Women Directors…special tribute to Ida Lupino

I wrote this essay several years ago as part of a course I took on women directors.  Since the essay was submitted, women have made some strides in the movie industry.  The most significant being Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Best Director’ Academy Award win for The Hurt Locker.  The win, significant not only because she was the first and only woman to be given this honor, but also because she beat powerhouse Hollywood directors for directing a war movie, a genre of film not usually associated with female talent. 

 So, despite the fact the essay is outdated as far as giving Ms. Bigelow and other current women making strides in the film industry deserved kudos, I am posting it as is in tribute to a woman pioneer in film, Ida Lupino. Today would have been Ms. Lupino’s 94th birthday.

The role of women in Hollywood, in particular their role behind the camera, has had a very strange existence.  Women played a very prominent role in the inception of film and enjoyed a lot of success from early on.  Unfortunately, this success would prove short-lived and dissipate almost completely as soon as films began to speak.   I will attempt to explain the reasons why women’s roles behind the camera went from accolades to banishment in a short period of time – with complete emphasis on their role as directors and in Hollywood.  It is important to note that women directors have had varying degrees of success in Europe and in other parts of the world independent of the roles of their counterparts in Hollywood, which was near non-existent for many decades.  However, because I am a fan of the Hollywood lore and because there is no argument that Hollywood has had the biggest influence in the movie industry, both financially and historically, this write-up focuses solely on women directors in Hollywood.

To continue…once pictures started talking we saw a severe dip in the number of women directors in Hollywood, a dip from which they have never recovered.  In essence, they’ve gone backwards in time or UN-evolved and it turns out this UN-evolution is a direct result of the shift of power.

In order to understand how far the female director has fallen we need to take a look at the heights they had reached, a height that had nothing to do with numbers, but rather with their influence.  As such, we need only to look at the work of one woman, Lois Weber, to understand the journey.

Before starting to direct films in 1908, Lois Weber had worked as a street corner evangelist doing missionary work and singing hymns in the slums of New York.  She was driven by what she said was a “great desire to convert her fellow men” and wanted a broader audience to hear her preaching about man’s influence and treatment of man.  After acting for about three years, Weber took a job at the Gaumont Film Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and started directing and producing.  As a film director, Weber found the perfect platform to preach to her heart’s content.  She referred to her own movies as “missionary pictures” as they all dealt with the many social problems women faced.  It’s astonishing to know that the “problems” these pictures focused on were abortion, birth control, racism, capital punishment, and other themes – all themes still controversial today.  Often Weber’s frank depiction of real life matters provoked censorship hearings, which resulted in police closing theaters where her movies played.  More important, however, was the press attention generated by the news of the closings, which only fueled the commercial success of her films.  Lois Weber was not only the first woman to ever produce, direct and star in a major motion picture, but by 1916 she was the highest paid director at Universal, earning an unheard of $5,000 a week.

Despite her success at Universal and with the films she would later direct for Paramount Studios, Weber’s fall from grace was as fast as was her rise to fame.  By the early 1920’s audiences no longer looked for preaching in their entertainment.  Instead they looked for livelier, more upbeat stories that took them away from their troubles, rather than making them face them.  Roaring twenties audiences wanted roaring fun.  Lois Weber’s influence and “power” in Hollywood took a dive.

During the last 5 years of her life, Weber worked as a script girl for Universal – showing how far she had fallen.  In 1939 she died penniless and ignored by everyone in an industry she helped to create.  What happened in the industry between Weber’s first films and her final years was substantial and, as we will see, paralleled what happened to women directors in general.

There are probably a myriad of reasons why women directors declined and disappeared rather than prospered along with Hollywood studios.  However, there are four major reasons that most agree played key roles in preventing the growth of women in the movie industry:  the end of the silent film era, The Great Depression, the competing star and studio systems and the infiltration of big business in the film industry.  All these along with the onset of religious and political morals helped turn the film industry into a totally male-dominated business.  From the point when all those elements collided, the art side of the film industry declined and the business side grew.  The enthusiasm of the audience who brought in the money was to become the one true defining factor as the entire industry fought constantly to maintain public interest in what was produced.

Francis Marion, one of a select number of women writers who were successful enough in the 1920’s to make a transition from silent films to talking pictures stated that women’s departure from Hollywood began as the movies found their voice.  She said that this industry shake-up disabled women, who constituted almost half of the writers of the time, because they weren’t given the chance to tackle the demands of dialogue.  Instead the new writing jobs were given to the dialogue writers who came over from writing for the stage.  In losing the majority of women writers the opportunities for them to control their own creative product began to disappear.  Larger studios became the only way to economically turn out the new higher budget talking films.  The addition of sound to movies required a massive influx of capital so Wall Street walked into the “picture.”  With Wall Street’s entrance Hollywood became further ingrained with a “big business” ethic and female control of projects declined even further.

