At this moment, I believe I have found my favorite film directed by Ida Lupino. She co-wrote the film; direction was not the plan. However, the assigned director, silent film director Elmer Clifton, died three days into shooting at age 59. Lupino took over, though she insisted Clifton’s name remain the sole director credit in the finished picture.
This is the first Lupino-Forrest picture, and I posit that Lupino was at least in part drawn casting Sally Forrest (in three of the films she directed) because they look rather alike: petite, high cheek bones, similar mouth. I’ve no evidence beyond my eyes, and when I have the time, I’ll read more about Lupino and see if it’s true.
As noted in my last entry, Keefe Brasselle also stars in Not Wanted, but not, as I surmised after reading the synopsis before watching, as the bad guy that gets our heroine pregnant and dumps her. Brasselle plays Drew, a nice-guy veteran who manages a newfangled self-service gas station and plays with toy trains on his days off. He falls hard for Forrest’s character Sally from the moment he meets her on the bus out of her hometown.
The honor of playing the no-good piano player Steve is given to Leo Penn, an actor and later director whose work I didn’t realize I knew until I looked him up on IMDb and found I’d seen him in one of his few leading roles in the low-low-low budget Fall Guy (1947). He is very New York and his performance rang Jewish to me. (Quick research revealed that his parents were Russian Jewish emigrants, he was blacklisted by HUAC, and his most famous son is Sean Penn.)
Now, I don’t agree with critics who label Steve a seducer who abandons Sally. He knows she’s under 21, naïve, and awe-struck by his talent. He is no hack, but he plays small-town clubs because he’s got to pay the bills. He’s the struggling artist, and he resists Sally at first, then succumbs to her innocent charms and seduces her. He should know she would want marriage and a home, but he never lies to her. He offers himself as he is, and while he should have stayed away, he does try hard to avoid hurting her. When she follows him to a bigger town, he tells her truthfully that he is struggling, working hard to compose for a paying client who demands much of him. He hasn’t time for her and, though I expected him to be seeing other women, he doesn’t seem to. He drinks and smokes and writes music on demand, and it’s hurting him, badly. He doesn’t want a helpmeet, and he heads off to South America without ever knowing Sally is pregnant. I found him interesting, a character better suited to a brooding noir drama, like Man with a Horn (1950).
Sally’s mother, by contrast, is the stereotypical nagging wife/mother married to the milksop husband/father – a typical pairing of the era (see Fast, Hard and Beautiful! for example). Dad won’t stand up to Mom, and Sally, we learn, had to quit school to work and help support the family. Sally mentions being proud of her first paycheck, and throughout the film we find she doesn’t shirk from hard work, including jobs from server and cashier to factory type work at a laundry. We find that Mom’s griping about her going out with her friends did not include any truly useful life lessons, and constant scolding – which Mom clarifies she does intentionally to help Sally – drives Sally right into naïve romance. This is coupled, as it were, with staying out all night for what seems to be her only actual experience of intercourse. (And yes, here I do blame Steve for just assuming they could have sex without protection!) Sally is brought home by a cop for speeding home in a car borrowed from a friend. The lecture the cop gives the family leaves Mom and Dad ashamed, and Sally distraught.
Her guilt leads her to run away from home, which is how she meets Drew, who helps her find a room, a job, and happiness. He even proposes to her at a local carnival. It’s a sweet moment where we see how young the two still are, despite Drew’s experiences as a veteran who came home with an artificial leg and lost his first love and Sally’s grief over losing Steve.
The representation of pregnancy is bizarre. Rather than morning sickness, Sally gets a dizzy spell at the carnival (after rather than while riding the carousel) and faints. Neighborly town doctor visits her at the boarding house (with its rough but kind and matronly owner) and magically figures out she’s pregnant without a test. She clings to the fatherly fellow and begs him not to tell anyone, then flees. Now that she is pregnant, bodily evidence of her transgression of good-girl virginal norms means Drew is too good for her.
