In 1942 Ida Lupino was an established star at Warner Bros. She had top billing in the 1941 film that made Humphrey Bogart an A list star at Warners – High Sierra. This followed her performance in They Drive By Night (1940) which had wowed the critics. She had lead roles opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941) and John Garfield in Out of the Fog in the same year. Everything was going well but still Warner Bros. didn’t really know what to do with her. She was loaned out as the lead in two films for Twentieth-Century Fox and one for Columbia before she got another Warners role – and this only because Bette Davis turned it down. She was top-billed in The Hard Way and this turned out to be one of the few films for which she received the recognition for her performance that she always deserved. On the film’s release a year later it won the New York’s Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress.
As in many of Lupino’s films, her role in The Hard Way is not the heroic role but instead the one that drives the melodrama narrative. Lupino plays Helen Churnen, a woman in her mid-twenties who has married an older man, a worker in an industrial town. Her mother had died and Helen thought marriage would save her from poverty during the depression. Now she feels trapped. She intends to prevent her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie), who lives with her, from suffering the same fate. Joan Leslie had been a child performer and after several uncredited roles in films in the 1930s was finally getting adult roles. In 1942 she was still just 17 tears old. The narrative of The Hard Way sees Katie leaving high school and hoping to become a stage performer. Helen determines to be her ‘stage mother’, abandoning her marriage to accompany Katie and trying to make sure she becomes successful. Katie meets a pair of vaudeville performers, traditional ‘song and dance men’ played by Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson’s character, Albert Runkel, falls for Katie in a big way and it is through him that she gains an entry into show business. But it is Helen who makes sure that Katie exploits her talent, sometimes by ‘any means necessary’. Kunkel’s performer partner Paul Collins sees Helen’s involvement as poisonous and what might have been a showbiz ‘rags to riches’ story becomes a dark melodrama with tragic outcomes.
The original idea behind the film was based on a story by Irwin Shaw about the relationship between Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela. Ginger joined a vaudeville show as a dancer when only 14 and married at 17 in 1928. She eventually got second lead roles in film musicals in 1930. The screenplay for The Hard Way by Daniel Fuchs and Peter Viertel was intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis, but was also offered to Ginger Rogers herself according to some sources. Both turned down the role. Ida Lupino was sometimes seen as Warners’ back-up for Davis but she was ten years younger than Davis (and seven years younger than Rogers). When she made The Hard Way she was just 24, but played the role much older so that the relationship with Leslie’s character sometimes feels like the classic mother-daughter relationship of the 1940s ‘woman’s picture’. In 1942, just a few months into the American involvement in the Second World War, some directors as well as male stars were beginning to become unavailable after signing up for service. Warners clearly saw The Hard Way as a major production but the director job went to the relatively low-profile contract director Vincent Sherman. Sherman had worked on a range of projects, including films with John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart, but not yet with major female stars. After The Hard Way he would direct Lupino and Davis in two films each and later two more with Joan Crawford, so Warners must have been satisfied with what he achieved. Two other significant names on The Hard Way were James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Don Siegel in his familiar role as ‘montage editor’ before his directorial career took off a few years later. Wong Howe didn’t enjoy working on the film because he thought Sherman was too inexperienced. This seems an odd remark (quoted in Alain Silver’s book James Wong Howe, The Camera Eye, Pendragon 2010) and it may simply be that the celebrated cinematographer thought the film wasn’t going to be an interesting story in visual terms. But that too is not really the case.
When the film was completed, Jack Warner felt it was too downbeat and he asked for the addition of an opening scene with a more glamorous Lupino who would then introduce the story as one long flashback (in a manner not dissimilar to the start of a film noir). This sequence required a set similar to those used by Wong Howe for parts of Out of the Fog, his first film shooting with Lupino. The town of Greenhill, where the story proper begins, is presented using a sequence which is said to have been taken from a Pare Lorentz documentary made during the Great Depression. Later in the story there are several opportunities taken to use the montage skills of Don Siegel for the familiar swirl of theatre handbills, performances, newspaper headlines etc. against a musical medley and a voiceover narration. It’s possible that Lupino spent some time with Siegel (who was also a Warner Bros. contractee). Later he directed the last of the films produced by Lupino’s company The Filmakers, Private Hell 36 (1954). There are certainly expressionist images both in the montages (a screen of clockfaces representing the pressure on Katie as her career develops quickly), in some of the many backstage scenes and in the opening sequence. The art director on the film was Max Parker, seemingly another Warner contractee who would work with Lupino again on her last Warners picture, Deep Valley in 1947. The Hard Way uses many music tracks, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and they are all listed on the film’s Wikipedia page.
The Hard Way was a success at the box office. Variety in January 1944 reported rentals (i.e a net return to the studio production division) of $1.5 million, placing the film as twelfth among the 14 Warners films that returned for than $1 million to the studio in 1943. Lupino also appeared alongside the other leading Warners players in the third-placed title in Warners’ list, Thank Your Lucky Stars – a compendium film of sketches and musical performances, one of several such films made during wartime. This had rentals of $2.8 million. In the same report, Ida Lupino is reported as fourth on the box office list for Warner Bros. after Bogart, Davis and Errol Flynn. Given this high spot in the Warner Bros. roster it’s perhaps surprising that Lupino didn’t get better parts over the next couple of years.
But what did Ida’s loyal fans and more general audiences make of her role and her performance? Too often, even with top billing and her usual strong performance, Lupino’s character was out of the limelight – quite literally in this case. In The Hard Way it could be argued that Helen is the villain, capable of stepping on anyone who stands in the way of Katie’s success. But Helen is doing this for her sister and she only knows how to do it the hard way. Vincent Sherman understood the story and he strove to make the town of Greenhill as grimy and smoky as he could – somewhere that a bright young woman would want to escape from. A wartime audience in 1943, especially one with a majority of women, many in work for the first time, may well have understood the story too, including the bonds between the sisters. Helen is promoting the idea that a woman’s career is important. As some modern reviewers note, the mores of the time meant that no man could cope with the idea that his wife might become the main breadwinner and this becomes the pivotal realisation in the narrative. The film pleased Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in the UK (November 1942) who praised all the performances and saw Vincent Sherman’s direction “leaving nothing to be desired” for a film that “achieves a most unusual sincerity”. According to Lupino’s biographer William Donati, the star at first didn’t take to Sherman and thought she didn’t understand the film. She was quite ill during the shoot but most of all she was devastated by the death of her father, the great stage performer Stanley Lupino, from cancer at the young age of 48. But Ida was a trouper and she completed the film. After the positive reviews she felt better and formed a strong friendship with Vincent Sherman who would then direct two further Warners films with Lupino as lead.
The Hard Way is not easy to find in the UK, but it is available in the US and it’s an essential film in Ida Lupino’s filmography.