Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Christmas Album: Ida Lupino

 Let's kick off the third year of The Christmas Album with a merry crack from one of my favorite actresses.

Oh Ida, you are a naughty little girl! Spanking Santa during the Warner Brothers' holiday party seems to be a surefire way to get a lump of coal in your stocking--and you know how hard it is to get nylons at the end of 1942!  When Old Saint Nick appeared on the sound stage that December day, Miss Lupino was in the midst of filming the rather troubled production of Devotion, a glossy take on the purported romantic lives of those gifted artistic siblings, Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland), Anne (Nancy Coleman), and Branwell Brontë (Arthur Kennedy).

Maybe this photo op gave Ida Lupino a much needed chance to vent her understandable frustration during the making of this picture.

The film was directed by the rather frosty, autocratic Curtis Bernhardt, a talented émigré whose Germanic manner was regarded with disdain by both strong-willed ladies, Ida and Olivia. Despite their mutual enmity toward Herr Bernhardt, the actresses were reportedly at odds a few times on the set themselves as they vied for camera time and a credible character to play, (while also apparently successfully elbowing Nancy Coleman's Anne Brontë completely into the shadows of the sketchy script!)  Griping about working at Warners was nothing new since it seems that you weren't really one of the gang at the Burbank studio until you'd told the producers what they could do with some of their lesser scripts. However, things may have been aggravated by the resentment building in actors such as Olivia de Havilland, whose groundbreaking lawsuit to end the studio practice of keeping contractees on a very long leash would soon be filed. Unfortunately, the production company was so miffed that their most lady-like star would spurn their efforts to keep her by tacking on her suspensions at the end of her contract that this movie was not able to be seen by anyone until three years later. Who could have known at the time that the project, which began on November 11, 1942 and stretched through the middle of February 1943, would wind up sitting on the shelf in part "to punish" the "ungrateful" Olivia, until it finally premiered with little fanfare to mixed reviews on April 5, 1946 at the Strand Theater in Manhattan.

And then, of course, there was the script for this particular movie.

Devotion (1946) was supposed to be one of the studio's prestige productions, (think of the lush escapism of All This and Heaven Too and the "Why here comes Joe Stalin!" moments in the now historically amusing Mission to Moscow). Somehow, though, the script, which tried to make something commercially dramatic out of the constricted lives of people who did most of their real living inside their heads, was beyond the powers of scenarists Theodore Reeves, Edward Chodorov, and the uncredited Keith Winter (a lucky break for him). Much of it was a mess of Victorian era pottage that neglected the reality of the deeply imaginative inner lives of the moody quartet of writers, whose creation of an elaborate fantasy world was their escape and solace in their bleak lives on the Yorkshire Moors with their rigid clergyman father (played by the perennially grumpy Montagu Love).

The film soared fitfully whenever Arthur Kennedy had a chance to pull out all the stops in painting his cinematic portrait of the bitter, arrogantly gifted, self-pitying Branwell, a role that he later cited as one of his favorites. Other moments that were a tad more effective belonged to Ida Lupino, who was a tiny, vulnerable figure magnificently photographed in black and white by the great cinematographer Ernest Haller as she swept across a back lot heath in her Milo Anderson gown with her wolfhound at her heels, dreamily gazing at something in the distance with her luminous blue eyes. When that swooning Erich Wolfgang Korngold score swells on the soundtrack this viewer is usually completely seduced by the film and left wondering if that shadowy figure on horseback was Heathcliff or just an apparition of her banked ambitions and longing? To tell the truth, I know this movie may be poppycock, balderdash and inaccurate, and may not be nearly as dramatic as the actual lives it tries to convey, but the flick nails me every blessed time I try to turn away from it--in large part because of the romantic side revealed in Lupino, who is more generally remembered for her brilliant work in gritty film noirs.

Ida, whose delicate frame belied her razor sharp mind, powerhouse talent and what she called her "mad moments," claimed that "[s]ometimes I have a little black devil inside me...sometimes I must fight like the devil. It's a terrible fight. Someday I'm going to lose...I have moods, lots of moods, and some of them are very dark." Despite any personal demons, Lupino created a series of remarkably original and vivid dramatic performances as tough yet feminine characters that remain fresh to this day, and much of her best work as an actress was at Warner Brothers, which she left in 1947 to become one of the very few women directors of films and television, as well as to continue acting. Unfortunately for us, the raucous wit and joyous high spirits displayed here in these two images were rarely seen publicly on screen, (though those who have seen her CBS television series, Mr Adams and Eve (1957-1958) with her then-husband Howard Duff still smile at the memory of the show). Accounts of nights at her Westridge Road home at the time mention her ability to make an evening at home serenely welcome with her quiet love of Mozart or Debussy on the record player.