She ends up at a home for unwed mothers, for her shame now has form and she knows she cannot go home. The home is represented as a welcoming place that treats its girls well and does not judge. Like the representation of the polio treatment facility in Lupino’s Never Fear, I like the representation. It’s a sisterly space. Realism also enters the picture as the young women realize that the safety and comfort they experience here will end once they have their babies. Then they’ll be on their own, without support. While a bit corny, the scene in which Sally asks her newborn to make the decision of whether and how she can keep him is potent. If she works, who will care for her baby? She begs Mrs. Stone, the woman in charge, to make the decision for her, then ultimately decides to give the boy up for adoption. (Cringeworthy is the moment when Mrs. Stone tells her the infant will only be given to a couple who is of her own “race and religion.”)
Once facet I haven’t yet mentioned is the use of flashback in the film. When the picture opens, Sally, wandering in a daze, has just reached into a buggy and taken another woman’s baby (because of course we leave our baby outside on the sidewalk when we go into a store, right moms?). She holds him tenderly and just wanders off, until the true mom comes out and screams, then finds Sally and grabs her child, calling for the police. It’s in a cell with hideously stereotyped ne’er-do-well women (drunks, bullies, madwomen) that Sally begins the flashback, wondering how she ended up there.
(To my mind, we have some strong noir elements in this use of flashback, the presence of police in two important transitional scenes, the jail cell, and the character of Steve. But I’m finding that’s true of most of Lupino’s pictures.)
What I like best about the film as I’m thinking it through the day after watching it, however, is the ending. Sally is let out of jail because, the Assistant D.A. says after speaking with Mrs. Stone (who read about her arrest in the paper!), she’s already condemned herself once, and she shouldn’t be tried twice for the same “crime.” The mother whose baby she attempted to kidnap agrees, and Sally is set free. But Mrs. Stone spoke not only to the Assistant D.A. but also to Drew, who appears outside the police station, waiting for her. (Drew had also gone to find her at the unwed mother’s home, not knowing that’s what it was, but they couldn’t legally tell him if she was there or not. He seemed shocked and sad, so we didn’t know if he’d return for her – unless we’re used to this type of social issue melodrama, of course!)
What is particularly compelling here is that Sally runs from Drew, not wanting to face him and feeling suicidal. She regretted giving up her baby, even after being told how loved and happy he is by Mrs. Stone’s assistant before her arrest, and she can’t face open-hearted Drew with so much guilt and anxiety weighing on her. She runs up steps to a bridge over tracks, and Drew catches her just before she can jump over into the path of an oncoming train. Predictable, yes, until she breaks away and continues running. Drew is desperate to catch her and forces himself to go on despite his false leg, but as Sally runs and runs – up and down steps, across bridges, down streets – Drew eventually cannot keep up and falls on his face. Sally turns to see how far behind her he is, and sees him sprawled, fists pounding in frustration and crying. This image finally draws her back, and she rushes to him and takes him in her arms. As they desperately embrace, the music swells and THE END appears on the screen.
Much is interesting here. Perhaps Sally sees she is needed, that Drew isn’t any more “perfect” than she is. This is potentially offensive in terms of disability politics but typical of its era. Drew feels emasculated by WWII, as depicted in many a film and experienced by many a soldier. For Sally, they can now be equals, who both cry, who both have suffered, and who can care for one another through their faults. More generously, Sally perhaps sees how much she is putting Drew through in her own self-loathing and this snaps her out of it. In wanting to avoid hurting Drew, she has hurt him terribly. More broadly, defeating notions of gender-inflected perfectionism in ourselves and others is the key to happiness.
As a final note, there is interesting symbolism in the film’s buses, trains, and carousel. Sally desires and ultimately achieves companionable equality with Drew, who enjoys the carousel with her and sharing his model train set. With Drew, she finds stability: one ride that stays in place, going safely in circles and the other entirely under their control. She, unlike Steve, doesn’t need to keep moving – towards or away from anything. She is no tortured artist and Drew is home from war, no longer a soldier.
I recommend the film for its relative complexity and commentary on and beyond its era.
