IDA LUPINO: Stardom in the High Sierras

Our introduction to Marie (Ida Lupino), former employee of a "dime-a-dance" joint in L.A., and girlfriend of a small-time criminal. Looking more like a child playing in the dirt with a stick, she first lays eyes on the man who will change her life, the legendary Roy Earle. "High Sierra," Warner Brothers, 1941, directed by Raoul Walsh.

In the previous post on the early career of Ida Lupino, we began to look at “They Drive By Night,” a Warner Brothers release from 1940.  Ida Lupino was one member of a solid cast of veteran actors — veterans of supporting roles who were now headliners in their own right in an “A” picture.  Top of the bill was George Raft, followed by Ann Sheridan, Ms. Lupino and (in what was really a minor supporting role) Humphrey Bogart.

They are complimented perfectly by the WB stock company of character players, including Alan Hale, who in terms of screen time was beneath only Raft and Lupino.  “They Drive By Night” may have been the best film in which George Raft participated (although “Each Dawn I Die,” WB-1938, reputedly Josef Stalin’s favorite film, is a close second, and Raft had a cameo in “Some Like it Hot” 20 years later).  Ms. Sheridan had reached stardom within the past year after a series of hits for Warners, including “Dodge City,” with Errol Flynn, “Angels With Dirty Faces,” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien.  But 1940 would be her big year with “Drive” and two more hit films, “City for Conquest” and “Torrid Zone,” both with Cagney.  Sheridan had followed a similar path as Lupino — before coming to Warners they had both worked at Paramount, both appearing in “Search for Beauty” and “Come On Marines!” as teenagers in 1934.   But “They Drive By Night” was the last film that the other two headliners, Bogart and Lupino, would make before the one that placed them securely in the upper echelon of movie stardom — one we will cover later in this post, 1941’s “High Sierra.”

The first half of “They Drive By Night” is classic Warner Brothers action film, the kind they popularized and perfected in the 1930s, from “The Public Enemy” (’31) through “The Roaring Twenties” (’39).  “They Drive By Night” is an extension of that, at least in the sense that there is plenty of action — some violence and explosions (although no gun-play).  However, the film’s protagonists are over-the-road truckers, not gangsters (even though the trucking industry was then and for years rife with “underworld” influences).  The lives depicted are those of truckers and their women, housewives and diner waitresses, rather than the usual gangsters, gun molls and hookers.

But a radical downshifting of gears occurs midway.  The film splits off into soap opera territory — not a criticism, but rather an observation.  As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted in his original review:  “As usual, the Warners . . . have packed it well with exciting episodes–trucks running wild on the roads, tumbling over cliffs . . . they have chosen to play it the cream of their ungrammatical roughnecks . . . however, they have permitted the second half of the picture to run off on a soft shoulder . . . into conventional courtroom melodrama.” (NYT, July 27, 1940).

Bogart in the role of Joe Fabrini’s brother, drops out of the film as does the Fabrini brothers’ truck, Bogies’ arm and his faithful, patient wife.  She spends most of the rest of the movie presumably with him, but both are offscreen (except for Bogart, minus the arm, later in the film).  But that’s when Lana Carlsen takes center stage, and with her, Ida Lupino.

It is a remarkable, consistently taut performance.  Within seconds of her appearance, we see that Lana is a sociopath — at a minimum.  Her adoring husband Ed has learned to (or maybe always did) love her sarcasm and her outbursts.  He thinks they are as hysterically funny as his own non-stop barrage of corny jokes and puns.  This relationship between them, which reflects Ed’s magnanimity as well as Lana’s volatility is established in their very first scene together as they witness Joe Fabrini’s fist fight with a fellow trucker.   Their relationship and behavior continue unchanged until Lana sees the opportunity to unload Ed in exchange for a better situation, at which point she makes a hard right turn onto a very dark street indeed.

