Monday, April 2, 2018

A Short Story By Ida Lupino

This short story titled "Exit Cue" was written by Ida Lupino and published on May 21st, 1949 in Collier's Magazine. The Story is undoubtedly inspired by Ida's upbringing, having been raised in a theatrical family that was once the toast of London.

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Friday, February 9, 2018

Ida Lupino in 1953 : The Hitch-Hiker

This February 4th marked the centenary of a unique talent in the history of motion pictures. Born in London to a theatrical family, Ida Lupino never wished to be an actress. However, her father insisted upon it and the 14-year-old Ida embarked on a career that would take her across oceans and barriers. This piece is the first in a series that focuses on the work of one of the most fascinating figures of Hollywood's golden age.

From 1949 to 1954, there existed an independent film production company that was unlike any other. Headed by former Warner Brother's contract star Ida Lupino and her husband Collier Young, a former executive assistant to the notoriously mercurial Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures

Initially named Emerald Productions after Ida's mother but later rechristened as The Filmakers, the company set forth a simple mission statement: to make motion pictures that ask the most pressing questions of a complacent society. In the five years of its existence, The Filmakers would produce films with a unique social conscience, dealing with issues such as unwed mothers, debilitating diseases, rape, teen suicide, selfish parenting, bigamy, serial killers and institutional corruption.

1953 was the banner year for The Filmakers. The company would release two films with vastly different storylines but with the same intent of tackling the demons of post-war America, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. A fascinating double bill that sports a unique distinction, the lone film-noir directed by a woman.

Only the second woman to be admitted into the directors guild (behind Dorothy Arzner) Ida Lupino saw herself in the company of the "Tough Guy" directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, refusing to let gender dictate her style behind the camera or to even acknowledge there was a barrier to expressing herself creatively. "I didn't see myself as an advance guard or feminist. I had to do something to fill up my time while I was on suspension from Warner Bros. When I did work at Warners, I was bored to tears with standing around the set while someone else seemed to do all the interesting work."

Lupino learned her craft by hanging around sets and shadowing directors and cameramen "I learned a lot from George Barnes (cinematographer on Hitchcock's Rebecca) a marvelous cameraman." Lupino's fascination with the technical aspect of pictures would lead her to form her own production company and through a stroke of fate, occupy the director's chair herself. Three days into production of Lupino's first film as a producer; Not Wanted (1949) director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack and Lupino was forced to take over the picture. This would be the first of Lupino's seven efforts behind the camera, a filmography of fascinating dispatches from mid-century America.

While most filmmakers of the era dealt with social issues with a sense of detachment, pushing them aside or using them as plot elements to suggest evil or wrongdoing, Lupino focused her camera directly on the issues that mainstream cinema was reluctant to explore. In an effort to understand and raise awareness of society's problems, rather than blindly condemning them. In the process, she was responsible for some of the most thought-provoking films of the era, shining a light into some of the country's darkest corners. 

After four films that focused on the plight of female characters, The Hitch-Hiker presented Lupino with the opportunity to examine a different subject, the behavior and violence of men. The Hitch-Hiker is based on the killing spree of William "Billy" Cook, who haunted U.S highways between 1950-1951. After murdering six people including an entire family of five, Cook was eventually caught in Mexico and imprisoned at San Quentin where he was executed via the gas chamber in 1952. 

The film stars Edmund O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy as two middle-class men on a fishing trip who pick up the hitch-hiking William Talman and find themselves at the point of a madman's gun. The film is imbued with an ever-present sense of dread and also explores the concept of weak men being granted temporary power when in possession of a firearm. Richard Kozarski, Professor of film at Rutger's University has noted"Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir." Proving herself adept in these environs, Lupino firmly dispelled the notion of women being limited to traditionally feminine stories with a taut seventy minutes that any director from Don Siegel to Andre De Toth would be proud to have in their credits.

In keeping with The Filmakers mission to produce "documentary-style films" Lupino originally intended to depict the Cook murders exactly as they occurred, even using the real names of Cook and his victims. Lupino decided to visit Billy Cook in San Quentin prison just before he was executed. "I wanted a release to do our film. He granted me the release and I found him to be cold and aloof and I was afraid of him. He had 'Hard Luck' tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a deformed right eyelid that would never close completely. I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin".

