On the heels of a year that was particularly strong for women-directed films, it’s fitting that the Museum of Fine Arts presents a program that celebrates Ida Lupino’s pioneering work behind the camera.
Although she distinguished herself as an actress in many memorable Hollywood films, including roles in Raoul Walsh’s “They Drive By Night” (1940), opposite George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, and “High Sierra” (1941), which reteamed her with Bogart, Lupino also produced and directed her own projects at a time when few women did. She had been nominally recognized for her groundbreaking efforts at the time of her death, in 1995, at the age of 77. Since then, Lupino has been increasingly heralded for her trailblazing role not just as a director but as an independent filmmaker.
In honor of Lupino’s 100th birthday, the MFA presents newly restored versions of three of the director’s films: “Not Wanted” (1949), “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953), and “The Bigamist” (1953) as well as the comedy “The Trouble With Angels” (1966). Co-presented with the Boston Women’s Film Festival, Ida Lupino at 100 runs Jan. 2-16.
By 1947, despite Hollywood stardom, the British-born Lupino had grown frustrated with the screen roles she was getting. After starring in Jean Negulesco’s gritty noir “Road House” (1948), she left Warner Bros. to cofound The Filmakers, an independent production company, with her second husband, Columbia production executive Collier Young, as an alternative to Hollywood-made and -marketed films. Her first venture was the shoestring-budget social drama “Not Wanted,” which tackled the taboo subject of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Sally Forrest plays a small-town girl who falls for a musician and has a baby she reluctantly gives up for adoption. Lupino oversaw every aspect of the production, from budget and costumes to rewrites of Paul Jarrico’s script. When director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack in preproduction, Lupino took over, though Clifton retained screen credit.
Three years later, Lupino made “The Hitch-Hiker” — the only classic film noir directed by a woman — which showed that she could direct a brutal, male-centered film as adroitly as she helmed dramas about women. Clocking in at a taut 70 minutes, the moody, claustrophobic film was inspired by a true-life murder spree. Lupino and Young worked from a treatment by blacklisted writer Daniel Mainwaring (who is uncredited). “The Hitch-Hiker” is about two fishing buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) who pick up a homicidal drifter (William Talman) at the California/Mexico border. He forces them at gunpoint to drive through the Mexican desert one step ahead of the police.
That same year Lupino directed and costarred in the noir-ish “The Bigamist” (1953). She cast her “Hitch-Hiker” star O’Brien as San Francisco businessman Harry Graham, who is in the process of adopting a child with his wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine). But an adoption agency investigator (Edmund Gwenn) discovers that Harry has another wife, Phyllis (Lupino), and a young child in Los Angeles. Through flashbacks, Harry reveals how he fell for kind-hearted waitress Phyllis while on a business trip.
The Filmakers production company folded in 1955. Lupino’s last feature film directing credit was “The Trouble With Angels,” starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell. The emotional heft she brought to the light comedy has made the film endure as a cult classic. Lupino continued to direct for television throughout the 1960s and to act well into the 1970s.
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