Ida Lupino was just 14 when she became a Hollywood starlet. If you’re thinking that’s kind of a lot for a teen, you’d be surprised. Part of a British acting dynasty, Ida wasn’t raised like other girls her age. She’d been prepped for a life in the limelight; her family had her learning lines as soon as she was old enough to read.
By the time Ida entered her teens, she was headstrong and self-assured; unsurprising, given that her acting had been helping pay her family’s bills! So, when Ida landed her big break with the lead role in 1932’s Her First Affair, she took leading an entire film in her stride; no big deal.
What was a big deal was the role Ida was playing—you see, 14-year-old Ida was playing a nymphomaniac who spent her time chasing men while wearing not a great deal. Oh…and it was a role that Ida’s mother had originally auditioned for.
Somehow, despite the icky-ness of it all, Hollywood took notice of Ida’s "grown-up" performance. Just not in the way you might think.
Weirdly, Paramount now wanted Ida to play Alice (you know…the young innocent girl) in their new mega-expensive film adaption of Alice in Wonderland (Life lesson: never try and make sense of Hollywood decision making).
Slight problem: Ida didn’t want to play Alice. Ida didn’t see herself as Alice. She wasn’t wide-eyed and naive, she was smart, independent and desperate to be taken seriously as an adult. So, Ida did what any teenager would: she dyed her hair bright blonde and wore as much makeup as humanly possible.
After this, it’s not exactly surprising that Paramount cast another girl as Alice. Still, Paramount saw something in Ida, soon signing her in an iron-clad contract. And so Ida found herself trapped on the Paramount lot, playing dumb blonde after dumb blonde.
Two years into her contract, Ida was over Paramount. Ida hadn’t come all the way to Hollywood to spend her days playing a brainless glamazon. She wanted to play bold women that made their own stories. Not only that but, she wanted to write, produce, and more than anything, she wanted to direct.
Sadly, in the 1930s, becoming a female director was much like becoming a unicorn (aka: Never. Gonna. Happen!). With the directing dream dead, Ida decided that if her only creative outlet was acting, you better bet your arse she was doing it her way.
So, in 1937 she did the unthinkable: she walked out of her contract.
Barely 20, Ida had gained a lucrative studio contract, lost it (along with a heap of money), and been banned from the lot of one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. But Ida didn’t let this get to her.
She took time off to study, returning two years later in The Light That Failed, and this time you best believe she wasn’t playing a bimbo but an actual character! Ida continued to hustle, and by the mid-1940s she not only had control of the roles she played, but was also known as one of the best dramatic actresses of her era.
So naturally, Ida decided to become a director. Now, as discussed, this was an impossible dream! Let’s put it in context: In 1943, the only woman in Hollywood directors guild (Dorothy Arzner) retired. For the next five years, no major film in Hollywood was directed by a woman.
I repeat: From 1943-1948, no major film in Hollywood was made by a woman. The idea that this was changing anytime soon was, quite simply, impossible. But, when had "impossible" ever stopped Ida Lupino?
In 1949, Ida wrote Not Wanted, a drama about the then incredibly taboo topic of unwanted pregnancy. Three days before the film was set to shoot, the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t continue with the project.
Ida stepped up. She directed Not Wanted at the last minute on a budget of basically $0, using her own wardrobe for costumes and repurposing any thrown-out sets she could get her hands on.
And she did all this while simultaneously fighting off censors who were at never-before-seen levels of horrified; not only was a film showing unwanted pregnancy, but a woman was directing the film! Surely this scandal would not stand with audiences!
Sadly for the censors, Not Wanted went on to make millions.
On the back of Not Wanted’s success, Ida set up her own production company, The Filmmakers, alongside her then-husband, Collier Young. Ida wanted her production company to be different, making films that tackled social issues other people were too scared to touch. So, her next film, Never Fear, did just that, portraying an unflinching look at life with polio (an epidemic then sweeping America).
But Never Fear bombed at the box office. It turned out audiences wanted escapism, not a gnarly polio flick. Still, in typical Ida fashion, she didn’t let this mammoth setback hold her back. Sure, Never Fear may not have broken the bank, but it was exceptionally well made. A fact Ida used to bag herself a three-picture deal at RKO.
Ida Lupino was now Hollywood’s top (and pretty much only) female director. She was also one of the only directors with the balls to tackle some seriously sensitive material. In her time at RKO, Ida’s films delved subject matter including rape, sexual assault, and gender dynamics.
Ida didn’t stop her casual groundbreaking with her film's subjects. In 1953, she became the first female director to direct a noir. The Hitch-hiker saw Ida’s unparalleled handle on the human psyche, matched with a tense noir, telling a breathless tale of two men trapped in a car with a serial killer. It remains one of the best film noirs ever made:
But after The Hitch-hiker's success, Ida was starting to feel a little screwed over by RKO. She wasn’t seeing anywhere near the money her films produced. And so, just like she’d done when she was 20, Ida cut ties with the Hollywood machine and went solo.
She made her production company, Filmmakers, a fully independent machine that could make and distribute its own films. This would prove to be fatal. The Filmmakers' first film, 1953's The Bigamist, saw Ida and the company drowning in a never-ending money pit.
With Ida leading the creative side, her now ex-husband and business partner Collier Young led the money side of things. Yeah, turns out Collier sucked at that. He constantly lost investments, overspent, and despite being the one to push the idea of doing their own distribution… had no idea how to do it.
By 1955, the production company was kaput, and Ida wouldn’t direct a film again for over a decade.
Yet (as always), Ida didn’t let this latest defeat stop her. She moved onto the small screen, starring in a CBS sitcom, (the horrifically titled) Mr. Adams and Eve, with her new husband, Howard Duff.
The series was popular, but Ida wasn’t able to go behind the camera. In fact, the mere notion of Ida directing an episode–therefore being her husbands boss–caused massive tension between Ida and Howard. This was a theme in Ida and Howard’s marriage. Ida’s success as a director rankled Howard, who just wasn’t okay with his wife doing what was still seen as a man’s job.
But Ida continued despite her husband's objections. Over the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Ida directed countless TV shows, including "The Masks," a now iconicly creepy episode of The Twilight Zone (for which she became the series' only female director). Ida also went back to film. Her last directing credit was 1966's female-driven comedy, The Trouble With Angels.
Now, I’m afraid the last part of Ida’s story is far from a happy ending. Resilient though Ida was, she wasn’t made of steel. She’d developed a drinking problem during her marriage to Collier Young and the collapse of their production company.
Her drinking only got worse during her marriage to Howard Duff. And though the pair split in the 1970s, Ida could never shake her drinking habit. Then Ida reached the age where her friends started to die. Soon, she was suffering regular bouts of depression.
When Ida’s mother died, she just shut down—retreating into herself, barely leaving her home. In 1995, Ida Lupino died of a stroke at the age of 77.
History has remembered Ida Lupino as an actress, but her real legacy is as a most groundbreaking directors, forging a path for female directors as well as indie filmmakers. She also bought the topics of sexual violence and gender into the mainstream AND ensured women got to tell their own stories.
Yet Ida’s influence is largely forgotten. Perhaps unsurprising when, 69 years since her directorial debut, just one in every 22 directors are women. Which is why Ida’s story is so vital. It’s a legacy that needs to live on today, helping in the almighty push for women in film; after all, there’s one thing we can learn from Ida it’s this: nothing is ever impossible.
That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well, definitely check out Ida’s films, which still stand up today. I’d also suggest listening to the episode on Ida on the fantastic Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This.
this post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.