Lupino's plans for a truly authentic picture were derailed when a strongly worded letter penned by an official at The Federal Bureau of Prisons was sent to Joseph Breen, one of the enforcers of The Motion Picture Code. The official urged Breen to withhold approval for the film's production, Breen agreed and declared "no picture shall be dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent time which uses the name or alias of such". This forced The Filmakers to reshape the picture, limiting the number of murders and renaming the killer Emmett Myers.

When the film premiered, The New York Times criticized the plot as predictable and the ending weak, to which Lupino later responded "I wanted realism! To appease the censors at the Hays Office, I reduced the number of deaths from six to three! Billy Cook was captured by a policeman just walking up to him and taking away his gun. The ending of The Hitch-Hiker has gunshots and two different fist fights. It is up to the individual film viewer if they feel the ending predictable. I say it is not!".

Filming took place between June & July of 1952. It's likely The Hitch-Hiker was chosen as a sensible project for The Filmakers considering the incentive of low budget location shooting. The searing heat of The Alabama Hills is practically a character in the film and Lupino's trademark efficiency ensured that delays were rare despite the inhospitable conditions. With cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, known to noir fans for his expert manipulation of light and shadow in Out of The Past (1947) Lupino utilized degrees of overexposure during the outdoor desert scenes to emphasize the extreme heat. With the landscape and characters appearing brighter as if they were going to burst into flames at any second. A neat trick to add to the tension that was already at boiling point. 

Lupino's confidence and razor-sharp instincts for low budget filmmaking would prove a valuable asset during the arduous production. While the iconic glamour of Lupino's screen persona was replaced by the practicality of dungarees, a sleeveless blouse, sneakers and bobbed hair tucked under a cap. "Not only is directing a fascinating occupation but sartorially speaking, it's simpler and less expensive than being a star!"

William Talman who embodied the haunting figure of Emmett Myers said of Lupino "Despite the weather and physical hardships, there was never an apprehensive sound out of her. She was one of the gang; in fact our leader, who met everything with an unbeatable sense of humor. She set the pace for the seventy men who made up the crew and held it".

Talman's effectiveness in the role was underscored by a curious incident after the release of the film. While driving his convertible in Los Angeles, Talman had stopped at a red light. A driver next to him stared for a moment then asked: "You're the hitch-hiker, right?" Talman nodded, and the other driver got out of his car, walked over to Talman, slapped his face then returned to his car and drove off. Talman would later remark " I never won an academy award but that was as close as I will ever come to one." Talman would later become a household name portraying Hamilton Berger, the opposing counsel to Raymond Burr's iconic television attorney Perry Mason in the eponymous series from 1957 to 1966.

The dusty surroundings were something of a preview of Lupino's future television career. She would helm some 17 episodes of westerns including The Virginian, The Rifleman, and Wagon Train, many with predominantly male casts. Richard Boone, the masculine star of the popular western series Have Gun, Will Travel remarked "Ida stimulates me as an actor because she knows acting. In a weekly show, you get into acting patterns. Ida gets you out of them". 

It's clear the respect Lupino had earned from her male colleagues for her hard work and keen instincts discouraged any sexist murmurings about a woman in the director's chair, and there does seem to be very few negative opinions of Lupino's time behind the camera. "with the exception of one or two pills I've met along the line, most of the crews I've worked with have been wonderful. As long as you keep your temper, the crew will go along with you". 

A comical incident during filming occurred when Lupino's handbag fell and spilled out onto the ground. Edmund O'Brien gallantly knelt and retrieved the purse whilst making an itemized inventory of its contents. As he returned the bag, O' Brien remarked "You may be a motion picture director who knows exactly what you want but fundamentally you're just another dame. Typical of your sex, you carry all sorts of junk in your pocketbook." Lupino snapped the purse shut and quipped "You're just a cynic about women, back to work O'Brien!" It's worth noting that O'Brien's performative nature is said to have blossomed as a young magician who was fortunate to be a pupil of his neighbor, the great Harry Houdini.

While it's appeal to modern audiences may be minimal, The Hitch-Hiker remains a great example of the possibilities of low budget filmmaking. The opening sequence alone is a marvelous example of Lupino's craft. Effective performances from Edmund O' Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and a menacing William Talman add to its value. Sadly, Ida Lupino would not step behind the camera on a feature film again until thirteen years later when she helmed The Trouble with Angels (1966) for Columbia. The first major studio picture of her career, and her last. 