As was the case in the rest of the country, Hollywood was not exempt from the woes of The Great Depression.  By 1930 the hundreds of production companies that had flourished a decade before fell victim to mergers, consolidations, and bankruptcies reducing the number of successful studios to only a handful.   The fact was that the small independent studios could not compete with the studios brought about during this “golden age of Hollywood.”  Now the norm was the super studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century Fox.  The new “studio system” also meant that directors, writers and actors signed contracts that tied them to one studio exclusively – contracts that were offered only to the most popular stars and “best” directors.  Now a “star system” was in place and the writers who were not prolific enough or who did not write star vehicles for those who sold the tickets in front of the camera had no job security whatsoever.  As we had seen to this point, women directors did not seek to direct star vehicles, were not interested in “fluffy” or popular themes, and were ultimately not given the choice to direct these types of pictures, had they been interested, by the new business men now running the studios.  Women’s interests were not represented at all on the management level and with the new layers of bureaucracy added to the studio system, jobs were delineated and made more specialized and production and distribution was now tightly controlled by only a few.  Women were further pushed aside.  Movie making was now an official big business.  As it turns out, but to no one’s surprise, there was little room for women in this business because they were no longer welcome in jobs men now wanted.

There are few more male-dominated institutions than the Catholic Church and when, in 1934, it stepped into Hollywood instilling ancient patriarchal values into the fairly new business structure then there was little else for women to do but smile and look pretty.  Responding to Hollywood’s questionable morals, the Catholic Church founded the Legion of Decency.  This was a nine-million strong group with a lot of political power, which could easily overpower those running the picture business.  Due to this the studios responded by signing the “Reaffirmation of Objectives of the Production Code,” which took the old code and turned it into a religious code and assigned a Church representative to make sure the code was enforced in all productions.  By all accounts, this representative was tyrannical and imposed the Church’s very strict morals on the industry and on the writers, who lost virtually all freedom of expression.

The onset of the religious edicts into Hollywood cemented it as a political arena and women had no political experience whatsoever.  As a result, women were no longer even standing in the sidelines; they were out, for the most part, at home, barefoot and in the kitchen – the only exception being those in front of the camera.

For the reasons mentioned above, and for some others, only a very small number of women survived behind the scenes in the business into the late 1930’s and these were mostly surviving writers.  Of the handful of non-writers who did continue to work behind the camera, Ida Lupino was one and she was a very rare exception to the rule.

In the book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, by Molly Haskell, directors are described as “half-artist, half-politician, battles the devils in the front office, wages war on the set, and engages in power politics whether he likes it or not.”  If this is in fact true, then Ida Lupino’s accomplishments are really unbelievable, given what the atmosphere in Hollywood was like at the time.

By the time the 1940’s and 1950’s arrived women directors were virtually unheard of in Hollywood.  Those women who had influenced the film industry from its inception, and who were in fact responsible for much of film’s initial popularity, had names no one mentioned, remembered or recognized.  Ida Lupino’s name was known but as it appeared in front of the camera.  She had been a successful actress for years, having given strong
performances in films like High Sierra and They Drive by Night.  But in the late 1940’s, Lupino wanted more creative control over her projects.  The opportunity for this was never going to happen unless she started her own production company.  She did so, The Filmakers, with her then husband, Collier Young.  The Filmakers shot their films on location with small budgets and tackled subjects Hollywood didn’t want to go near – taboos at the time and even now to some degree – unwed motherhood and bigamy were two.  After producing two films with her new production company, Lupino began production on a new script she had written called Not Wanted.  Director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack on the 3rd day of shooting and Lupino took over and directed the entire picture.  She declined directorial credit on the film but it was her first endeavor as director.

Ida Lupino would go on to direct six movies for The Filmakers from 1949 through 1953.  No other woman could boast a similar accomplishment.  Her films are all emotional, affecting, melodramas despite their measly budgets.  The outcome of Lupino’s films always seems neutral where even the person doing wrong is not blamed for it in the end – no judgment.   Her protagonists are ordinary people so her films did not feature the glamour Hollywood wanted and expected at that time.  I expect it was either a result of the difficulty of getting funds in order to produce more movies, or perhaps the lack of funds in order to compete in marketing her films given the competition at the time, or simply a lack of interest in a small budget film directed by a woman, but Lupino’s directing of feature films did not last.  In order to continue her directing she moved on to the small screen and directed many, many episodes of popular television shows.  Ida Lupino continued to direct in television well into the 1970’s and I would say, became a pioneer in that medium as well.

