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In the best cigarette-stained vernacular of 1940's film noir, Ida Lupino was one "tough dame." With steely eyes, a husky voice, and a tongue quickened by candor, the woman earned her celluloid stripes by rarely backing down. And judging by William Donati's well- researched work, Ida Lupino: A Biography, the actress's headstrong screen persona matched her real-life manners. Like a downtown train, Lupino had moxie.
When Lupino died two years ago at age seventy-seven, interested readers were still waiting for the star's definitive biography. Donati's book fills that void. The author offers up a linear, plainspoken account of Lupino's long career as a film and television actress, and, more important, her maverick role as one of Hollywood's first female directors.
British-born, and reared in a famous, theatrical family, Lupino landed in Hollywood in 1933, determined to succeed. Her ambition, however, bordered on arrogance. Despite a generous $600 a week salary from Paramount, the young actress opposed the studio's plan to cast her as an ingénue. Donati recounts how Lupino upset the applecart by refusing to appear in Cleopatra, where "she was given five lines and expected to stand behind Claudette Colbert waving a large palm frond." Lupino's defiance led to a suspension, her first scrap in a lifelong tangle with studio heads.
Her early frustration with "shallow roles and mediocre films" hastened both a break with Paramount and a shrewd, propitious makeover. Gone was the blond, Kewpie Doll look modeled after Jean Harlow. In its place, Lupino reverted to her natural brown hair, while fashioning a dark, hard-boiled mien that became her stock in trade. By the early 1940s she was working at Warner Brothers, winning acclaim in They Drive by Night, Out of the Fog, The Sea Wolf, and her benchmark film, High Sierra, where she earned top billing over a still unheralded Humphrey Bogart.
Donati examines the full Lupino canon - performances consisting mostly of a woman gone bad, gone mad, or, if nothing else, a woman dangerously out of kilter. Still, he fails to note the irony in a fiercely independent Lupino, who, having once rebelled against typecasting, being typecast just the same. In one melodrama after another, Lupino played femme fatales, prone to anger, hysteria, and ill fortune. The actress herself liked to say that she made her money as "a poor man's Bette Davis."
It's no wonder that Lupino's roles rattled the Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America, or MPA - a watchdog group headed by Joseph Breen. In one example, Donati cites the MPA's Production Code taking exception to Lupino's "bad girl" portrayal in The Sea Wolf: "Before filming, the Breen Office informed Warner Brothers that Ida's character could not be a prostitute nor could she be referred to as a slut. A revised script made her `a fugitive of justice.'"
Acting chores aside, the more trenchant sections of Donati's Ida Lupino: A Biography center on the woman's pioneering role as a director. Lupino's second career, this time behind the camera, was christened by chance in 1949 when she substituted for an ailing Elmer Clifton on the set of Not Wanted. Soon, Lupino was directing low-budget, but socially conscious and progressive movies for Filmakers, an upstart company which she partially controlled.
Not Wanted tackled the then taboo subject of unwed mothers. Lupino's other directorial efforts include The Bigamist, The Hitch-Hiker, and Never Fear, a merciful and realistic look at America's polio epidemic. Except for Not Wanted, these films were unprofitable, yet they afforded the female director a freedom to visit artistic avenues ignored by standard matinee fare. Donati makes a case for Lupino as Hollywood's first feminist - a heady title long before modern feminism came into vogue.
Years later, Lupino oddly disparaged the feminist movement. Donati quotes from a 1972 interview: "Ida proclaimed she was not `one of the ladies who go in for women's lib. 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.'"
Unlike the rap sheet of scandals that often saturate current biographies, Donati's book is refreshingly tame. While there is the usual litany of broken marriages - Lupino had three husbands, Howard Duff being her last and most satisfying - the author's raciest anecdotes concern Lupino's self-professed "psychic powers" and her bizarre affinity for mysticism. And if Donati's prose sometimes devolves into boosterism: "Ida was finally achieving the screen recognition she deserved," his aboveboard agenda is admirable.
Where film historians ultimately rank Lupino's work remains debatable. One thing, however, is certain: Ida Lupino was a feisty woman. On-screen and off, she shot holes in Hollywood's male-dominated club. Not bad for the cinema's favorite gun moll.