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The Woman Trapped: The Lens of Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino once said, “You cannot play naive if you’re not.” And Ida Lupino was never naive. If anything, Lupino was a dogged creator of her own destiny, starting as an actress in simplistic comedies before becoming a series leading lady stateside. Lupino played tough dames, villains, romantic idols, and noirish femme fatales. These characters gave her plenty of grist for material she’d come to focus on when she became a director in both film and television. She fought to break the bonds the studio system placed upon her, and these shackles are best exhibited in the trapped women Lupino played in her nearly 50 years on-screen. 

Lupino’s career started across the pond in England. These early works present a very different Lupino than the one we know today. Films like 1933’s “I Lived With You” show Lupino as a platinum blonde gold-digger, others presented her as a dizzy, love-struck dame. When she transitioned to the states, gone was the platinum hair and the dizziness—Hollywood already had one Jean Harlow—but Lupino retained her previous characters’ lack of respectability. In her comedic days her characters sought elevation, wealth and autonomy, usually through romance, but what was once the source of laughs became the setting for drama and redemption. Lupino’s characters sought a grander life, one removed from their small-town circumstances and the limitations of their gender, but they often paid for it in trauma, frustration, and death. 

Lupino’s first trapped character is the dance-hall girl Marie in 1941’s “High Sierra” (pictured above). Raoul Walsh’s dark tale of robbers in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains primarily focuses on Humphrey Bogart’s ex-con, Roy, but it is really Marie whose character undergoes the great transformation within the feature. Upon first meeting Roy, Marie is unwanted, both because of her shady past as a dime a dance girl and because she’s a woman. To Roy and the gang she’s trashy at best and a jinx at worst, a belief heard by Marie so often that she presumes she’s cursed herself. Marie wants to escape the labels the world has placed on her due to her femininity and her profession in the only way she knows respectability can be achieved: marriage. She realizes Roy isn’t interested in engaging in crime forever, and hopes that her love can put him down a more normal path. Marie seeks redemption through love, to cast off this misfortune and reestablish her life as normal and domestic.  

Ironically, Roy’s profession never dampers his reputation except when it comes to domesticity. He is drawn to good girl Velma (Joan Leslie), but when she rejects him he turns to the one woman he knows will take him: Marie. (Lupino often played the second banana for many an actor, including Errol Flynn in 1947’s “Escape Me Never.”) Marie can see through Roy’s flaws, yet he never truly sees their relationship as a match made in heaven. His eventual death, necessary under the Production Code, leaves Marie in limbo. She remains alone in the world, and there’s no indication her life won’t return to how it was before. Is she a jinx? Or has Roy’s death cleansed her past because of his acceptance of her? Marie is a character trapped by the revolving door of double standards that plague countless women like her. 

After the success of "High Sierra" Lupino transitioned to “The Sea Wolf,” a feature that retained her ability to play average women seeking companionship, domesticity, and normality, but are hindered by bad reputations. Ida’s Ruth Brewster in “The Sea Wolf” is similar to Marie. Each is hindered by bad life decisions in their past, but Ruth’s aren’t just societally improper, they’re legally improper. A newspaper in the first scene states Ruth is a fugitive on the run from a women’s prison for an undisclosed crime. Just the taint of being associated with a crime leaves Ruth desperate for someone to vouch for her good name, so she sidles up to boat passenger Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and asks him to pretend they’re friendly to evade the cops on-board. Humphrey denies Ruth’s pleas and alerts the cops to her whereabouts, more concerned with protecting his own reputation. In a fortuitous bit of divine providence, their boat collides with the seal-hunting ship, the Ghost, causing everyone to drown except Ruth and Humphrey. 

Ruth’s felonious past doesn’t make a difference on the Ghost and its crew of dissolute characters once she slips into a coma as a result of the accident. Where in polite society her dangerous criminal past forced her into isolation, on the Ghost it is her isolating gender that makes her the source of danger. At one point, crew member Cookie (Barry Fitzgerald) alludes to wanting to “spend time” alone with Ruth; her status as the lone female on a shipboard of men makes her the prime victim for assault, a situation she’d explore as the director of the rape-trauma narrative “Outrage” in 1950. Ruth seeks a companion as an ally and she finds it in the taciturn George Leach (John Garfield). Unlike Bogart’s Roy, who in “High Sierra” presumes Marie is bad luck due to her femininity, Leach is a kindred spirit to Ruth. His equally shady and imperfect past makes them two halves of a whole, so it’s understandable that he would donate his blood for a transfusion to save her life. The film says they’re of the same blood, literally, because they are flawed and cornered people. Ruth closes the circle by later saving George as the Ghost sinks. By the end of “The Sea Wolf” it isn’t important that Ruth’s reputation is changed or elevated, but that she’s found a man who is her equal, who understands her faults and supports them. They may be confined in their loneliness, but they can try to raise the bar together. 

