Ida Lupino: a woman in the man’s world of Hollywood

The fedora and the revolver, the cynical detective and the femme fatale: with recurring elements such as these, film noir gave a raw and unmistakeably masculine twist to ’40s Hollywood melodrama. The list of directors who made this genre their own is similarly male-dominated: The Hitch-Hiker being the sole female-directed classic film noir. How was Ida Lupino able to put herself in the director’s chair in the Hollywood of that era, and why was it so unusual for a woman to do so?

By Sasja Koetsier22 July 2021

Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, US 1940)
Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, US 1940)

Ida Lupino came from a British theatre family and had worked as an actress in Hollywood since the early ’30s. At first, she was under contract to Paramount and Columbia, playing a range of lead roles before tackling her most iconic roles with Warner Bros. in the early ’40s, in films noirs They Drive by Night and High Sierra, both opposite Humphrey Bogart and directed by Raoul Walsh.

Her passion for her vocation frequently brought Lupino into conflict with the studio bosses. Critical of the quality of some of the roles she was offered, she would turn down films or suggest changes to the scripts. Such concrete engagement with the process was not appreciated, and eventually led her to leave Warner in 1947 to continue her lucrative acting career as a freelance. At the same time, she started to focus on something she had been able to follow from close by on the set for many years: directing films.

In order to realise her ambitions in this area, she set up the independent production house The Filmmakers Inc. with her husband, American film producer and screenwriter Collier Young. After all, those very studios that had found Lupino too outspoken as an actress could hardly be expected to offer her an opportunity to direct. From the ’20s on – the period when the big studios started to dominate film production – the number of women working in this industry had shrunk across the board. In just ten years, the number of female roles halved and the number of women producing or directing films gradually dwindled to zero.

still from Never Fear (Ida Lupino, US 1949)
still from Never Fear (Ida Lupino, US 1949)

Obsessive urge to control

In the early days of film, illustrious women such as Alice Guy-Blanché, Lois Weber and Alla Nazimova had played a prominent part in the development of the new medium in Hollywood. At that time, it was not unusual for makers to take on a wide range of different tasks within the production process: screenwriting, directing, editing, art direction and production could all at times be combined with performance in front of the camera.

As the increasing dominance of the big studios led to a more rigid approach to the division of labour throughout the production and distribution process, it became much more difficult for women to be ‘cast’ in a creative role. And those who appeared in front of the camera were expected – as Lupino experienced – not to get involved in other aspects. The studios, however, did not shy away from far-reaching interference in the private lives of their stars. In addition to make-overs, strict diets and the demand that they be available for publicity photo shoots at a moment’s notice, marriages were forbidden – or arranged – and even abortions imposed. Male actors were less subject to this obsessive urge to control on the part of the studios – unless they happened to be gay.

To cut a long story short, men took over the role of director in Hollywood – with the remarkable exception of Dorothy Arzner, the first (and only other alongside Lupino) woman to join the Directors Guild of America during the classic Hollywood era, which ran until the early ’60s. Arzner worked her way up from the typing pool through the editing suite to the director’s chair, directing eighteen films between 1927 and 1943 for the likes of Paramount and MGM, and also writing screenplays for the latter. That she fell out of favour with the big studios after 1943 she attributed in an interview some twenty-five years later to the influence of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer spreading a rumour that she was ‘difficult to work with’ – words which, when spoken by powerfully placed men in Hollywood, can still ruin careers to this day.

still from Not Wanted (Elmer Clifton & Ida Lupino, US 1949)
still from Not Wanted (Elmer Clifton & Ida Lupino, US 1949)

Hostage

During the six years that passed after Arzner’s last film, First Comes Courage, not a single film with a female director was produced in Hollywood. When The Filmmakers Inc. released their first film, Not Wanted, in 1949 Ida Lupino – who had taken over directing from an ill Elmer Clifton – was not named on the credits, but she did receive a full directing credit for Never Fear, released later the same year. She would go on to direct another four films before the production company was wound up, in 1955, and Lupino started a productive career as a director for television.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) was her penultimate film production, and its classification as a film noir is thanks to Lupino’s dark view of the damaged psyche of a criminal, while her attention to the position his victims – two men whose masculinity is constantly put to the test during a nerve-shredding kidnap by the psychopath – sets it apart from most films in the genre. Spoiler alert: it is not the cynical machismo of the villain that wins the day, but the two friends’ solidarity. The industry that produced this film to this day is struggling to free itself from such a hostage situation, but Ida Lupino showed the way.

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still from The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, US 1953)
still from The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, US 1953)