Queen of the B's in a Hollywood of drones

Ida Lupino thrived in the patriarchal Hollywood of the 1950s by masking her ambition with a brittle, deferential femininity. Annette Kuhn looks at the director who brought a female perspective to film noir
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In a series of 1940s action pictures and films noirs - most famously They Drive by Night and High Sierra - Ida Lupino created the screen persona for which she is best remembered: a brittle, alone-in-the-world moll, outwardly tough and cynical but "marshmallow on the inside". Lupino, who died in Hollywood earlier this month after a career that began in her native London in the early 1930s, obviously went for that kind of femininity. "I liked the strong characters. I don't mean women who have masculine qualities about them, but something that has some intestinal fortitude, some guts to it," she once said of the women she authored as a screenwriter.

For Lupino was not only an actress: she also wrote screenplays and produced and directed many films and television dramas. As co-founder and actively involved in the work of two independent production companies, she was the only woman to direct a visible body of films in 1950s Hollywood. In spare, pacey dramas set in dreary small towns and blue-collar neighbourhoods of anonymous big cities, young women face up to and survive unwanted pregnancy, disability, bigamy and rape. But if these films share something of the staccato B-picture style of Lupino's mentors and other influences - Raoul Walsh, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller - Lupino's stories are different in being, more often than not, told from the point of view of the woman.

Not Wanted (1949) opens with a distraught young woman being arrested for attempting to kidnap a baby, then proceeds to tell how this has come about. While living at home and working as a waitress, she has fallen for a fly-by-night pianist, become pregnant, eventually run away to find shelter in a home for unmarried mothers, and given up her child for adoption. Regretting the decision, she has left the home and walked off with a baby left in the pram outside a shop. In Never Fear (1950), a promising young dancer is struck by polio and must learn not only to walk again but to rebuild her life. In Outrage (1950), an office girl is raped. Guilt and shame drive her to run away to California, where she, too, finds a way to make a fresh start. In The Bigamist (1953), two women living in separate cities and in very different economic circumstances share a man who has tried to do the right thing by marrying both the women he loves.

If the women in these stories suffer because of their sex, the men concerned are not portrayed as responsible or blameworthy: they are simply suffering the impaired masculinity of troubled times, weak and desperate victims of post-war alienation. Some of these flawed males are redeemable, others beyond salvation: if maleness is problematic for Lupino, it is also multidimensional. Indeed The Hitch-hiker (1953), Lupino's biggest critical and box-office success, is not a woman's story at all, but an action picture that is also a meditation on the viability of different sorts of masculinity. Lupino's films have been described as invoking small-scale rites of passage, and this is as often true of her male as it is for her female characters.

Between 1949 and 1954, in the most active period of her career, Ida Lupino directed or co-directed six feature films, scripted or co-scripted at least five, produced or co-produced at least one, and acted in seven. She also found time to divorce her second husband Collier Young (with whom she continued to collaborate in film productions), marry actor Howard Duff, and give birth to her daughter, Bridget. After the mid-1950s, almost all her work, behind and in front of the camera, was in television. Specialising in Westerns, action dramas and mysteries, Lupino's 50-plus TV directorial credits include episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun, Will Travel, Thriller and Twilight Zone.

Lupino's career behind the camera has been oddly neglected, at best underrated, by the critics. She didn't care to play the big studio game and, as an actress, acquired a reputation for being "difficult". "Things aren't normal," Collier Young is reported to have joked, "unless Ida resigns three times on every picture - once before it starts and twice during production." She clearly preferred being her own boss and working as part of a small independent production team. But if she did not slot happily into the rigid hierarchies of the Hollywood studio system, neither could she readily assume the mantle of the lonely genius. An enthusiastic team player, as a film-maker she was all too ready to acknowledge the help and support of her colleagues. There is an air of girlishness about the way Lupino repeatedly played down her own talent and personal ambition: "I didn't have a drive to be a director," she told Hollywood Reporter. "Frankly, I was more interested in getting stories together than directing." This might have been sensible PR for a career woman of the patriarchal 1950s, but Lupino ran the considerable risk of being taken at her word.

Perhaps Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris had fallen prey to this ploy in 1963 when he dismissed the entire Lupino oeuvre as an "oddity", then later compounded the insult by dubbing her films "weepy social consciousness and snarling paranoia". Sarris was taken to task for male chauvinism, but he was not alone. Feminist critics, too, have been less than willing to wave the flag for Ida Lupino: understandably, perhaps, in light of the comments she was wont to drop in interviews ("any woman who wishes to smash into the world of men isn't very feminine ... Baby, we can't go smashing. I believe women should be struck regularly - like a gong").

But on the other hand, for a woman wanting to continue working in a very macho industry, refusing to call yourself a feminist might be deemed an astute, if not - by the values of a later era - a politically incorrect move. It certainly doesn't justify confusing a film-maker's work with her politics and then dismissing it, as did one 1970s feminist critic, for dealing with feminist questions from an anti-feminist perspective.

In the end, aside from any interest in the style and content of the films and television programmes she made, Ida Lupino's directional career offers an instructive case study in the history of women's contribution to the film and television industries as workers behind the camera. Lupino is the least invisible face in an entire hidden army of women working in various media production jobs - scriptwriters, editors, continuity girls and many more - at a time when women were meant to stay at home and polish the furniture. Looking at her achievements in this way, we can judge Lupino's oeuvre not as isolated or one-off but as part of an ongoing current of women's work on the production side of the moving picture industries. This, paradoxically, highlights what is distinctive about Ida Lupino's life's work. For, in common with other women working in these male-dominated industries, especially at a time when being properly feminine meant never competing (at least openly) with men and when other women could not be counted on as allies, Lupino must have had a rocky path to tread merely to stay in work. In this light, her pronouncements that she did not care to order men around, that directing is no job for a woman - not to mention her alleged delight at being called "Mother" on set - ought to be understood for what they were - essential tactics for professional survival.

n Annette Kuhn is Reader in Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow. She is the editor of `Queen of the "B's": Ida Lupino Behind the Camera', published this month by Flicks Books