The bulk of her directing work would take place on television, adding a distinctive flavor to episodes of The Untouchables, The Fugitive and many other productions across a range of genres. "The Mother of All of Us" as her director's chair read, is an apt title for the maternal Lupino. She may not have been the first female director, that honor belongs to Alice Guy Blaché, but Ida Lupino proved her worth time and again. Be it as a talented actress in noirs and melodramas, an intelligent director with ideas ahead of her time, a great lady with a delicious sense of humor and cutting wit, and a reluctant soldier on a slowly narrowing battlefield.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber

Friday, November 3, 2017

Paul Newman Behind The Camera : Rachel, Rachel (1968)

"I'm in the exact middle of my life, this is my last ascending summer, everything else from now on is just rolling downhill into my grave" - Rachel Cameron

Paul Newman's work as a director is nowhere near as famous as his work as an actor. In fact, it's almost completely forgotten despite his debut film earning four Oscar nominations and winning two Golden Globes. One for Newman's direction and one for Joanne Woodward's outstanding central performance. Which in my opinion ranks higher than her much more appreciated and awarded turn in Nunnally Johnson's The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Throughout her career, Woodward was drawn to stories of complex women in difficult situations. She explored this theme further in Newman's The Effect of Gamma-Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds (1972).

Adapted by Rebel Without A Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern from the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Lawrence, Rachel, Rachel (1968) paints a desperate portrait of a complicated woman at a crossroads. A subtle social commentary that deals with issues such as unwed pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality. 

Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) a 35-year-old unmarried school teacher from a small town in Connecticut, lives with her mother (Kate Harrington) above the funeral parlor that belonged to her late father. Rachel lives with a sense of detachment, an outsider both fascinated and frightened by the world around her. Childlike impulses and vivid fantasies illustrate her state of prolonged adolescence, a virgin whose life is still governed by the school calendar and the demands of a manipulative and overbearing mother.

Her best friend is fellow teacher Calla Mackie (Estelle Parsons) who is also unmarried but for an altogether different reason. Calla also lives on society's fringes as a closeted lesbian and her feelings for Rachel go beyond friendship. Which she discovers after a hallucinatory tabernacle meeting when Calla forcibly kisses Rachel on the mouth. Rachel's childish impulses take over and she runs away from a situation she has no idea how to deal with. 

One can imagine the quiet despair and resignation Calla feels as a lesbian in small town America. We spend the entire film focused on Rachel's situation and might not notice that Calla is caught in a desperate and lonely existence herself. The suffocating nature of a conformist society is most unkind to those who have committed no crime except being born chemically different. And the fault lines beginning to show during the late 1960's heralded changes that might have come too late for Calla.

Rachel begins to examine her life, it's painful emptiness and lack of excitement. A visit to the drug store thrusts her into a crowd of teenagers and all the strange sights and sounds of youth. She is also reintroduced to Nick Caslick, the handsome twin brother of a boy Rachel's father laid to rest. Though initially rebuffing his advances, she later agrees to a date which culminates in Rachel's first sexual experience. A deed unromantically performed beneath the stars and without protection. 

In another example of the constraints of small-town life, her familiarity with the owner of the drug store leaves her unable to ask for birth control and she resorts to uncovering her mother's ancient rubber device. A measure which proves to be ineffective after a weekend away with Nick appears to result in pregnancy. What begins as a rare moment of abandon for Rachel becomes a harsh reality check. Her adolescent fantasies of romance serve only to irritate Nick, as he makes it clear Rachel is nothing more than a distraction.

Rachel confides in her neighbor, Hector (Frank Corsaro) an undertaker who now runs the funeral parlor that belonged to her father. Hector seems a warm and understanding soul, the only character in the film that asks nothing of Rachel and instead offers her a shoulder to cry on. He also has something in common with Rachel and Calla as he too seems beset by loneliness, himself a casualty of his profession. Hector is both stunned and sympathetic towards Rachel's predicament and offers to help by telling her where to go to have an abortion.

This would be Frank Corsaro's only film role as acting was not his primary profession. Corsaro (now 92 years old) is one of the foremost Opera and Theater directors in America. His productions include La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, The Crucible, Faust, Carmen, Of Mice And Men and The Night of The Iguana starring Bette Davis. In 1988, Corsaro would become the head of the famed Actors Studio in New York City.

Rachel eventually decides to make a big decision, she applies for a teaching job in Oregon, is accepted and informs her mother she intends to move there. After initially protesting, her mother reluctantly agrees and Rachel finds herself saying goodbye to Calla, Hector and the small Connecticut town she has called home for her entire life. As the bus pulls away, Rachel begins to imagine what the future might hold. 

