Does hard-hitting cinema need hard-sell tactics?
Indie pioneer Ida Lupino tackled some of the most pressing social issues of the day — but you wouldn't guess it from the posters for her films
Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
The film industry is no stranger to the hard sell. From the slightly embellished to the downright misleading, when it comes to trailers and movie posters audiences have come to expect that the lilies will be at least a little gilded. In the immortal words of Lionel Hutz, “There’s the truth, and there’s 'The Truth'!”
But rarely do we see how the artists and filmmakers feel about this sort of — let’s call it “embroidery.” Lucky for us, Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera, the autobiography of the trailblazing actor turned director, offers one of these rare glimpses behind the curtain. Presented with absolutely zero context, one spread of images in the book highlights an amusing memo scrawled by Lupino on the bottom of a poster for Matinee Scandal, the 1948 re-release of her 1936 film One Rainy Afternoon.
"This poster is a shock. Miss Pickford and Jesse Lasky released a picture named One Rainy Afternoon starring Ida Lupino and Francis Lederer. 1. She was not FREE + EASY 2. He was not GAY. Miss Lupino is very angry about this cheap ad. Those who dreamed it up are heading for TROUBLE. Sorry – hate it.”
From the date at the bottom, Lupino seems to have only seen the 1948 poster much later in life — and when one compares it to the film’s original press materials, it’s easy to understand her anger at the misrepresentation.
It would be unjust to regard Lupino’s ire as merely the late-life crotchiness of an Old Hollywood veteran. Rather, it was another expression of the actress’ long-lasting frustration with the power imbalance between studios and performers — particularly female performers. The raw deal given to women in the film industry clearly rankled Lupino throughout her life. “There was an absolute iron-clad caste system in the film capital in the 1940s and 1950s, which, it seems to me, had [as] its primary purpose to exclude females,” Lupino writes on the first page of Beyond the Camera. “The only sort of job encouragement some women got in the early days of Hollywood was the portrayal of women on screen. Sometimes, I suspect we were resented even for this intrusion.”
By the late 1940s, after nearly two decades on screen (she made her first film at 14), Lupino had grown tired of acting. “I was bored to tears with standing around the set while someone else seemed to do all the interesting work,” she said; where the rest of the world saw glamour, Lupino saw tedium.
Nevertheless, working with some of Hollywood’s top filmmakers had kindled her interest in what went on behind the camera. “Raoul Walsh used to let me watch him in the cutting room,” said Lupino of one of her favourite and most frequent collaborators. “I wouldn’t bother him, but I’d ask him certain things.”
In 1949, Lupino and her then husband Collier Young, a former Columbia Pictures exec, formed an independent film company called Emerald Productions. Lupino was often flippant about her bold move into independent production: “I didn’t see myself as an advance guard or feminist,” she joked. “I had to do something to fill my time. For about 18 months in the mid-’40s, I could not get a job as an actress in pictures.” But she clearly had a sense of purpose about the kind of pictures she wanted to make. “I wanted to make films with good stories and new faces,” Lupino recalled. “We chose controversial, socially conscious issues for the themes of our movies: rape, bigamy, polio, and unwed motherhood…. We were always looking for true-life material. We based our premises on people we talked to or things that really happened!”
Despite these noble intentions, as the visual evidence below suggests, Lupino’s projects were often (though not always) sold with more than a little embroidery, attesting to the fact that in the film capital, “independent” only went so far.
Lupino and Young’s first production did indeed tackle a thing that “really happened” all the time, and a topic which the big studios weren’t keen to spotlight.
Earlier in the decade, while preparing for a role, Lupino had witnessed a pregnant girl brought into the Los Angeles police court charged with loitering. “The whole national picture was painted for me, of the 100,000 girls, half of them between ten and 19 years old, who bring children into the world outside of wedlock each year. I determined the story, shocking though it was, had to be brought to the screen.”
Co-written by Lupino, Not Wanted evinces a compassion for its hard-done-by protagonist — a young girl who is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by a cynical jazzman — that is virtually unheard of for its time.
Considering that unwed mothers in Hollywood films were often conveniently killed off (to avoid censure from the Production Code and/or the Catholic Legion of Decency), and that even those films about pregnancies produced in wedlock were handled either in exploitation style (Mom and Dad) or with kid gloves (A Child is Born), the restraint, candour, and sympathy displayed in Not Wanted’s promotional materials is astonishing.
This restraint was certainly not shown when the film was repackaged years later by roadshow producer Jack Lake under titles like The Wrong Rut and Streets of Sin, complete with muddy colour footage of cesarean childbirth.
