Not Wanted (1949)

For the first production under the company she formed with then-husband Collier Strong—The Filmmakers—Ida Lupino hired dependable B-movie workman Elmer Clifton to direct. A few days into shooting, Clifton suffered a heart attack, and Lupino stepped in to direct the film herself, uncredited for decades. Not Wanted is not the strongest film under Lupino’s guiding hand. Judging by the four titles in Kino Lorber’s recent Ida Lupino boxset (alongside The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist, and Never Fear), it may in fact be the weakest. Lupino felt much more personally engaged with the themes of her first credited directorial work to follow, Never Fear, than she does in Not Wanted, and her skills as a visual stylist & commander of tension only grew from there. Still, Not Wanted is a solidly staged, thoughtfully empathetic melodrama that proves Lupino had immense talent as a director from the very beginning, suggesting that hiring company men to handle direction duties for The Filmmakers pictures was mostly a formality. She was always going to be the one in control.

In Not Wanted, an unwed teenage mother fails at making her own way in the big city after running away from home. We meet her in her darkest hour. In the opening scene, she’s arrested for snatching a stranger’s baby from its pram while aimlessly wandering city streets. Once imprisoned, she practically turns to the audience from her jail cell to announce “You’re probably wondering how I got here . . .” The rest of the film plays out in flashback, detailing the young woman’s confused romantic life caught between a tragically hip jazz pianist who doesn’t care about her as much as he pretends to and a dorky miniature trains enthusiast who’s willing to devote his entire life to her – even accepting that she’s pregnant with another man’s child. As her inevitable imprisonment suggests, this scenario does not end well. An opening title card explains that this is “a story told 100,000 times each year,” a kind of cautionary tale about how cruel life can be for young, unwed mothers. The resulting story follows a moralistic road-to-ruin template, except it sympathizes with the main character instead of trying to shame her, wagging its finger more in the direction of the social failings (mostly exploitative men & morally righteous parents) that leave her vulnerably alone in a cold, uncaring world.

Lupino sometimes reaches for surprisingly surreal moments here – particularly in the sequence where the young mother gives birth, represented in a woozy first-person POV. For the most part, though, the film builds a lot of its payoffs around the tensions & emotions of its central melodrama, allowing breathing room for Sally Forrest to make an actor’s showcase out of the lead role. That’s not especially shocking considering that Lupino started her career as an actor herself, and only formed The Filmmakers because she felt bored & underutilized while on-set watching directors run the show. Lupino eventually made a dozen feature films under the Filmmakers brand, with a major hand in writing, producing, or directing in any capacity she could get away with. Of the few I’ve seen, Not Wanted was the least exceptional in its visual artistry or its boundary-pushing moral stances (at least by today’s standards; the sympathetic portrayal of an “unwed mother” did spark minor controversy in its time). It was still wonderful to feel Lupino get excited about the craft of filmmaking from behind the camera, though, especially for a production that had to change course so soon into its shoot. It feels like she was not just willing to spring into action to save the picture, but rather that it was the only thing she wanted in life.

-Brandon Ledet

Never Fear (1949)

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.

-Brandon Ledet