There is a point in the film’s second half when Lana  appears finally satisfied with her life as she has remade it.  But she has “remade” it through murder, disguised as an unfortunate accident.  This makes it all the more surprising that we feel, if only for a moment, pity for her when she begins to tell Joe about her latest shopping spree for clothes and cars —  and off in the distance, Joe notices someone else.  It is Cassie, the diner waitress (played by a wholesome Ann Sheridan*) who is soon to be his fiance.  To Joe at that moment, it is as if Lana ceases to exist as he makes a beeline for Cassie.   But whatever emotion we feel seeing the crushed look on Lana’s face does not last.  Lana sees to that.  In short order.

(*Note:  Ann Sheridan was by 1940 already publicized and well-known to movie audiences as the “Oomph Girl,” a sort of late ’30s variation on the “It Girl” moniker given to Clara Bow in the ’20s.  I am assuming here that “Oomph” has no relationship to “wholesome” and that the part of Cassie was for Sheridan out of character, though not necessarily a “stretch.”)

Having murdered her husband and making it appear as a tragic accident, Lana is not unaffected by what she has done.  She stares out the window of her large estate, with only her maid to keep her company.  She stares out toward the garage.  Toward the electronic “eye.”  She feels herself coming unglued, and implements the next phase of her plan.  She begins by asking Joe Fabrini to come over to discuss business.

Look, Joe, I don’t know anything about the Company. . I can’t run a trucking business by myself, I’ve got to have someone to help me.  Ed had such confidence in you . . He said you had great ideas . . . and I know he’d want you to be my partner.”  “Partner?”  “Yes, partner.”  Joe has genuine doubts: “With anyone else I’d think it was a swell deal.  But with you?  I don’t know.”  Lana promises “No interference.  I’ll end up losing the business. I haven’t got anyone else to turn to.”

Joe agrees to the partnership and does something he never does normally — has a drink, “a short one,” to toast their joint endeavor.  Here, and immediately below, are the only times Lana is truly happy in the film . . .

. . . but her happiness — and whatever mental stability she had to begin with — is very short-lived:

Pardon me . .”

Joe introduces to her his girlfriend (and soon to be fiance), Cassie (Ann Sheridan), a waitress at the diner Joe and his brother and fellow truckers used to frequent.  At first, Lana seems confused, then stunned, too stunned to take it all in at first. . . All of her plans and her schemes . . .

. . . all of what she had to do to remake her life, to finally enjoy the prosperity brought by a successful business without having to tolerate her boorish, and now dead, husband.  Having the man she is attracted to handling the business, and under her thumb without her having to lift another finger . . .

. . . , all of that is now threatened.  For a moment it appears as if the terrible deed she committed is for naught . . . that she may be losing Joe to something she hadn’t even considered in her cruel calculations — of all things — another woman.

Gathering her wits in the face of this devastating turn of events, Lana feigns a fainting spell; Joe wants to take her to a doctor.  Lana tells him no.  “TAKE ME HOME!”

In the driveway, Joe is about to pull into the garage when Lana shouts, . . “No!  Stop right here! . . . Please let me out, please let me out!”

The garage doors open, . . . they call . . . they beckon . . . to Lana . . .

. . . and she freaks, running into the house.

But Lana is far from conceding defeat.  Joe, working long, late hours to ensure the success of the company, tries to ignore her touch, her insistence that they spend some time . . . together.  Joe is all business.  Lana wants more.  Why won’t Joe make time for her, away from business? . . .

Joe begins to lose his composure.  “I’m getting married next Friday, is that a good enough reason?”

“Marrying that cheap redhead?”

“I’m marrying Cassie, and I’m not asking anybody what they think about it!  That includes YOU!”

“She hasn’t any right to you!  You’re mine and I’m hanging on to you!”

“I committed MURDER to get you!  Understand?  MURDER!”

“YOU WHAT?”

“SURE!  I killed Ed.  I killed him to get you ’cause you were always throwing him in my face — ‘Yes, Mrs. Carlsen’  ‘No, Mrs. Carlsen’  ‘Goodnight, Mrs. Carlsen!’  YOU made me do it, you understand?  I didn’t want to kill anyone, but you made me murder Ed!  Your FRIEND!”