 "It may be that my children will always be temporary, never to be held"

She imagines seeing her childhood self playing outside, leaving the little girl behind as the bus drives out of town. This moment possibly signifying Rachel finally growing up, taking responsibility for herself and her future. The films final scene shows Rachel playing on the beach with a small child. Is this a look into Rachel's future or is it merely a fantasy? A dream she will soon wake from as the bus reaches Oregon and she begins her new life.

One can't help but think of the social and political upheaval taking place at the time Rachel, Rachel was released. To put it mildly, the nineteen sixties was a transformative decade in The United States as new frontiers of personal, sexual and artistic expression were being explored. The counterculture was beginning to gain a foothold and despite being depicted as firmly on the fringes of American life, it would soon permeate the national consciousness to a degree that could not be ignored by the social or political establishment.

This was a period of anger and violent political upheaval, 1968 was the boiling point of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. The implosion of Lyndon Johnson's presidency led to a seismic presidential race that seemed to put the country on a precipice. The assassination of Martin Luther King worked against his enemies as it only served to deify him. While the great hope of a Robert Kennedy presidency met a tragic end at the point of Sirhan Sirhan's gun in the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel just when the younger brother of the slain JFK had gained momentum after winning the California primary and seemed destined to take the White House.

I feel Rachel, Rachel is quite possibly Joanne Woodward's finest role. And certainly Paul Newman's best film as a director. He would go on to direct a fine adaptation of Ken Kesey's logging family drama Sometimes A Great Notion (1970), The Effect Of Gamma-Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds (1972) which served as another showcase of Woodward's remarkable talent. The Shadow Box (1980) a lackluster TV film which is probably rightfully forgotten. Harry and Son (1984) a family drama that has good performances (including a supporting turn from Woodward) yet despite moments of quality it fails to impress as much as Newman's first three directorial efforts. 

His final film as a director would be an effective adaptation of Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie (1987) yet another opportunity for Joanne Woodward to prove she is one of the most underrated talents ever captured on film. Rachel, Rachel screenwriter Stewart Stern chronicled its production in his book, No Tricks In My Pocket: Paul Newman Directs.

Ironically, the only thing that prevented Paul Newman from having a much more prolific career as a director was his superstar status as an actor. Audiences were accustomed to his charismatic performances and there seemed little avenue for Newman to push aside his screen career in favor of one behind the camera. To his credit, he made 3 films from 1968 to 1972 that any filmmaker would be proud of. And hopefully, given availability (The Glass Menagerie is the only one not yet released on home video) his work as a director will be exposed to a wider audience. 

I for one feel that his work is ripe for rediscovery, not spectacular but deserving of more appreciation. If you can say nothing else about Paul Newman, his was a life well lived. A unique, intelligent and talented man who left us many gifts; his iconic performances and his relentless efforts for charitable causes. Yet given the breadth of the remarkable cultural imprint he made, I would argue that his output as a filmmaker has been cruelly overlooked.

DVD : Amazon

Monday, December 19, 2016

Paul Newman Behind The Camera: The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds (1972)

"I'm the original half-life, I got one daughter with half a mind, the other whose half a test tube, a house half full of rabbit crap and half a corpse! That's a half-life alright" - Beatrice Hunsdorfer

Paul Newman is arguably the greatest actor of his generation, with celebrated roles in such films as The Hustler, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke and The Sting among many others. But sadly his work as a director is seldom discussed outside the most ardent cineaste circles.

His directorial debut; Rachel, Rachel (1968) was a hallucinatory spiral into the disconnected world of a middle-aged school teacher. Starring his wife, the superbly talented Joanne Woodward; with whom he shared fifty years of marriage. The legendary couple would co-star in ten films, with Newman directing four more starring Woodward.

Following a fine adaptation of Ken Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion (1970) Newman's third directorial effort would be an adaptation of Paul Zindel's quizzically titled Pulitzer Prize-winning play; The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds. The play premiered in 1964, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. Before beginning an off-broadway run spanning 819 performances; from April 7th, 1970 through May 7th, 1972.

The story focuses on middle-aged Staten Island widow, Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Joanne Woodward) as she struggles to make a life for herself and her two daughters: rebellious epileptic Ruth (Roberta Wallach) and shy, introvert Matilda (Nell Potts). Despite her lower-middle-class existence, Beatrice still has some degree of vanity. In the films opening scene; Beatrice tries on wigs in a department store. Staring at herself in the mirror, it is quite obvious she does not like what she sees. Though she attempts to attract the romantic interest of her neighbor, only to brand him a "homo" when he declines her company.

