice or didn’t know how to utilize anything but the softer side of Ida Lupino.  More than half of the fifteen films she made from 1935 through 1939 were with other studios on (presumably) loan-outs — including a Technicolor short film with MGM where she was promoted as a starlet, a young female movie star of (somebody’s) (hopefully near) future.  She never made a film for them (see images from the 1935 MGM short, “La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, below).  In this period she made a series of films of highly variable quality before finding a landing-place and stardom among the male-dominated company of actors at Warner Brothers in 1940.  After a decade in movies and nearly 30 films, she was just 23.  Quite young indeed for a late-blooming star.

Above and Below, two Paramount publicity stills likely from the end of her tenure at the studio, the above photo being representative of the toned-down blonde look, and below a strikingly mature composition pointing toward the future and the beginning of her career with Warner Brothers in 1940. By the time these photos were made, Ida Lupino had appeared in more films for other studios on loan-outs, including an MGM Technicolor publicity short in 1935, than she had for her "home" studio, Paramount Pictures.

[For larger high-resolution versions of the above photos (but not of movie frame images), see the 11 E14thSt photo gallery at Flickr in the right side post margin>>]

Ida Lupino’s career followed a long, winding road to public and critical notice of her talent — the recognition that she had become one of the best dramatic actresses of the screen in the 1940s.  In the 1950s and 60s, she was a rare female filmmaker, a director in an industry dominated by men as much as any other (but more dependent upon women than any outside the garment industry).  But not until the years just preceding her death in 1995 was her importance as a filmmaker generally recognized, and only now is her place in film history fully appreciated.

It was a career that spanned and outlasted the many genres that arose in American movies, the Hollywood studio era of film history.  The already-mentioned platinum blonde craze, the gangster film, the screwball comedy period, the classic “women’s pictures” of the forties, those of the scorned-but-loyal type defined by Joan Crawford, but done to perfection and in wide variety by Lupino, and film noir — including some of the best film noir ever made.  In the course of her career she played fashion models, gangsters’ molls, wartime wives, self-sacrificing women who gave up their dreams for husbands, children, even siblings.  She played mentally challenged innocent girls, blind mature self-supporting women, scheming murderess, torch singer, hard-boiled newsroom groupie, noir vixen, greedy widow, women brutalized by intruders and double-crossed by bigamist husbands, and a sociopathic prison warden.

In the early 50s she began to direct after first getting a hands-on opportunity to fill in for the ill director of one of her films.  A short time later, she and then-husband Collier Young formed their own film production company called succinctly, “The Filmmakers.”  She continued to act, but less frequently, and to produce, write and direct increasingly in the decade, and was the second female admitted to the Directors Guild.  She directed primarily in television in the 1960s before returning to acting, if only sporadically in the 70s.

Very early on I realized that I couldn’t do justice to such a career with one essay as originally planned, and that it would require multiple installments.  Therefore, what follows are images with brief descriptions where necessary of the first phase of the career of Ida Lupino, up to and including the beginning of her recognition as a “star” at the dawn of the 1940s.

Above, as one of six “new” starlets promoted by MGM in their 1935 Technicolor short, “La Fiesta de Santa Barbara.”  (The others were Mary Carlisle, Cecilia Parker, Shirley Ross, Rosalind Keith and Toby Wing.)  Also featured were the comedy stars under contract, Harpo Marx, Buster Keaton, Chester Conklin, Andy Devine, brief cameos from Robert Taylor and Gary Cooper and, most memorably, a performance by the “Garland Sisters,” as the former Gumm Sisters were now renamed, with “Baby Gumm,” rechristened “Judy Garland,” to become in a few years a major star.