“Joe, don’t go.”  “I’m gettin outta here!   And stay away from me!”  “Don’t go!  Forget what I said.  I didn’t mean it, I was just jealous.  I didn’t know what I was talking about.  I didn’t kill anyone, it was just an accident!”

“Save that record for someone else — you may need it!”

“I didn’t want to kill anyone . . .”

“I didn’t want to kill anyone.  He made me do it.”     Lana “confesses” to the D.A., “I didn’t want to kill anybody!”

“He made me kill him .  He said he’d kill me if I didn’t   I didn’t want to do it, but I was afraid of him.  I had to.  Joe wanted the insurance money.  He wanted everything for himself.  He made me do it.”   Lana is willing to implicate herself so that Joe will be charged with the murder in which she was an unwilling participant, and she will testify on behalf of the state against Joe in order to convict him, while she walks.

Lana has a surprise visitor.  But on the way to see her visitor, the prison has its own surprises.  “What’s the matter with you?”  “That door.  It opened.”  “Of course it did, we broke the ray.  It’s an electric eye door,” says the prison matron.

“Come on.”  “No.  I won’t go through it!.  I won’t go through it, I tell ya!”  The matron must literally drag Lana into the visitors room . . . backwards . . . until . . .

. . . she comes face-to-face with Cassie — “I want you to tell the truth.”  “And what do you think the truth is?”  “Joe had nothing to do with killing your husband, and he had nothing to do with you.”  “Is that so?  What do you think he was doing all those nights he was supposed to be working in the garage?  Why do you think I took him into the business?  Why did I give him my husband’s insurance money to play with?  Because he had an honest face?”

“You could never make me believe he’d lay a hand on anyone like you.”  “What makes you so sure?”  “Because I love him.”

“You love him.  You don’t know what it is to love a man.  But I do.  And I’ll take him with me wherever I’m going.”

“Joe had you pegged from the beginning.  Tell them that you found out he was going to marry me and you decided you’d do anything to stop it . . .

. . Even if it meant double-crossing  yourself!”    “You’ve got it all worked out haven’t you?  But you’ve got it worked out wrong.  All wrong.  ‘Cause I’m the one who . . . “  But something behind Cassie, something in the doorway diverts her attention . . .

. . . the door behind the prison matron, opening, closing, opening, closing, for no reason . . opening . . .

. . . closing . . . opening . . .Lana loses control, runs through the doorway . . .  “Stop that door.  Stop it, I tell you!  Stop that door!  Stop it!”  “Come on, your time’s up,” orders the matron.

. . . she has to be wrestled . . . “Come on!”  “No, I won’t, I tell you!” . . . to the floor by the burly matron . . .

. . . while the nonplussed electricians wonder, “What’s the dame hittin’ the ‘High C’ fer?”  “Maybe she don’t like the service here.”   “I don’t know why these things always gotta bust at lunchtime.”  “This one’s all right, close ‘er up.”

Raoul Walsh is fond of throwing in a bit of comic relief during or near the end of a dramatic scene, and more often than not it seems forced.  But this is one that works fantastically well.  It demonstrates the depth of Lana’s psychosis:  that she can become unhinged and incapacitated by an ordinary occurrence caused by something as mundane as electricians working on an automatic door.  And it is funny:  we can’t help but laugh when the workers express more concern about the interruption of their lunch break than the meltdown of the inmate, Lana, just a few feet away.  The clash of reality and insanity.   Just a couple of ordinary guys doing a job, not especially concerned with the rest of the world going on around them.

[The two electricians were played by Billy Wayne, left and Matt McHugh, right (who had the first and third of the four lines by the two uncredited actors).  Combined, they appeared in nearly 500 films between 1930 and 1960.  McHugh was the brother of well-known character actor Frank McHugh who, somewhat surprisingly, isn’t in the film himself!  Matt may be best known for his role as one of the Rollo brothers in Tod Browning’s 1932 circus tale, “Freaks,” billed well below the siamese Hilton Sisters and the Pinheads, Zip and Pip.]

A nearly unrecognizable Lana Carlsen appears in the courtroom to begin testimony.  An audible murmur permeates the packed room.  And as the Judge calls order in the court,  Lana is sworn in by the clerk — “I do” is the last coherent statement she is able to give.

