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.