Ida Lupino gets a bit flirtatious with this unidentified but jolly looking Santa.
Others recall the gamine Ida's mirthful ability to make normally sedentary guests willingly participate in an improvised chorus line snaking through the house with shrieks of laughter to English Music Hall tunes, especially when someone like actor Reginald Gardner visited with his wealth of funny stories and sense of the absurd. With the recent death of her multi-talented theatrical father, Stanley Lupino, in June of 1942, these occasions became more of a way of keeping his antic English spirit alive. His gifted daughter's industry as a filmmaker, producer, writer and actress would also mirror some of the many facets of Stanley's driven life as a performer, librettist, director and short story writer. Still, with her husband, actor Louis Hayward in the U.S. Marines and away, soon facing combat, these occasions often took a back seat to Ida's efforts to share her largesse with those she met while working at the Hollywood Canteen, many of whom were invited home to an open house buffet at her private home during the holiday season and beyond. One night the generosity of the actress led  one serviceman encountered at the Hollywood Canteen, who had probably been quite impressed with the volatility of her edgy portrayals in films such as The Light That Failed (1939) and They Drive By Night (1940), to ask very nicely, "Miss Lupino, please scream for me."

No word on whether or not this request was fulfilled, though I suspect that the actress may have been a bit disarmed by this unpretentious, frank appreciation of her work. Sadly, it seems now that her reputation has only grown deeper among those who cherish her presence since her death in 1995.  Some perceptive people were aware of her legacy even then, though, looking back, she once reflected that "The beautiful thing about Warner Bros. when I was there was, I only worked with great people, actors, directors, producers. But when I left, nobody said goodbye."

Goodbye, Miss Lupino, many thanks, and may your restless soul know the peace of this season.

For Past Entries in The Christmas Album on this blog, please click here.

Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati (Univ. Press of KY, 1996), Ladies' Man: An Autobiography by Paul Henried and Julius Fast (St. Martin's Press, 1984), Arthur Kennedy, Man of Characters by Craig R. Smith and Jackie Lohrke (McFarland, 2003), Those Crazy, Wonderful years When We Ran Warner Bros. by Stuart Jerome (Lyle Stuart, 1983). 


The Lady Eve said...

From my earliest memories of movie watching on the small screen I recall an affinity for Ida Lupino. She seemed that rare and special combination of fragility and fortitude. HIGH SIERRA, THE SEA WOLF...those were the pictures often aired in those days. And, as you mention, I am one of those who smiles when I recall "Mr. Adams and Eve."
It is no stretch to imagine that Ida Lupino had "a little black devil" inside of her - or that she listened to Mozart and Debusssy.
Wonderful post...thank you.

Caftan Woman said...

It seems "Devotion" was as frustrating to make as it is to watch.

A grand way to start this Christmas month with memories of Ida Lupino.

Stacia said...

Such a lovely article. I sadly barely knew who Ida was until years after her death, and now routinely think of her as one of the few Hollywood personalities I would have liked to have known. (Reginald Gardner is another one!) Thanks for the heads up, I really do want to see this film.

Tom said...

Ha ha, that's a funny pic.

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks to each of you for stopping by.

Lady Eve, I am delighted that you share my enjoyment of certain films. I love Ida in The Sea Wolf too--and don't get me started on The Man I Love, when she took a so-so script and made it memorable. There are so many films like that with Lupino!

Oh, I dunno if Devotion is a trial to watch. More like addictive candy. You know it's not good for you, but it calls your name if you are susceptible to Ida, the Brontes, and Korngold.

Like you, Stacia, I wish there were more Reginald Gardners in the world--or at least a few more of his films on regular display. A low-key favorite of mine: Molly and Me (1945) starring Gracie Fields with Reginald Gardner in a nicely written supporting role playing a down-on-his-luck actor who trades in a life in the theater for the relative stability of a butler's life in a household presided over by Monty Woolley.

Unfortunately, Ida and Reggie only appeared in the same film in the unwieldy Forever and a Day (which featured practically every English actor in Hollywood to raise money for war-related charity). I hope you have a chance to see those if you haven't already.

Thanks, Tom. Those images seemed to blend that naughty and nice quality that Ida could project so effectively.
All the best,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

This was terrific. I love Ida in anything, and I agree those rare moments of showing her romantic side as opposed to her tough as nails personna are delightful.

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. It's pretty gratifying to see that people continue to get something out of older pieces on this blog, especially when it relates to Ida. I am hoping that you and your family have a peaceful Christmas.


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