Ida Lupino — Watch Out, Bette Davis (1940)! 🇺🇸

Ida Lupino |

December 03, 2021

Here Comes Ida Lupino!

Will Hollywood history repeat in the case of Ida Lupino? Will her performance of Bessie in “The Light That Failed” equal Bette Davis’ portrayal of Mildred in “Of Human Bondage”? You will be the judge!

by Elizabeth Wilson

Don’t look now, but right behind you, there over your left shoulder, is another Bette Davis. And if there is anything Hollywood needs right now it is another Bette Davis. First of all, a little Grade-A Davis acting never does us any harm; and second of all, poor , Bette herself has so many pictures lined up for her for the next few years that she could never do them all even if she was quintuplets which is too late now. Believe me, it’s easier to find that needle tucked away in a haystack than it is to find a second Bette Davis. It’s the luck of the Irish — but Hollywood’s found her!

Heavy on the drums and horns. Give her your extra special fanfare. Toot-toot-toot and boom-boom-boom. The curtain rises. And in walks — Ida Lupino. “Ah nuts,” you say, “we’ve seen her before. She’s cute as a kitten all right, and pretty too. Yeah, a clever little ingenue. But — she’s no Bette Davis.”

You’re right — you’re wrong. As a matter of fact, you have seen Ida Lupino on the screen for seven years. Seven years ago Paramount was carrying on one of those mad-helter skelter searches for an Alice to play the lead in “Alice in Wonderland.” (Paramount always was queer for searches. A restless studio, they always seemed to be looking for something. Remember the search for Beauty which gave us Ann Sheridan, and the search for the Panther Woman which have us Gail Patrick?) Potential Alices arrived on every plane, train, and covered wagon. Everyone had been tested for the part from Peggy Fears to Baby Leroy. (When it came to testing, Alice was the Scarlett O’Hara of her day.) In the midst of all the confusion Ida Lupino, accompanied by her attractive young mother, got off a plane in Glendale and casually announced that she had been signed by a Paramount talent scout in England to play Alice. Ida was fifteen, on the plumpish side, with bleached hair, beaded lashes, and clothes much too sophisticated for her extreme youth. The studio, folk took one look, shook their head, and said, “No Alice in Wonderland for this baby.” But they gave her a contract, at a small salary, and told her to stick around. She did, and had one silly, stupid picture after another tossed to her.

Now it doubtless seems a far cry from a frustrated Alice in Wonderland to First-Lady of the Screen Bette Davis. But there’s a connection, believe me. Bette Davis was not handed an Academy Award the day she arrived in Hollywood in 1930 on a Universal contract. No one swooned over her first pictures. The public didn’t line up at the ticket windows. The press didn’t drool over their typewriters when writing” reviews of Bette Davis pictures. In fact quite a lot of Bette Davis pictures had been released over the country before anyone swooned, drooled, or even noticed her. Bette was an ingenue in those days. She, too, had badly bleached hair. Universal told her she had no sex appeal, and definitely no acting ability, and dropped her. Warner Brothers, half-heartedly, signed her. George Arliss liked her, and anything to please George Arliss. But the change in studio didn’t particularly change her luck. Bette kept on being just a second-rate actress, ignored by the press and the fans.

And then after four dull years in pictures Bette got her break — the lead, opposite Leslie Howard, in RKO’s “Of Human Bondage.” Leslie Howard, like George Arliss, realized that Bette could be a great actress if ever given the chance, so he urged the studio to borrow her, and it was certainly okay with Warner Brothers. (But just try and borrow Bette Davis from them now!) Hard, calculating, immoral Mildred was the first part that Bette had ever been able to sink her teeth in. She gave it the works. The picture was released and the swooning started.

There’s an old bromide going around that history never repeats. But Hollywood history, of course, is extra special, and anyway, you can’t even count on the earth in Hollywood, so why bother counting on a bromide? All of us who have seen the unreleased “The Light That Failed” or even the stills from “The Light That Failed” are fully convinced that history is going to repeat itself. Another bad woman, it seems, is just about to make another great actress. What Mildred did for Bette Davis, Bessie is going to do for Ida Lupino.

