Women’s Pictures get a bad rap. I’m not talking about this series - we’ve only been going a month and you all seem as excited as I am about it - but rather the category of film after which this series is named. During the height of their popularity in the 1940s, women's films were denigratingly known as “weepies” or “soap operas.” When women’s pictures began to be recognized as a unique category of film, they were often defined by what they lacked: few to no male leads, stories that rarely took place in the public sphere, a lack of “action” plots, etc.
Rather than define women’s pictures by what they weren’t, instead focus on what they were: films made for, starring, and sometimes created by women, films from many different genres (including traditionally male genres like noir), films with a focus on domestic life and social issues, films that tackled everything from racism to unplanned pregnancies to polio. These were films designed to speak to the interests of American women, and it turned out that American women were interested in seeing their real struggles represented onscreen. When Warner Bros glamor girl Ida Lupino started her production company in 1948, that’s exactly what she intended to do.
Disease, drama, and smokin' doctors after the jump...
Ida Lupino's career was as fascinating as any of the films she made. When she started The Filmmakers production company with her husband, Lupino was ending a lucrative contract with Warner Bros, where she had made a name for herself in films like High Sierra playing the tough-but-tender girl. She wanted more creative control, so despite Jack Warner's promises of fame and money, she left to write and produce. During the production of her company’s first film, Not Wanted, the director had a heart attack, and Lupino covered for him without taking credit (she was already writing and producing, after all). For her next film, Lupino decided to officially take a seat in the director’s chair.
NEVER FEAR (1949)
Never Fear, also known as The Young Lovers, is the story of a dancer named Carol (Sally Forrest) who is stricken with polio and loses the ability to walk. Despite warnings that sick girls don’t sell, Lupino felt personally close to the project. Los Angeles had been scared by a polio outbreak just the year before - over 7,000 cases - and Lupino herself fallen ill with polio in the 1930s. This was still half a decade away from the polio vaccine, and the disease was a very real public health concern. Lupino’s story was designed to show not only the ravages of the disease, but also the hope that still existed for those afflicted.
Never Fear is a strange mix of melodrama and realism. Making best use of the small budget afforded her, Lupino shoots her scenes on location inside a Los Angeles polio clinic, and uses paralyzed polio victims as actors and extras. Many scenes are devoted to accurately showing the physical therapy patients endure. This demystifies the effects of the disease, but also sheds light on other problems. As the film progresses and Carol fails to stand, she slips into depression, breaking the heart of her fiance, Guy (Keefe Brasselle).
Sometimes, Carol’s depression gets the better of her director, as well. Lupino’s first solo directing gig bears a heavy hand when it comes to dramatic scenes. Music swells too loud, Sally Forrest throws herself around the bed like a petulant child, and the core of the scene gets drowned out by noise. Some of this is style - this is after all a low budget 40s melodrama - but much is inexperience. As an actress, Lupino could be a master of subtle builds to big emotions. Time would tell whether she could do the same as a director.
Next Up. Watch Along With Anne Marie
3/12 - The Hitch-Hiker (1953) - A foray into film noir with a hitch-hiker holding two men hostage. (Available on Amazon Prime)
3/19 - The Bigamist (1953) - Ida Lupino and Joan Fontaine are married to the same man. (Available on Amazon Prime)
3/26 - The Trouble With Angels (1966) - Lupino's last feature film involves Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, and nuns. (Available on Amazon Prime)