Tomorrow at the Portage, see one of the few female-directed Hollywood films of the 1950s

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Ida Lupino directed and starred in The Bigamist
  • Ida Lupino directed and starred in The Bigamist
Tomorrow night at the Portage Theater Northwest Chicago Film Society will screen The Bigamist (1953), the last film Ida Lupino directed for the independent production company she cofounded in the late 1940s. For this reason alone, The Bigamist holds a significant place in American movie history: when it was made Lupino was literally the only female writer-director-actress in Hollywood. Film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon has noted (in an informative essay he wrote for Senses of Cinema in 2009) that before Lupino first took directorial credit on a film—the 1949 noir Never Fear—it had been six years since any woman in Hollywood had done so.

Clearly it wasn't easy for women to direct in this era: it speaks volumes that Lupino had to produce her films outside the studio system in order to make them at all. According to Dixon, her production company (simply named The Filmmakers) also had to distribute her films independently until Howard Hughes offered, in 1950, to release them through RKO Pictures. Even then Lupino was limited in her creativity by low budgets and short shooting schedules. These constraints made feature filmmaking difficult, but they provided excellent training for directing television, which she did prolifically from the mid-50s to the late 60s.

Dixon writes that The Bigamist "was the last of Lupino's films under her RKO deal, which was not renewed." He adds:

For the first time, Lupino appeared in a film that she directed [playing one of the title character's two wives]. The production is surrounded by considerable irony, inasmuch as it was [costar] Joan Fontaine's involvement with [Lupino's ex-husband and still-business partner] Collier Young that precipitated the divorce between Lupino and Young . . . The film was distributed by The Filmmakers group after RKO passed on the complete film. Without the necessary national distribution mechanism afforded by a major studio, the film failed to obtain adequate bookings and The Filmmakers went out of business.

Dixon considers the movie one of Lupino's weaker directorial efforts, though he acknowledges that "in its examination of social standards in the early 1950s, the film gives us an uncomfortably claustrophobic vision of the constraints forced upon both women and men during this period." Lupino demonstrated with The Hitch-hiker (also 1953) that she could evoke claustrophobia as well as any filmmaker. I look forward to seeing how she does it in the context of a melodrama. (By the way, if you'd like a taste of Lupino's filmmaking before tomorrow, you can watch The Hitch-hiker for free on YouTube.)

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