After reading about Ida Lupino’s films and about how she was a woman directing movies when all other directors were men, I found little information explaining why women have not directed features in any significant numbers or to any specific effect in recent decades.  Today there are many popular women directors out of the Hollywood system whose films have been financially successful.  Directors such as Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron, Sofia Coppola and Barbra Streisand are but a few.  However, although their films are worthy of noting as major accomplishments, the upper crust of the Hollywood directors is woman-free.  The competition and the pressure to make a blockbuster today is simply too great.  It seems to me that in order to even be given the chance to make what is a risky film today you have to have a substantial resume with a bottom line in the billions of dollars.  When a woman, such as Streisand, for instance, produces, directs and acts in a film she is deemed too self-serving for her film to be taken seriously on many fronts.  Streisand does have Hollywood power behind her by anyone’s standard, but it’s arguable whether that power is limited because she’s not a man.  One cannot help but notice that when men such as Warren Beatty and Clint Eastward put on many hats in their productions they are labeled geniuses, when a woman wears these hats she is simply trying, in vain, to be too much like a man and is labeled difficult.

The independent film industry has given women directors from all over the world a much needed avenue to practice their craft and show the world what they’ve got to offer.  However, I must admit that of the many films I watched for this Women Directors class, most I didn’t know were directed by women and most of the movies were unknown to me.  Not that I am aware of all the movies that are released at any one time but I would venture to say that it is near impossible for these films to get any real notoriety, especially in the United States, because they simply cannot compete.  Of the films I did know were directed by women before the 1970’s most were very difficult to get.  The documentaries and other historical materials about Hollywood that I have watched made little mention of the fact that women had played even a marginal role in the formation of the popular film as we know it.  All this leads me to conclude that the role of women behind the camera is still as extinct as it was 50 years ago.  I’d even venture to say that African Americans and Latino filmmakers have made a bigger impact in recent years than have women.  Although I don’t think this has anything to do with lack of talent or interest.  I think that the still male-dominated Hollywood is not willing to take chances on telling stories from a woman’s perspective.  Why?  (And this is my opinion) A woman’s perspective will rarely, if ever, have violence or sex, the two biggest stars in Hollywood, as its central theme.

I found something I read about why women are not as successful as men as directors very interesting.  It stated (loosely) that women are inherently not good directors because giving orders, knowing how to work machinery as well as people, being authority figures and demanding respect are all inherently male things that would naturally create sexist situations when women direct.  In contrast, in a book written in 1920 about the best careers for women, there was a chapter on directing, which stated that women would make naturally good directors because of their sensitivity and their ability to nurture.  All of this seems too complicated to me.  Women, given the chance, would be as successful as men in directing.  There is no reason why they shouldn’t be.  And to debunk the feminist view, they’d be successful in telling all types of stories, not just feminist stories from feminist perspectives.  If most of the greatest films I’ve ever seen having to do with women’s issues were directed by men,  then why wouldn’t I want to see men’s stories told by women?  If this line of thought were in effect for all groups then we would never have had movies to watch about aliens or creatures from the black lagoon or vampires – last I checked we didn’t need their perspectives to tell their stories.  Films are about stories after all.  There needn’t be any truth to them, except in the telling.  If women are to rise to the forefront of movie-making again as artists and creators then women are the first, in my opinion, who have to accept them as artists and creators.

I will, if I may, take a moment to officially congratulate Kathryn Bigelow for her historic Oscar win as Best Director in 2010, a win made sweeter when her film, The Hurt Locker was named Best Picture.  As a fan, the moment was sweeter still seeing Barbra Streisand present her with the award. 

Just last week The Hollywood Reporter published an article on this subject.  The bottom line is that “women comprised only 5 percent of directors in the top 250 highest-grossing films last year.”  Given this fact, Kathryn Bigelow’s honor seems all the more monumental.

3 thoughts

  1. Ida Lupino was certainly a pioneer. I always enjoyed her with John Garfield in The Sea Wolf and the hidden gem Out of The Fog.

    If you want to hear Ida sing, she does so in the film noir, Road House with Richard Widmark. She belts out the Johnny Mercer saloon song, One For My Baby in a gravely voice. I always liked this song especially with Sinatra singing it.

    My favorite film of Miss Lupino is definitely The Hard Way. She plays a ruthless, devious and manipulative show biz manager who virtually destroys her sister Joan Leslie’s life and eventually her own. There is one classic line Dennis Morgan’s character makes about Lupino’s character in regard to her absence in a particular scene. He says, “what did you do chloroform her?” Just a really funny line. Even with all her negative character traits in this film, we do see her exhibit some vulnerability. I actually wind up feeling sorry for her character to some extent especially in the end.

    I recently saw Lupino in Life Begins At Eight Thirty with one of my favorite character actors Monty Woolley. Thank you for sharing about female directors and Miss Lupino’s directing career, very interesting…Aurora.

    1. Thanks for all your commentary – love the film recommendations. I’ve seen most through the years but some, I admit, I don’t quite remember so must revisit. But where is the time?!

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