Where did you first meet Mr. Fabrini?   “He was laughing.  He kissed me when he was drunk.  So I got a new car.  I bought some new clothes.  Pretty.  He use to tell terrible jokes, always laughing.  I saw him lying there.  Drunk.  I heard the motor running.  Then I saw the doors.  The doors made me do it.  YES.  The doors made me do it!”

“The doors made me do it!”

“THE DOORS MADE ME DO IT!!”  The Judge dismisses the case against Joe Fabrini, and the courtroom erupts in pandemonium.

Returning to the original review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther noted, “Miss Lupino goes crazy about as well as it can be done.” (NYT, July 27,1940).

Her courtroom crack up may seem a bit excessive or even cartoonish to us 70 years later, but it was quite bold for a Hollywood film factory production of the time.  It also fit neatly within the parameters of the Production Code.  A married woman, unfaithful (or attempting to be so) to her husband and a murderess, pays the price.  She pays not necessarily in her conviction and sentencing (the story ends with the acquittal of Joe Fabrini), but in losing her sanity — losing herself — a sentence that in 1940 was thought irreversible, unescapable.

[“They Drive By Night,” was directed by Raoul Walsh, with screenplay by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay from the novel “Long Haul” by A. I. Bezzerides, and was produced by Mark Hellinger and Hal Wallis for Warner Brothers.  It premiered July 27, 1940 at the Strand theater in New York City, and had its general release in the U.S. August 3, 1940.  It was re-released December 11, 1948 in the U.S.]

* * *

The next film in the career of Ida Lupino offers us an excellent opportunity to watch the same actress give another strong performance, but one completely different in tone, in approach, and in execution than the role of Lana in “They Drive By Night.”  Same director, Raoul Walsh.  But this time, instead of George Raft, she will play opposite Humphrey Bogart in “High Sierra.”

Ten minutes of plot exposition prepares us for the meeting of Roy Earle and the men (Earle refers to them derogatorily as “jitterbuggers”) who are to assist him in robbing the safe deposit box of a luxury hotel at the peak season in a Palm Springs style resort.  Roy and his young assistants have as their staging ground for the job a mountain resort, in a log cabin by a lake in the high Sierras of Northern California.

What we know of Roy Earle is that he was pardoned and released from prison after serving ten years for armed robbery.  Upon release from prison, Roy paid a brief, wistful visit to the area where he lived and the “fishing hole” where he once spent countless hours as a boy.  On his way to California, he encountered a family also headed for California, and fell for their young granddaughter, Velma, a “cripple” with a deformed “club foot.”

Roy wants to have a legitimate, normal life, but he believes he needs to pull off just one more job for the money and security it will finally give him — a jewel heist for his old mob boss, “Big Mac,” who is terminally ill in Los Angeles.  Then Roy figures he can pay for the operation to correct Velma’s foot and then marry her.  At best he sees this new group of “jitterbuggers,” Red and Babe, as necessary nuisances.  But another woman is the last thing on his mind — for himself and for the job he must complete.

At this point we know nothing of Marie, of her past.  And we only learn a little about her in the next few scenes.   Red is in awe of the “legendary” Roy Earle; Babe thinks Roy is an over-the-hill burnout.  In a sense, they are both right.  And wrong.

As Roy approaches the cabin in the woods near the lake, he sees a young girl, for a moment looking like a child playing in the dirt with a stick . . . it is Marie.

Roy is looking for the two men, Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis) . . .

Roy, sizing them up, is not impressed by what he sees.  But Roy Earle has in his criminal career seen it all, been everywhere, known everyone, done almost everything.  He is a man impressed by nothing.

Babe is also unimpressed: “You can have your ‘Roy Earle.’  He don’t look like much to me.”

“I’ll bet he’s plenty tough.  Get out of line and you’ll see.”    “Alright, I’ll see.  And let me tell you something.   It’s gettin’ so you’re walkin’ around askin’ for a smack in the nose.”