Bessie, in case you’ve forgotten your Kipling, is the little model in “The Light That Failed” who poses for the Melancholia, painted by Kipling’s war-correspondent-artist, Dick Heldar, who goes blind with the last strokes of his brush. Bessie, dirty, unkempt, and with no more morals than a flea, is one up on Mildred. And if you hated Mildred for what she did to Leslie Howard, wait until you see what Bessie does to that poor Ronnie Colman. Bessie — Ida Lupino feels — was well worth waiting seven years for.

As soon as it got bruited about — and it was Ronnie Colman himself who started the bruiting — that Ida was a cinch to be a second Bette Davis I could hardly wait to snare a tea invitation out of her. Although she hasn’t a trace of her British accent,- except when she puts it on, Ida’s tea, mannerisms, and sympathies are quite British. She and Louis Hayward celebrated their first year of happily married life recently by buying their first home in California. It’s a beautiful home, small and comfortable, high in the Brentwood hills with a perfectly wonderful view of, of all things, Catalina— they don’t even have to wait for a clear day. Ida met me at the door with a broom in hand. Not that she is domestic, she’s not in the least, but she is a very volatile, dynamic sort of person, and talks with anything that happens to be convenient. Ida can’t even say “Isn’t it a lovely day” without throwing in a couple of dramatic gesticulations. And after years of interviewing dull, placid movie stars who are just about as responsive as a bale of hay I must say it’s great fun to find an Ida Lupino. When it comes to pepping you up, Ida’s a shot in the arm. (So’s Bette.)

The Hayward living room isn’t formal in the Hollywood manner, and it isn’t reserved for guests, special guests. Gay and chintzy, with cut flowers on every table (Ida has a mania for cut flowers) the living room is where the Haywards live. They laugh in it, they pace in it, and they argue in it. They fight the wars of Europe in it (that’s what Ida was doing with _ the broom) and they fight their own private wars in it. You see, the Haywards are different from most Hollywood screen couples. They do not set up impractical rules for being happy though married. They are happy as they go. They do not subscribe to anything as ordinary as leaving their professional problems at the studio before returning home at night. Other Hollywood couples may refrain from talking shop at home— but not the Haywards. Ida and Louis drag their problems right along home from the studio with them — all of them, and some that don’t even belong to them. And they talk them out, scream them out, or pace “them out, right there in the living room. They act all over the place, and they love it. When the discussions really ‘get hot and heavy it sounds like a pair of radio loudspeakers on a static marathon. If company drops in Ida will say with great dignity, “My husband, poor dear, is a ham.”

Ida has no neutral ground where her vivacity is concerned. She is either the most effervescent person at a party, or else she retires to a corner like a little mouse. She either arrives in a whirlwind of excitement fairly shouting at the top of her lungs, “Oh, ducky, I have had the most heavenly day, etc., etc.” Or else she will give you a casual “Oh, hello.” It’s a hundred to one chance that when she arrives in her mousey mood that she had just won a terrific argument with Louis or somebody and is restoring her energy for the next important moment.

She explains the amazing Lupinos thusly: “Some of them were Dukes and things like that. But the whole family did something that upset the Borgias and were banished from Italy over four hundred years ago. They became gypsies and wandered around Europe for several centuries. Eventually they settled down in England. The Lupinos even then were entertainers. Some were minstrels, some were clowns, and some were just rogues. Every so often the Lupinos were rounded up and hung from their thumbs as an example of what Englishmen ought not to be.”