Below, in “The Gay Desperado” (UA/Pickford-Lasky, 1936), a spoof of Mexican banditos and American gangster films in musical operetta form.  While the stars of the film were Leo Carrillo, a musical comedy star, and Nino Martini, an operatic tenor, Ida Lupino gets to show hints of fire to come as she turns the tables on bandit Braganza (Carrillo) and his banditos who have hijacked her and boyfriend Chivo (Martini): 

Above, Jane (Ida) briefly gets the drop on the banditos who have held up her and Chivo — but,  below,  is no match a for a bandito’s unexpected lasso:

“The Gay Desperado” was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who supervised a handful of the best American film productions of the 1930s, including the first (and best by far) sound remake of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (Paramount, ’31), with Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins; one of the best early ’30s musicals, “Love Me Tonight” (Paramount, ’32), with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; and the first 3 Strip Technicolor feature film, “Becky Sharp” (RKO, ’35), also with Miriam Hopkins (another vastly underrated, overlooked figure — and her acting was pretty darn impressive, too).

Below, Ida Lupino in her ventriloquist act in “Fight For Your Lady” (RKO 1937), (the only worthwhile act in the film):

Below, “Sea Devils,” (RKO 1937)

With Basil Rathbone as Holmes in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Fox, 1939):

Above with Lee Bowman and Below with Fay Bainter in “The Lady and The Mob” (Columbia, 1939, directed by Benjamin Stoloff).   Aside from her love interest in Bowman, Lupino’s primary role is to react to the oddity of Bainter’s elderly lady of society fighting the mob in New York City.

Above and Below, Ida is the Model in “Artists and Models,” Paramount, 1937, directed by Raoul Walsh.  Walsh would direct her twice more in the near future, including a film decidedly not about artists and their models, but rather gunmen and their molls in the 1940 Warner Brothers production, “High Sierra,” the film that made stars of both Lupino and Humphrey Bogart.

Below, in the next two sets of images, Advertising Exec Jack Benny gets lucky.  Very Lucky.

As the girlfriend of Warren William the private dick in “The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt” (Columbia, 1939, directed by Peter Godfrey), Ida must contend with his purely professional interest in a lady in trouble . . . who happens to be Rita Hayworth in an early supporting role.    Ah, what a choice!!

“Ida Lupino’s ‘Bessie’ is another of the surprises we get when a little ingenue suddenly bursts forth as a great actress,” Bosley Crowther, New York Times review of “The Light That Failed,” Dec. 25, 1939.  [I apologize for having no illustrations from this film — possibly in a future post . . !] 

This was the beginning of the general critical and industry-wide recognition that Ida Lupino was an actress with serious talent.  “The Light That Failed,” in 1939, was her last project for Paramount.  Her next film completed her transformation from “ingenue” to actress, and inaugurated the most successful period of her acting career.  That film was the Warner Brothers’ 1940 release, “They Drive By Night,” co-starring George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan and directed, of course, by the legendary actor/writer/director, king of eclectics/director of infinite variety, the man who portrayed John Wilkes Booth in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” Raoul Walsh.

Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale, Sr.), owner of a trucking company, and wife Lana (Ida Lupino) watch a couple of truckers in a fist fight.  As Ed gets caught up in the excitement, Lana berates him — she thinks he is a boorish buffoon.  Ed is preposterously kind-hearted and tolerant.  He thinks Lana is sharp-tongued but hilarious.  It is clear to everyone but Ed, that Lana married him (going on 8 years) for money.

Ed recognizes one of the truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft), an old friend.  Ed calls to him to come up to see him.  Ed can’t wait for Lana to meet Joe.  Lana is intrigued . . . but not for similar reasons.

Lana is nonchalant to the point of rudeness.  Ed is the only person who thinks her rudeness and sarcasm is funny, and nobody laughs harder at Ed’s own jokes (which are non-stop) than Ed himself.

As Ed and Joe start to talk business, Lana shows interest — in Joe.

As Ed leaves the office to retrieve a message, Lana goes to work.  On Joe.

But Joe is too good a friend to play games with his friend’s wife.  When Ed returns, he offers Joe a position with his trucking firm.  For Lana, angling for a different position for Joe, it’s only round one.

