This year’s Glasgow retrospective strand is devoted to Ida Lupino as Hollywood star and director on the centenary of her birth. Given the structure of the programme, I could only catch one of the screenings. I was happy though because it was a film in which Ms Lupino appeared as a twin lead with Jean Gabin in his first Hollywood role. I was then knocked back to discover the ‘troubled’ nature of the production – but as Alan Hunter observed in his introduction, the film has been gradually exonerated over time. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it had many fine features.
Moontide was screened from a National Film Archive 35mm print which seems to be in pretty good nick. It was a 20th Century Fox production for Mark Hellinger initially to have been directed by Fritz Lang who jumped ship after a few days of shooting to be replaced by Archie Mayo. Hunter suggested that Lang and Gabin were at odds over their interest in Marlene Dietrich. Archie Mayo proved to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ and with a script by John O’Hara from a novel by Hollywood actor Willard Robinson, a fine cast got the chance to shine. Ida Lupino was often suspended by Warner Bros and therefore available for loans and that is presumably why she ended up starring alongside Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains as well as Gabin. I have to agree with Alan Hunter, however, in picking out the cinematography by Charles G. Clarke (which received an Oscar nomination).
The plot involves Gabin and Mitchell rolling into a small Southern Californian port as a pair of itinerants looking for work (or more accurately a fast buck). Bobo (Gabin) gets roaring drunk (a drunken binge celebrated by an expressionist sequence with the remnants of Salvador Dali’s work on the picture) and next morning there are clues to his possible involvement in the murder of an old sailor. Did Bobo do it? Meanwhile ‘Tiny’ (Mitchell) wants the pair to head north to San Francisco where work is more plentiful. But Bobo saves a young woman, Anna (Lupino), from the waves and seems to want to set up house with her. ‘Nutsy’ (Claude Rains), as a kind of ‘intellectual night-watchman who never sleeps’, becomes an all-seeing guardian angel.
It sounds nonsensical, but Clarke presents it as a Hollywood take on the ‘poetic realism’ of Gabin’s films with Carné and Duvivier in the late 1930s and, not surprisingly, the film has been hailed as an early Hollywood noir. Gabin and Mitchell make typical show-stopping entrances into the dockside bar at the start of the narrative but Lupino is not outshone and her gamin character has plenty of vim as well as a radiant beauty in a tawdry environment. She was only 24 when she made the film, but already a veteran of British and Hollywood cinema having started at 15, I’m going to have to go back and re-watch some of the classic Ida Lupino flicks. They would include High Sierra (1941) and They Live By Night (1940) both with Bogart (and both produced by Hellinger) and the later Nick Ray film On Dangerous Ground (1951) with the always dangerous Robert Ryan. Towards the end of her film career, she was Steve McQueen’s ma in one of my favourite melodramas, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). Lupino’s centenary was the prompt for the retrospective, but the current outrage about the lack of directing opportunities for women in Hollywood has pushed the Lupino celebrations way up the agenda. In the late 1940s and early 1950s as the studio system began its slow descent into obsolescence, Lupino became the only female feature director of the period and eventually directed six features. She also went on to direct many TV episodes in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. IMDb lists over 100 acting credits – not bad for a girl from Herne Hill, South East London, though she did go to RADA and had the support of an acting family with centuries of work behind it. I must also praise the work of Gabin. What a great star and what a shame he made only one other film in Hollywood (which I haven’t seen but must look for). Mitchell and Rains are terrific character actors. Gabin and Lupino are stars.