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.