Ed has told Lana bad news about Joe and his brother who were in a bad accident.  Joe’s brother lost an arm, but to Lana’s relief Joe is alright.  She convinces Ed to give Joe a desk job.  Lana continues to hit on Joe, without success.

Lana wants Joe to come to their eighth anniversary party she and Ed are throwing at their estate tonight — Joe has other plans, but Lana tells Ed Joe isn’t coming, and Ed good-naturedly, but direct, “orders” Joe to come and see his place.

At the anniversary bash, Lana continues to try to seduce Joe . . . “Why do you keep pretending you don’t even notice me?”

. . . but no luck.  “I’m doing good at the office, and I’m not playing around with the boss’s wife.  Ed’s always been alright with me, and I’m always going to be alright with him.”  “How touching! The devoted employee, the faithful friend!”   “That’s me.  Goodnight, Mrs. Carlsen.”

Lana stews . . “Mrs. Carlsen . . . Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . .”  And the sound of drunken laughter as Ed gets more drunk as the evening wears on and the party moves to a nightclub . . .

. . . and Ed gets to the point where Lana must drive him home.

Lana pulls into their garage with Ed passed out next to her in the front seat.  “Come on, sit up you drunken pig.  Get up and walk or do I have to carry you!”   Ed is too incapacitated to respond coherently.  Lana begins to have . . . ideas . . .

With Ed still passed out on the seat, Lana leaves the keys in the ignition with the car running.  As she walks out of the garage she notices . . .

. . . the exhaust fumes . . . and the electronic “magic eye” that controls the garage door . . .

. . . after only a moment’s hesitation, her face goes blank and she walks purposefully past the electronic control light, which triggers the garage doors to close, leaving her  unconscious husband in the car with engine running.

But Lana saves her finest performance yet for the D. A.

Lana plays the grieving widow to the hilt.  “He was so drunk.  I always told him something bad would happen if he kept drinking that way.   Naturally, I couldn’t lift such a heavy man out of the car.  He’d fallen asleep in the garage before, but he always came in the house when he sobered up.  This time he must have awakened still drunk and started the car.  Oh, it’s so awful.  He wanted so much to live.  He had every thing to live for!”

Lana is allowed to leave.  “I’m sorry to have to question you, Mrs. Carlsen.  Please accept my sincerest sympathies,” and closes the case as an “Accidental Death.”  Lana leaves unencumbered to get on with her new life . . . and new plans.   As she approaches the camera in extreme close-up we see the truth in her face . . .

The role of Lana Carlsen in “They Drive By Night” was one that might be considered career suicide to a young, up-and-coming starlet on the verge of movie stardom or to an established star trying to stay that way.   Evil and manipulative are only the first two adjectives that come to mind to describe her.  But by 1939, it is likely that Ida Lupino wasn’t placing stardom as her highest career aspiration in movies (she would prove that hypothesis ten years later when she began to direct and produce films with her own production company), and although Bette Davis was playing similar roles and had been doing so since the mid 1930s, she was ten years older than Lupino, and had been an established star for a decade.  Lupino was a shade over twenty-one when she played Lana Carlsen , and it was a shrewd move — it got her plenty of notice.  The good kind.

Equally shrewd, on her part, her agent, Warner Brothers, or all of the above, was her next role — one diametrically opposed to Lana Carlsen — that of Marie in “High Sierra.”  It was the first film in which she received top billing.  It was also the film that established her as a star in the eyes of the public and the media.  That one gamble, with Lana Carlsen, was the most important move she made in her acting career.  But far more interesting roles and film work would await her during the next ten years.

[The next installment of “IDA LUPINO” will look at the climax of her performance as Lana Carlsen in “They Drive By Night,” and at her role in “High Sierra,” the film that made her a star.]

2 thoughts on “IDA LUPINO, From ‘Ingenue’ to Actress

  1. Wow…already I can’t wait for the next part. Thanks for your perceptive acknowledgment of someone I’ve always felt was under-rated. She was SO good in SO many films…THE LIGHT THAT FAILED and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT were just two highlights to be followed by many more…

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