You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself had suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and eventually losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was maybe too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.
Story wise, there’s nothing especially daring about Never Fear that you won’t find in the decades of romantic melodramas about ill, bedridden women that followed: Love Story, The Big Sick, A Walk To Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, Ice Castles, etc. In this iteration, a young dancer (Sally Forrest, who also starred in Lupino’s uncredited debut as a director Not Wanted that same year) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to hold onto her hopes to maintain the love, art, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion now that she’s not a soon-to-be-famous dancer.
This movie would be a totally standard sudden-illness “Woman’s Picture” if weren’t for the way Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s impossible to not draw this extratextual comparison as we watch a young artist who’s limited by the failings of her body just as her career is taking off. While the narrative beats are uniformly familiar to its genre, the details of the dancer’s time alone in her hospital bed can be impressively, uniquely horrific in flashes. In feverish internal monologues, the dancer curses her own body for failing her and endlessly frets about how much of a burden she is on her able-bodied fiancée despite his protests to the contrary. Everyone’s optimism that she will find a way to live a fulfilling life only makes her more bitter and she shrinks within herself, frustrated and increasingly alone. At the same time, this isolation is the first opportunity she’s had in her entire life to be alone with her thoughts (with the audience as spectator), which opens her up to a newfound sense of autonomy. At the beginning of the film, she’s somewhat resentful of her dance partner/choreographer/future-husband’s control over every aspect of her life (even though she loves him dearly), and in a fucked up, roundabout way the disease gives her the first chance to make decisions for herself by herself. The film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.
Presented as a true story “photographed in the places where it happened,” Never Fear was largely filmed on-location at the Kabat-Kaiser institute in Santa Monica, CA, employing many of the facility’s live-in patients as background characters. I almost wish Lupino had pushed this proto-cinema verité approach even further and played the lead role herself, amplifying the film’s personal resonance within her own biography. If nothing else, it could have used the extra oomph her screen presence brought to The Bigamist. Forrest does a decent enough job as Lupino’s avatar to make to sell the heartbreak of her frustrated internal monologues, though, and the sudden-illness weepie genre structure is emotionally effective even if it is overly familiar. Never Fear isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is one with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system.