Lupino’s reteaming with Garfield that year in the noirish “Out of the Fog” is the apotheosis of the actress’ trapped characters. "Out of the Fog" is about the American Dream, but only if you’re a male living in the 1940s. Where “The Sea Wolf” lets Ruth escape with the opportunity to find love and domesticity, Lupino’s Stella Goodwin in “Out of the Fog” kicks off a string of women Lupino played who were denied that opportunity. It’s possible these increasingly resentful characters mimicked Lupino’s own state of mind regarding the roles she was being given. Stella, whose last name of Goodwin implies her pure, salt-of-the-Earth heart, has grown up with a safe, boring life on the docks. Her life is mapped out for her: work for the telephone company, drink in the same bar every night, and marry the solid dock auctioneer, George (Eddie Albert). But when Stella catches the eye of Harold Goff (Garfield), a racketeer currently extorting her father, she sees a chance at the exciting life she deserves. 

Stella presumes the American Dream should be within her reach as much as it is for her father and George. The people in her life don’t aspire to much: her father, played by Thomas Mitchell, just wants to spend his days fishing and can’t understand why Stella thinks she’s so “special.” Goff represents the new take on the American Dream, one that cropped up in the midst of WWII where cynicism and capitalism create financial security but leave the little guy hurt and starving. Stella is blinded by Goff’s ability to buy her fancy clothes, take her to fine clubs, and dangle a trip to Cuba in front of her. Stella doesn’t seek love—in fact she openly hates Goff once he confesses he’s extorting her dad—but she needs the door he opens for her. If Stella can get to Cuba, she’ll be able to see what lies beyond the dependable, safe world she knows. She can grow up, on her own terms. When Goff is eventually killed, symbolizing the small-town man’s ability to triumph over evil, it comes at the expense of another repressed minority: women. Goff’s death destroys Stella’s chance of leaving the dock, of creating something new with her life, of doing more than just existing. 

A similar sense of impending doom and encroaching evil pervades Lupino’s next film, “Ladies in Retirement.” Lupino’s Ellen Creed is the sole caretaker for her two mentally disturbed sisters. She’s desperate to keep the family together, but their shaky mental staff leaves them a chronic liability to her. It’s evident that her sisters are the burden on her back; they are the reason she’s a spinster and, later, what compel her to murder her employer as a means of keeping them under one roof. Ellen sublimates her own desires for the benefit of others, but where Stella does so at the end of “Out of the Fog” because of Goff’s death, here it’s evident she’s put herself second for years as her sisters move through various homes for decades. Ellen’s sisters hold her back, leaving the eldest sister with a choice: save them or save herself? When Ellen dons her hat and coat at the conclusion of the film, telling her sisters she doesn’t know if she’ll return, it isn’t an expression of freedom, but a confession of the murder she committed to keep them together. The film isn’t clear whether Ellen turns herself in for murdering her boss or if she’s leaving the sisters to a fate free of her influence, but the point remains that Ellen isn’t able to have it all. She is simply content to wander into the fog, where it’s hoped she’ll never return. 

In 1946 she played the ultimate caughter woman, Emily Bronte in the costume melodrama "Devotion." The loosely based story turns Emily Bronte into little more than a love-sick, overly involved authoress whose life mirrored that of Heathcliffe and Catherine, the subject of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Emily is considered different in comparison to her prettier, more normal sister Charlotte (played by Olivia de Havilland). Because Emily loves to write and refuses to defer to the men in her life, from her father to her brother, it’s feared she won’t secure a husband, the ultimate mark of a woman’s worth. Where previous Lupino characters are hobbled by forces outside their control or their familial situation, Emily is confined by her mind and her desire to create. Her love for writing furthers her loneliness, but is simultaneously the source of her strength and her reason for existence. Without her characters and her ability to present the world in her head to those outside, she would cease to be. So it’s understandable that the movie’s only recourse to quench this thirst and its desire to assert the typical Hollywood trappings of fantasy and domesticity, is by killing Emily in favor of leaving the film in the hands of the prettier, more pleasing Charlotte. Hollywood becomes the one to tamp down Lupino’s desire, rewriting history to do so. 

Lupino’s Marie, Ruth, Stella, and Ellen are all outsiders. That’s who she personified. Her characters are all removed from society, and she’d continued to focus on women like these throughout her career. The only way these women survive is finding a means of living within the world or destroying themselves. Lupino’s turn towards directing would put the ball in her court, allowing the characters to rise above their “damaged” exteriors. A rape victim can find peace, as in 1950’s “Outrage”; a woman with a disability can find love like in Lupino’s directorial debut, 1949’s “Never Fear”; and even unplanned pregnancy can be turned into something more than a death sentence, as it is the film “Not Wanted” (also 1949). Lupino knew women were more than their reputation, their past, and their family; she knew she was more than an actress and a pretty face. Each would work in unison to turn Ida Lupino into a unique personage we should all be talking about today.

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