The state of the Hunsdorfer home effectively sums up their lives. A house dilapidated enough to prompt Beatrice to label it "A pigsty". Her two daughters could not be more different from one another. Ruth, the eldest, suffers from epileptic seizures and is openly defiant of her mother, cruelly mocking her in front of her classmates by performing a skit in character as Beatrice. Rather ironic given that she is most likely to end up like her mother. Matilda, on the other hand, is almost a complete opposite. A quiet, shy and inhibited creature, interested in science and animals. Especially the rabbit she brings home from school. She attempts to explain her scientific interests to her mother and sister but is met only with incredulity and disinterest. Her science project serves as a metaphor for her personality and gives the film its name.

Beatrice dreams of opening an elegant tea room "A nice little neighborhood place" she intends to call "The Man-In-The-Moon Tea Shop". In the meantime, she rents out her spare room to elderly boarders. The latest of which is an ancient wheelchair-bound woman. As Beatrice matter of factly states; "If anybody had ever told me when I was younger I'd end up feeding honey to a zombie I'd have told em' they were crazy, I'd be better off driving a cab".  The presence of someone so frail and close to death is somewhat disturbing to Ruth, whilst relating her disgust of the situation to Matilda, she suffers a seizure.

Matilda's project earns her a place as a finalist in the school science fair. Which requires the attendance of her mother on stage in the auditorium. Beatrice promises to avoid embarrassing her daughter and say something simple if Matilda wins. Dressed in a garish fashion, Beatrice arrives late at the school, only to humiliate her daughter and make a fool of herself in front of the entire school, proclaiming "My heart is full" to the stunned reaction of the crowd. 

Upon returning home from winning first prize at the science fair, Matilda discovers that Beatrice has killed her pet rabbit. she cradles it in her arms as she carries it outside, laying it down in front of her mother. Matilda's internal monologue brings the film to a close, professing her love for science and her wonder of the universe and the atoms that hold it together. In a reply to Beatrice's earlier question as to whether she hates the world, Matilda solemnly states "No mama, I don't hate the world".

While also taking on the mantle of producer, Newman enlisted some notable heavyweights for this now almost forgotten drama. The screenplay was penned by the prolific Alvin Sargent; known for such thoughtful character pieces as Paper Moon and Ordinary People. Shot in somber tones by Adam Holender; who made his mark with the 1969 classic; Midnight Cowboy, as well as Al Pacino's starring debut; The Panic In Needle Park (1971). While Academy Award-winning composer Maurice Jarre; of Lawrence Of Arabia & Doctor Zhivago fame, would contribute the subdued musical score.

The film is anchored by the highly underrated Woodward's tour de force as Beatrice. A performance that would win the Georgia native her first and only best actress award at the Cannes film festival. The Newman's real-life daughter; Nell Potts, is surprisingly good as Matilda. The film's theater origins are clear, nonetheless, the staging is effective. Woodward's portrayal of a down-on-her-luck widow struggling to raise her two daughters ranks among her very best work. The story does at times draw parallels with a project later undertaken by the Newman's; the 1987 film adaptation of Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie. In which Woodward again displays her talent for inhabiting complex and deeply troubled women.

Newman's direction is assured and purposeful. He directs as you imagine an actor would; searching for truth in the performances, rather than in visual flair or style. Newman's stature in the industry had the potential to launch him into a Clint Eastwood-like second career as a director. Yet I feel his project choices, while unique and interesting from a critical perspective, were somewhat limiting when considering box office appeal. Following Newman to the places he wanted to go as a filmmaker may have proved a bridge too far for a movie-going public otherwise entranced by his screen persona. 

Newman would direct five feature films and one TV movie; The Shadow Box (1980), also starring Woodward. He would serve as producer on several films, including one of his most famous; Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). His final credit as a producer would also prove to be his last on-screen role; portraying Max Roby in the 2005 HBO miniseries Empire Falls. 

Paul Newman died on September 26th, 2008, leaving behind an enviable body of work and portraying some of the most iconic characters in film history. His work behind the camera is interesting but not stellar, you may surprise many film fans by informing them that his directorial work even exists. You may also delight by introducing them to it, for if his presence as an actor was unique, I would argue his sensibilities as a filmmaker followed suit.

This piece was also published by Moviejawn

The Effect Of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds (1972) will be released on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time on February 20th, 2018.