In its original version, Not Wanted became an unlikely hit, and the press attention accorded the controversial film eventually outed the extent of Lupino’s role in its production. As the story goes, three days into the shoot director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack, forcing Lupino to take over his duties; however, Clifton retained his credit on the finished film, as Lupino was not yet a member of the Director’s Guild of America. (That distinction would come in 1952, when she became only the second woman after Dorothy Arzner to join the DGA.)
Buoyed by the success of Not Wanted, Lupino, Young, and their partner Malvin Wald rechristened Emerald as The Filmakers. The new name reflected the company’s ambitions, as the team’s manifesto — published in the February 20, 1950 issue of Variety under the title “Declaration of Independents” — makes clear:
When the 32-year-old Lupino officially took the helm of the team’s first production under the Filmakers banner, Never Fear, she officially became the only working female director in Hollywood, as her predecessor Arzner had not directed a film since 1943.
None of this, however, helped at the box office. While its chronicle of a young dancer’s struggle with the disease has all the empathy and realism of Not Wanted, Never Fear failed to replicate the success of Lupino’s previous effort. This could at least partially be due to the vagueness of the film’s ad campaign, which lacked the forceful direct address of that for Not Wanted. (The film’s distributor Eagle Lion Films didn’t much help matters when they re-released the film later that year under the title The Young Lovers.)
Despite Never Fear’s poor returns, The Filmakers managed to land a distribution contract with RKO. While the studio was in steep decline at this point (thanks in no small part to its new owner Howard Hughes), for Lupino, Young, and Wald the RKO contract meant they would be able to continue to fund the social-problem films they wanted to pursue. “Those were thrilling days for us,” Lupino remembered. “We co-wrote and co-produced, and I went on to direct each successive film. We discovered new talent, and we did the kind of film that is ‘new wave’ today. We took topics that were pretty daring for the time.”
Daring indeed: in those witch-hunting days of Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, when Hollywood studios were steering clear of even the most mildly controversial subject matter for fear of being labelled as communist sympathizers, Lupino’s next production was the first American film to seriously explore the subject of rape.
Outrage is an exceptional film, perceptively exploring what we now call rape culture at a time when censor Joseph Breen wouldn’t even permit the use of the word “rape” on screen (he insisted on the term “criminal assault”). “She wanted to do it, and if she wanted to do it, she was going to do it,” recalled the film’s star Mala Powers. “That was Ida.”
Outrage was one of RKO’s few moneymakers in 1950. “We would shoot these films in about 13 days and at a budget of less than $200,000, and they were ‘A’ pictures,” said Lupino. Despite this proud assertion, The Filmakers’ next films were decidedly Bs, though of a distinctly 1950s variety.
“The frank-as-life story of a girl, too old for her age... too bold for her age... who learned a lot of things you never find in school books!” trumpeted the posters for On the Loose, the first Filmakers production without Lupino behind the camera, and a film that stands in pretty stark contrast to Outrage. On the Loose was the company’s attempt to tackle a problem that would be a frequent film subject in the decade to come: delinquent teens.
Based on a story by Young and Wald, the film aimed for realism (the script was deliberately updated before shooting to use up-to-the minute teenage slang), but when it came to promotion RKO leaned on the old adage that sex sells, with ad copy that reads like something from the back pages of an alt-weekly: “Teen age girl with age old ideas!”, “SCHOOL-GIRL by day... THRILL-SEEKER by night!”
Lupino’s next film as director, Hard, Fast and Beautiful, was similarly ill-served by RKO’s marketing department, with key art that implies something significantly more salacious than what the film actually delivers.
In her early years with The Filmakers, Lupino seldom acted on screen. Aside from her memorable role in Nicholas Ray’s 1952 classic On Dangerous Ground (which was seemingly a favour to RKO, director Ray and star Robert Ryan), the one-time star only appeared in Filmakers-produced films, most of which were little more than cameos — with one exception.
On the set of Outrage, production designer Harry Horner had impressed Lupino and Young, who agreed to produce his directorial debut, Beware, My Lovely, with Lupino in the lead role opposite her On Dangerous Ground co-star Robert Ryan. When production wrapped, the erratic Hughes had RKO shelve the film for over a year, and then doomed its commercial chances by giving it a second-tier release.
While the artwork for the film could lead one to believe that this was The Filmakers’ take on domestic violence, Beware, My Lovely is in reality a straightforward thriller, and like On the Loose it indicates the sharp divide between Lupino’s socially conscious films and the other five Filmakers productions — a divide that was only slightly bridged by Lupino’s next film.