My progress through the small but meaningful list of films directed by Ida Lupino continues! This time, I watched Never Fear (also called The Young Lovers). It’s a social issue film that Lupino directed, co-wrote, and co-produced about polio. I’ve avoided it because I’m not a fan of medical melodrama, but I’m glad I saw it.
Young, beautiful Carol Williams (Sally Forest, who also played the pony-tailed lead in Hard, Fast and Beautiful!) is a swivel-hipped Mitzi Gaynor-style dancer who performs with her Brylcreemed fiancé Guy Richards (Keefe Braselle). Just as the two succeed in the nightclub scene, Carol experiences headaches and muscle weakness, which we soon discover is polio.
The bulk of the film is about Carol’s time at Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Santa Monica, California, where the film makes use of real polio patients as background characters. Carol varies from depressed and self-loathing to determined and optimistic. She gets unconditional love from Guy and her father (her mother is deceased), but these do not sustain her as she feels “incomplete,” worrying over issues relevant to this day about women and disability. Am I “whole”? Am I desirable? Am I worthy of a husband?
Carol is befriended Len, an experienced patient who works at the center, played by Hugh O'Brian in his first film role. She decides she must break off with Guy and makes a pitch to Len late in the film, that they are alike and therefore should marry. Len, however, is wise enough to call it as it is: they are not in love and a “companionable” marriage is a bad plan for them both.
One weakness of the film to my mind is pacing. Carol’s moods flare and shift back and forth several times. And time sometimes stands still and other times jumps across months. It seems Lupino – on whose experiences the film is based – wanted to present the situation as she experienced it. But real experiences do not always make for good film narratives. This said, I do like that she included mixed emotions and the struggle of trying to remain motivated during a slow healing process. And I value the inclusion of real individuals undergoing treatment in the cast.
One of the most interesting facets of the film is the Len vs. Guy choice Carol puts herself through. I get why she sought Len’s affections even though she loved Guy. The film is ahead of its time in presenting gendered body politics. In one late scene, Carol learns that a new patient at the Institute married her able-bodied husband after her diagnosis of polio. It’s a good feminist lesson for Carol and for the audience. As the film ends, Carol knows she will do best if she can lean on her man (literally shown in the concluding images of the film). I know this is heteronormative post-war style happy ending fodder, but she and we are also taught that a woman need not be 100% able-bodied to be worthy of life and love.
Finally, a word about the ending. *SPOILER* Throughout the film he is loving and supportive. He tries another career than dancing because he does not want to leave Carol to tour with a new partner. When Carol rejects him and he fails at a sales career, we don’t know what will happen. Time passes and she changes her mind. She invites Guy to her birthday party at the Institute (she can now walk with crutches and wears the clingiest dress I’ve ever seen). But he does not re-propose. Instead, he tells her he’s found a new dance partner and is leaving town. Carol is heartbroken but does not show it. When her proposal to Len is also rejected, Carol knows she is on her own. She leaves the Institute walking with a cane, being advised to continue to be patient with herself, and told her father has packed her bags to take to his house, where she can live temporarily (or forever, I guess). In the final scene, Carol walks out onto the pavement. She quickly loses her confidence as people rush by in both directions. She begins to panic and seems about to turn back to the Institute. Then, Guy appears. She falls into his arms as music swells, and we know they’ll live happily ever after, though that’s not what happened to Lupino.
What I want to say about this final scene, beyond its gendered body politics, is that we aren’t told why and how Guy has returned. Did he go away, try his hand with a new partner, and then come back because he was unfulfilled without Carol? Or was his original claim at her birthday party a ruse to force her into independence? I don’t know and the film doesn’t tell.
Overall, the poorly titled Never Fear (no better than The Young Lovers) is a niche film. It’s historically important, as it was made during the height of the polio epidemic. But that’s also probably why it didn’t do well at the box office. It could have taught a few important lessons, but people weren’t ready for that. However psychologically sound and convincing its depictions of treatment are (as Variety put it), folks didn’t seem to want to see a film about the disease on their night out.
Next, it's on to the first of Lupino’s directing ventures, Not Wanted (1949), a tale of an “unwed mother,” also starring Forrest and Braselle -- but this time, he's a nogoodnik.