That she inherits her amazing psychic ability from the gypsy strain in her long line of vagabond ancestors is not to be questioned when she really goes into cahoots with the spirits. One blue-eyed look at your palm and Ida can give you your past, present, and future, and read your character as if it was written there in black and white. I have paid professional fortune tellers and astrologers five bucks for readings that weren’t one half as good as Ida s casual glance at my palm. If she ever wants to give up acting, God forbid, she can make scads of money in the fortune-telling business. Another dismaying little psychic trick of hers is to arrive at your home for dinner and tell you when you greet her in the hall what your menu is going to be, all the way from soup to nuts. When she did this at the Alan Joneses one night, Irene, taken completely aback, I rushed in the kitchen to investigate. “It’s positively weird,” she said later. “Ida told me everything I was serving. And I didn’t even know myself.”

She may look mighty frail (she weighs a hundred pounds) but when Ida makes up her mind about something not even Atlas with the world on his shoulder can move her. She felt that way about changing the color of her hair last year. A bleached blonde ever since coming to Hollywood, Ida one day rebelled. “I wanted to stop looking” like a dizzy — er, daffy — well, a daffodil. Besides, I should be a brunette — it’s my natural coloring. I believe there’s nothing so conducive to success as being yourself. And believe me, I shelved a lot of nasty little complexes along with the blonde locks. The most troublesome was self-consciousness. I’m sure it always haunts one as a result of artificiality. Most of my friends disapproved of the dark hair — practically stopped speaking to me. The cameramen at the studios reminded me of the importance of high-lights, and pictorial effects, and assured . me that I was completely out of my mind. But I was sure I was right.” And weirdly enough, it was after she had changed the color of her hair back to its natural brown that she was summoned to the studio to take a test for Bessie.

Ida honestly thinks that she has a “funny face” and anyone who tries to pay her a beauty compliment gets argued down. She has slimmed down considerably since those Alice in Wonderland days, and now is recognized as one of the best dressed of the young stars, though the great and expensive couturiers of Hollywood know her not. Her sportswear she buys in the boys department of a local department store. When she finds a dress shop that specializes in $16.95 dresses she simply goes mad and buys out the shop. Her entire wardrobe is fashioned in blacks, whites, grays, and blues. She hates to drive an automobile (the Haywards haven’t gotten to the swank of having a chauffeur yet) so she usually hitch-hikes a ride from one of the neighbors. She’s about as athletic as a centurion with rheumatism, but as a special favor will watch Louis play tennis by the hour. Like most Hollywood stars she adores flowers, but unlike most Hollywood stars’ she isn’t particularly fond of pets. However, she has a pet cat which is such a nuisance that she shuts him up in a bureau drawer when company comes.

Bessie has been a dream character of hers ever since she was old enough to know she’d be an actress when she grew up. The Lupinos started acting when they were barely out of their cradle, back in England, and when she was little more than seven Ida was memorizing Shakespeare. But it was Kipling’s “The Light That Failed” that made a deep impression on her when she read it. She didn’t mind about losing Alice at all because the studio promised her Bessie, all of seven years ago. “They were planning to make it then with Gary Cooper,” said Ida, “and I was simply hysterical with joy. It was like a dream come true. But it was considered too sad, and postponed.”

The amazing thing, of course, is that after promising it to Ida seven years ago, and consistently postponing it for several years, when they actually did get down to making it that they called for Ida Lupino! Ida had been dropped from the studio several years, had been flat on her back for a year with infantile paralysis, and had been freelancing at different studios. Things like that just don’t happen for nothing.

What these “bad women” can do for Hollywood ingenues is really something, hope” that Bette and Ida never forge’ Mildred and Bessie in all their prayers.

Bette Davis, above in her memorable role of Mildred opposite Leslie Howard in “Of Human Bondage,” paved the way for Ida Lupino’s “bad girl” characterization opposite Ronald Colman in “The Light That Failed.” See Ida in character at left.

You’ve known Ida as a pretty ingenue. Wait until you see her in her hard and realistic new role!

Right, Buddy Westmore makes her up to look the part. Below, a close-up.

"Cute" was once the word for Ida — but not any more! She’s an actress now.

Lower center, a dynamic scene with Colman in “The Light That Failed” which should convince you.

Collection: Screenland MagazineFebruary 1940