Based on the true case of serial killer William Cook Jr., who had murdered six people as he hitched his way across the US in 1950, The Hitch-Hiker proved to be a struggle to get past the MPAA, as the Production Code prohibited depictions of contemporary criminals. The Filmakers went forward anyway, informing the press that film rights had been obtained from Cook’s surviving victims and the death-row inmate himself. The Filmakers thought that, as an independent company specializing in realistic films, they were immune to the constraints of the studio system; the MPAA and the US Bureau of Prisons disagreed, intervening and forcing Filmakers to fictionalize the story. “To appease the censors at the Hayes Office, I reduced the number of deaths to three!” said Lupino.
Audiences didn’t seem to mind the reduced body count, and the film was a moneymaker for RKO. But this run-in with the censors was only one of The Hitch-Hiker’s behind-the-scenes complications. In 1950, Young had begun an affair with actress Joan Fontaine, and Lupino had romantically reconnected with actor Howard Duff, her co-star from her final pre-Filmakers acting gig Woman in Hiding.
Shortly before filming began on The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino discovered she was pregnant. Within two days, she divorced Young and married Duff — which, in a rather remarkable instance of broad-mindedness, did not spell the end of The Filmakers. “After the divorce, Ida and I decided to stay in business,” Young told interviewers. “Our company was a good thing, [and] since our divorce, the quality of our films have [sic] actually improved."
Ironically, it was the very success of The Hitch-Hiker that set in motion The Filmakers’ demise. “Filmakers was doing fine, but we made one fatal mistake,” said Lupino. “We were talked into the distribution business. I opposed them every step of the way. We were creative people, we were picture-making people, I argued. ‘We know nothing about distribution. Let’s stay away from it.’ I was out-voted, and pretty soon we were out of business.”
RKO had garnered most of the profits from The Hitch-Hiker, and Young felt that Filmakers could go it alone. (“The greater the risk, the bigger the profits, Collie felt.”) The plan was to make a series of films for $125,000 apiece, starting with a script of Young’s: The Bigamist.
To reduce upfront costs, Filmakers locked down product-placement deals with Cadillac, United Airlines, and Coca Cola, and talked the cast into a “participation deal” which would have them share in The Bigamist’s earnings. Unfortunately for everyone involved, there weren’t any.
If ever a movie could have benefitted from a little sensationalism, it’s The Bigamist. For a film about a travelling salesman who is discovered to have two wives — played, ironically, by Lupino and Fontaine — The Filmakers’ promotional efforts are about as vanilla as can be imagined, with nary an exclamation mark or underline in sight.
Though it failed to connect with audiences, The Bigamist allowed Lupino to break another barrier: she was the first woman since the silent era to direct herself in a film. “It was difficult for me to determine the quality of my performance,” she commented. “I think it is the toughest thing I have ever attempted in my career.”
Lupino and Young’s last collaboration would be Private Hell 36, directed by Don Siegel. Clearly having learned a thing from The Bigamist’s failure to launch, The Filmakers amped up the sordid factor in their promotions this time around.
Co-written by Lupino and Young, and co-starring Duff, Lupino, and Steve Cochran, Private Hell 36 is the last of The Filmakers’ projects to embody the ideals of the “Declaration of Independents.”
Lupino and Duff shared the screen a number of times during their marriage, in such films as Jennifer (1953), Women’s Prison (1954), and Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956), many of which feature the type of lurid artwork that might have helped The Bigamist’s cause.
The Filmakers made two more films after Private Hell 36, neither of which involved Lupino: a war romance titled The Bold and the Brave, and Mad at the World, which retrod the territory of On the Loose, with male delinquents this time out.
Around the time of The Bigamist, The Filmakers had also begun distributing films not produced by the company. Their first release was actually a pretty good gamble: Monte Carlo Baby was a repackaging of the 1951 film We Go to Monte Carlo, which featured a pre-fame Audrey Hepburn in a small part. For the Filmakers release, Hepburn was promoted to top billing to exploit her Oscar win the previous year for Roman Holiday.
Though none seem to have made much of a dent at the box office, subsequent releases such as Fury in Paradise, A Life At Stake, and Crashout (later retitled Gunmen on the Loose) all feature wonderfully sensational poster art.
The Filmakers was a truly rare bird amongst Hollywood’s independent producers of the time, and fittingly, the company’s history is graced by one final anomaly: although they didn’t distribute the film, at some point Filmakers came to hold the copyright on Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, which, while it has since been surpassed by Plan 9 from Outer Space in the pop-culture pantheon, is probably the infamous director’s most lavish production.
Lupino closes Beyond the Camera by reflecting on her time with Young at The Filmakers. “To this day, Collier is still the man I love. He was my favourite husband. It was a divorce that neither one of us wanted! Collie and I kept working together because we were in such rapport about the movies we wanted to make.”
Many of the quotes in this piece are derived from Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera by Ida Lupino and Mary Ann Anderson.