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.|
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).