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(October 2002)

Ida Lupino

Ida LupinoWhile Ida Lupino was the most prolific of American female filmmakers she wasn’t, as is commonly believed, the first American woman director. That honor belongs to Lois Weber who directed a full-length feature, The Merchant of Venice, in 1914. But Ida did do a lot more. In fact, she is the most prolific female movie director ever, anywhere.

Ida Lupino was from a long-time theatrical family and started out as an actress – as a teenager making almost a half a dozen movies in her native England before Paramount brought her to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Originally a bleached blond (“the English Jean Harlow”) and after 11 forgettable features for Paramount, she declined to renew her contract, walked away and, taking the advice of columnist Hedda Hopper, she slimmed down and returned her coloration back to her natural brunette.

In 1939 she played a bitter cockney prostitute in William Wellman’s The Light That Failed and received great critical acclaim, with the New York Times noting “the little ingénue who suddenly bursts forth as a great actress”. This set her on her way into the forties, the peak of her acting, where she was in one memorable movie after another; They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra and Out of The Fog (both 1941), The Hard Way (1942) and Pillow To Post (1945). Then she got to play the kind of role that we here at The Toast really love. With her beautiful deep, dark eyes and her sad, world-weary demeanor she was, without a doubt, the quintessential torch singer in The Man I Love (1946) and Road House (1948). Her smoky, yearning singing deeply touches our heart.

Ida Lupino DirectingIda wanted more control over her professional career and had a desire to make more meaningful movies. In the late forties with her husband, Collier Young, she formed her own production company, The Filmakers. Their budgets were small, they shot on location and they did subjects that Hollywood almost never touched, such as bigamy, unwed mothers, rape and women in prison. Their third film, Not Wanted (1949), the story of a young, unmarried woman who becomes pregnant, was in its third day of filming when the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack. Ida took over and finished the film. She refused to take directorial credit but had found her calling.

She has been compared, favorably, with such directors as Samuel Fuller and Robert Aldrich with strong stories recorded in stark, unflattering terms. Gritty in other words. From 1949 to 1953 she directed six movies for The Filmakers; all with meager budgets but with uncompromising stories and imaginative camerawork. In The Bigamist (1953) she employs a fascinating dichotomy of set design and filming styles. The story of a salesman with a wife in San Francisco and another in Los Angles; the San Francisco scenes are high-gloss, slick and obviously soundstage sets, while Los Angeles appears street-level, very naturalistic and slightly noirish. In 1950 she was the only woman in the Directors Guild.

In the mid fifties with the demise of The Filmakers and her marriage, Ida Lupino was suddenly in great demand for the budding medium of television. Her television career found her involved in some of the most beloved series. She directed episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel, 77 Sunset Strip, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, The Virginian, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island and many more.

Meg RyanIn 1966 she directed her last feature film – The Trouble With Angels starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell. This movie is whimsical, reverent and funny, all without being sappy or silly. Ida Lupino passed away in 1995 in Los Angeles.

Reese WitherspoonAmerica's Sweetheart?
Reese Witherspoon has been getting terrific reviews in her latest, just released movie Sweet Home Alabama. In fact, it’s been suggested that she’s replaced Meg Ryan as America’s Sweetheart. What do you think? Is it possibly a generational thing? Or has Meg just lost her sparkle to a younger up and comer? Let’s hear what you have to say.

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