Roy has told Red to get rid of the dame, that women are bad luck in these situations.  Red: “I got some bad news for ya.  Roy says we gotta send Marie back to LA.”  Babe: “Why that broken down . . . I’ll tell ‘im.”   Marie: “Yeah?  Well here’s your chance.  You don’t want me to go back to LA, do ya Babe?  You go and tell him.”

Babe, already tired of Red’s hero-worship of Roy Earle, has had enough of Marie’s sarcasm and her insinuation that he’s not as much of a man as Roy.  He is a coward who goes after the soft, easy target: Marie.  Red has to intervene to keep Babe from smacking her . . .

But Marie isn’t going to wait for Babe or Red to grow a pair:  “I’m not gonna get sent back to that dime-a-dance joint if I can help it.  I’ll go talk to him.”

Why do you want to send me back to LA?  I like it here.”  “Don’t play dumb.”

“I don’t intend to.  I know what’s going on.  I didn’t get it from them.”

Marie knows all about the robbery plan, their “contact” at the resort hotel, Mendoza, has stopped by to visit and play cards with Babe and Red; he also has a  big mouth.  “Louie Mendoza told me.  He talks too much.  All he does is brag.  So, you see, Mr. Earle, Mendoza is the one for you to worry about.  Not me.”

“I ain’t worried about you.  It’s them ‘jitterbugs’ ya got with you.  They’ll be throwin’ lead over you before long.”

“I can handle them all right.”  “You got it all figured out haven’t you.”  “In a way.”

“Alright.  Let’s let things stay the way they are for a few days and see how things work out.”

Next AM, they begin to bond.  Marie brings breakfast . . . Roy feels much better after a good night’s sleep . . .

Marie suggests that Roy “oughtta get out in the sun, it’d do you good.”   Roy, chuckling, “Where I’ve been stayin’ they didn’t let me get out in the sun — afraid it might spoil my girlish complexion.”

“It must be terrible to be in prison.”  “Some of them are worse than others.”  “How was it?  I mean knowing you’re in for life?  I should think you’d go crazy!”

Yeah.  Lots of ’em do.  But I was always thinkin’ about a crash-out.”  I was just gettin ready for [one] when my pardon came.”  Marie understands.  “Yeah, I get it.  You always hope you can get out.  Sorta keeps you goin’.”

“Yeah, sure, that’s it.  You got it.  Well, thanks for the chow.”

That evening, Roy meets Mendoza (Cornel Wilde).   Marie watches, and observes carefully the Master and the boys:

Mendoza is an employee of the “Tropico Hotel” — their “insider” whose job it is to “look scared, stand behind the desk, then call the police” after the hold-up.

Roy emphasizes that he has zero tolerance for “foul-ups.

He tells Mendoza and the boys a little “bedtime story” about what happened to another guy he worked with who “talked too much.”  By way of illustration, he raps the table to represent the sound of three fast shots from a machine gun, “The gun went  [tap, tap, tap].  Like that.  The rat fell out of the chair dead and we drove off and left ‘im there.  Yeah.  The gun just went [tap, tap, tap]. . . We don’t want any foul-ups, Mendoza.”

After Roy leaves, Mendoza, sweating profusely, asks “Do you suppose he really meant it that way?”  Marie:  “Try talking and find out.”

After Roy has spent the next day in LA with his old mob boss “Big Mac” and meeting up with Velma and her family and another old friend of his, “Doc” Banton, a self-licensed quack, to see about her foot surgery, he returns to find a darkened cabin and a nervous Marie with a gun.

“Did he [Babe] do that?”  “Yeah.  He went crazy.  He picked up a poker and hit Red over the head with it.  When Red was down, he swung at me twice.”

“Were those guys fightin’ over you?”  “Red was standing up for me.”  Roy goes off to find Babe, over Marie’s protests.  “Shut up and lock the door behind me.”

“Here he is.  Mark him up, swing on him. (handing her his gun) Hit him with this.”

But Marie can’t do it.  “I don’t want to hurt him.”  Roy has no such reservations.

