TCM’s Spotlight on the Trailblazing
Women of Hollywood continues on October 6 with a look at Studio Directors—women
who managed to work within the confines of the male-run Hollywood system to
direct mainstream pictures. Among the ladies featured is actress turned
writer-director-producer, Ida Lupino. I always thought Lupino had one of the
more intriguing Hollywood stories. It’s hard not to be inspired by a woman who
gave up a successful acting career to chart unknown territory behind the camera.
And Lupino did just that.
In the 1940s and 50s, Lupino established herself as a well-respected
actress in films like High Sierra (1942)
and They Drive By Night (1940) (both
opposite Humphrey Bogart) and in a string of later noirs, including The Big Knife (1955) and While the City Sleeps (1956). She wasn’t
a giant star and often got into disputes with Warner Bros. over her assignments
(she particularly disliked getting Bette Davis’ hand-me-down roles). But it was
a solid film career. Then, at the age when most actresses start taking on
mother (and grandmother!) roles, Lupino decided instead to direct films. Who
does that? In 1950s Hollywood, NOBODY. Except Ida Lupino.
The move to directing was actually a bit of an accident. Lupino
and second husband Collier Young originally set out to co-produce a low budget
feature. The film, Not Wanted (1949),
was the provocative story of an unwed mother (Lupino also co-wrote the script).
But during production, the director took ill and Lupino stepped in. And from
there, she never looked back. That same year, Lupino directed her first solo
project, another socially conscious effort about a dancer who contracts polio,
called Never Fear (1949). The film
we’re showing on October 6, Outrage (1950),
was just Lupino’s second outing as director. Once again she also co-wrote the
script, which again tackled a sensitive subject—in Outrage Lupino skillfully skirts the Hays Code to tell a story
Lupino would direct three more pictures in the 1950s, with
the noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953) being
perhaps her best work—it was, after all, a genre she certainly had experience
with. She would also achieve mainstream success with her direction of the pleasing
Catholic school comedy The Trouble With
Angels (1966). But by the mid-50s, Lupino largely turned her attention to
television—where she went on to direct episodes for some 56 different series,
including the iconic shows Alfred
Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone,
Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched.
Success behind the camera didn’t mean that Lupino gave up
acting all together. However, she didn’t appear in a feature film for 17 years—from
1956’s Strange Intruder to 1973’s Junior Bonner (where she finally made
the jump to playing a greying matriarch). As with her directing career, Lupino
shifted her acting focus to the small screen. She made appearances on an
impressive list of TV shows and was nominated for three Emmys.
Lupino made her own way in Hollywood, at a time when there
was little leeway for mavericks. And that path was even more narrow for women. She
became just the second woman to join the Directors Guild of America in 1950 (an
organization founded in 1936). Certainly a trailblazer (even by today’s
standards)—be sure to watch Lupino crack the Old Boys’ Club, with her direction
of Outrage on October 6.
In episode 2, Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) is driving into a dangerous night with the radio broadcasting a 1940’s “Captain America” serial. Predictably, the Captain is once again rescuing the helpless girl in distress with a similar name to hers. She shrugs and changes the channel. That’s when I fell in love with “Agent Carter”. Clearly, the creative crew behind this well-written series had the same opinion of traditional Marvel Comic stories that this blogger does.
Officially, ABC only intended “Marvel’s Agent Carter” to be an eight-episode filler for their highly anticipated, highly promoted, but generally disappointing “Agents of Shield”. “Shield” was very much in the Marvel Comic mold; popping out lots of action and “strong female characters”. Marvel was much applauded in the 90’s when they traded in their D-cup Damsels in Distress for D-cup female action heroes in black, sleeveless, tight-fitting dominatrix gear. Their target audience was still young males and thus their feminist message came off with the sincerity of a women’s studies paper written by Bevis and Butthead. In fairness to Marvel, their female heroes weren’t all that different from their male counterparts: nearly indestructible, always fearless, and always knowing and doing the right in a tireless campaign against evil – just like you and me!…Well, me anyway.
Agent Peggy Carter has proven to be different. Like Agent Carter, Clark Kent wasn’t well respected at his job; after all he was never around when the other reporters were getting the big “Superman” story. Clark didn’t much care. After all, under those square horn-rimmed glasses and double-breasted suit was a big chest full of self-esteem with an “S” on it. In contrast, Peggy’s superpowers are learned and earned. Sure, she can take out a 200 pound gangster with a stapler and break a Russian code with pen and paper but it’s clear that her powers didn’t come from exposure to an unknown radioactive chemical but from hard work and perseverance, just like a real person. Deception by people she trusted and the disrespect of her peers brings her real anger. The support of a true friend brings her real joy.
Television is awash in pretty girls with hourglass figures and broad shouldered, square jawed men that look good, stand in the right place and deliver their lines clearly, but that’s about all they do. Every now and then an ensemble of skilled actors and actresses show up and prove themselves worthy of telling reaction shots or comic asides that are essential to rich story telling. It’s impossible to imagine “Agent Carter” working if Jarvis had been played simply as the stuffy butler, Angie the ditzy waitress, Dottie the evil bitch or Dooley the blowhard boss. Each of the major characters is capable of making the audience laugh, cry or cringe from one scene to the next.
Television season finales have a deserved infamy for big confrontations, big explosions and cliff-hanger endings that they hope will leave the audience in nail biting suspense but far too often end up leaving them scratching their heads. Even a masterfully written, shot, and acted series like the 90’s “Twin Peaks” concluded with a swath of chaos, destruction and “who’s gonna’ live and who’s gonna’ die?” questions that never were resolved. “Agent Carter” got it right. Justice was served…sort of. Villains got their comeuppance…some of them. Troubling personal issues were put to rest…for now. There is plenty of room for more of what “Agent Carter” has given us, as to whether the Nielsen numbers, market share projections and network sponsorship will offer us the chance to see it is the real cliff-hanger.
Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and George Raft in They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940)
George Raft got top billing in this hit film about long haul truck drivers, but in the following months he turned down the leads in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon allowing Bogart to play them and become a major star. Raft’s star after that, however, began to fall.