Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in the Hollywood studio system during the late ’20s and early ’30s, became infamous for her distinctly dapper butch look and slicked-back hair. Ida Lupino (1918–1995), the superb noir actress who became the second woman, after Arzner, to be admitted to the Directors Guild, deployed a different demeanor: “I love being called ‘Mother,’ ” Lupino said in 1967 (recounted in William Donati’s 1996 biography Ida Lupino) about the persona she assumed while in the helmer’s chair (the back of which read “Mother of Us All”). “I would never shout orders at anyone. I hate women who order men around, professionally or personally. I wouldn’t dare do that with my old man . . . and I don’t do it with guys on the set. I say, ‘Darlings, Mother has a problem. I’d love to do this. Can you do it? It sounds kooky, but I want to do it.’ And they do it.”
Mother’s work as auteur is the highlight of MOMA’s 14-film series, which includes all seven features she directed, plus seven titles with her in front of the camera (in 1953’s The Bigamist, she pulls double duty, becoming the first woman to direct herself in a major motion picture). Beginning her movie-acting career in 1932 and breaking through in Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941, not included in the series), Lupino was growing restless by the late 1940s, tired of standing around on set while “someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work.”
What Mother wanted to do was direct “socially conscious films.” A co-producer and co-writer of Not Wanted (1949), which tackled the highly taboo subject of unwed mamas, Lupino soon took over helming duties from Elmer Clifton, who had a heart attack a few days before filming began (and who retained director’s credit). Soon after, she formed Filmmakers, her own production company, with second husband Collier Young. Her first credited film as a director was Never Fear (1949), starring Not Wanted’s Sally Forrest as one half of a dance act felled by polio (which Lupino herself overcame in 1934); Outrage (1950), her unflinching look at rape and the barbarity of the legal system, followed. The awkward, eager Forrest also starred in Lupino’s Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), as a tennis dynamo manipulated by her gold-digging mom. These aren’t your typical, heartstring-pulling women’s weepies; Mother has a fascinating eye for the bizarre (but always compassionate) set piece, like the lengthy wheelchair square-dance sequence in Never Fear.
Lupino may have been drawn to social melodramas, but she also liked stories about psychopaths. Her finest work as a director, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), which she also co-wrote, is a taut desert noir about two pals on a fishing trip who unknowingly pick up a palsy-eyed murderer. Eight months later, The Bigamist was released, a surprisingly complex, sympathetic look at a multiple-marrier (Edmond O’Brien) who feels increasingly alienated from his San Francisco wife (Joan Fontaine) and finds emotional succor (and more) on business in L.A. with Chinese-resto waitress Lupino, in one of her best performances.
Shortly after The Bigamist, Filmmakers dissolved; Lupino wouldn’t direct another film—her last, and worst—until 1966: the wearingly square The Trouble With Angels, starring Hayley Mills as a cigar-smoking joker at a Catholic girls’ school who tries to outwit Rosalind Russell’s Mother Superior. As Donati kindly puts it, “With the demise of her company, Ida was forced to find acting jobs”—including playing a sadistic superintendent in the howler Women’s Prison (1955). Perhaps leery of appearing in more turkeys like these, Lupino would also take a break from movie acting from 1956 to 1969. On hiatus from the big screen, she still kept incessantly busy with the small one, not just acting on TV but also directing, among many other shows, episodes of The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Gilligan’s Island. No matter the medium, Mother always ran a tight, amiable set: “I try never to blow—they’re just waiting for you to do it.”