Roy, don’t hurt him!  He won’t act like that again”  Roy advises Red and Babe to get in their car and leave.  When Red protests, Roy says “Alright.  But I’ll shoot the first one of you that doesn’t do as I tell ‘im.”  He tells Marie she can stay in his cabin for the night.  He also tells Marie he’s sending her home tomorrow.

That night Marie is awakened by Roy’s nightmares of prison.  “Take the gates away — I’m crashin’ out . . .”  The next morning, Marie faces a nightmare of her own.  Going back to her old life, of which we know almost nothing . . . until this scene with Roy:

Roy plans to drive her to town where she can catch a bus to LA.  “I haven’t got a soul in LA.”  She tells him she’s from San Francisco.  “Any folks there?”  (softly) “Yeah.”  “Maybe I can stake you to a ticket there.”

“Roy, remember what you were sayin’ the other day about prison, the way you kept from goin’ crazy by thinking all the time about a ‘crash-out?’   Well I’ve been tryin’ to crash out ever since I can remember.  My old man used to get drunk a couple times a week, kick us around.  My old lady used to stand it.  But not me.  I waited for my chance and I beat it.  I crashed out — just like you did.”

Then I came down to LA and got a job in a dime-a-dance joint.  It was a living, but I got pretty sick of being pawed over.  So when Babe came along, I crashed out again.  I thought Babe was the right guy.”

I guess I was never hooked up with any guys that wasn’t wrong.  So I had nothing to go by.  Until I met you.”  Roy’s mind is on the job ahead.  And Velma.  He hasn’t heard a word Marie has said.

“I guess I’ll go pack my things.”

Marie begs Roy “Don’t send me back to L.A.  I want to stay with you.  Please, Roy, don’t!”

Roy now realizes Marie has feelings for him.  Feelings that he doesn’t share.  “Listen to me.  I’m givin’ it to ya straight.  I got plans, see.  And there’s no room in them for you.”

“You couldn’t never mean nothing to me . . . nothing special, that is.  You know what I mean?”  Marie nods, understanding, accepting for now what Roy has told her.

While waiting for Mendoza to call and signal the beginning of their “job,” Roy is getting cabin fever and decides to take a trip to LA to see “some people.”  Marie asks to come along, and their little adopted canine companion “Pard” — the dog who “jinxes” with an “evil eye” every man who takes him in — hops in as they’re starting down the road.

Marie asks who he’s visiting in LA.  Roy tells her it is a farmer and his family from Ohio who’ve lost their farm, and that they have a granddaughter, Velma, with a crippled foot who’s just had an operation (for which Roy has paid, although he doesn’t disclose this to Marie).  And he adds that she’s “a mighty pretty gal.”   “Is she?”   “Yeah.  And decent, too.”

But Roy’s visit with Velma and her family is devastating for him.  Velma is recovering, though still bedridden.  But she tells Roy that there is another man in her life from back home who is coming out to see her.  He is the one she wants to marry.  Roy realizes that she genuinely does not love him and will not consider marriage to him.  She asks him to come back soon once she is fully able to walk again.  He is receiving from her what had told Marie earlier — that their relationship can never  be “special.”  But he agrees when she asks him to promise he’ll return for a visit once she can walk again.

Roy gets a telegram from Mendoza signalling that the job is on.  They agree that Marie will remain in Roy’s car during the heist and serve as lookout in case of trouble.  Despite their preparation, it goes badly.  Roy is shot and wounded by a sheriff on patrol, and Roy is forced to kill him.  Mendoza panics and runs out of the Hotel screaming for the gang to take him with them.  Babe, Red and Mendoza in one car, Roy and Marie following.

But Roy and Marie see that Babe and Red have turned the wrong way . . .

. . . then they watch in horror as the other car careens off the road, crashes and bursts into flames.

Marie screams and Roy deadpans, “The coppers’ll go to the fire now.”  Marie sobs, “Oh, Roy.  Those boys!”  Roy, bitterly, calls them “Small timers for small jobs — they lost their heads.  This one was just too big.”

[To Be Continued with the next installment:  the conclusion of “High Sierra,” commentary on the performance of Ida Lupino, critical reaction and stardom that followed.]

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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