Sunday 4 February 2018

The Bigamist (1953)

Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Collier Young, from an original story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor
Stars: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn and Edmond O’Brien

Index: 2018 Centennials.

To suggest that Ida Lupino was one of a kind is a spectacular understatement. She did a great deal at a time when the system didn’t think she should be able to do anything, except stand in front of the camera and look cute. To celebrate her career on what would have been her one hundredth birthday, I selected a feature on which she wore a number of hats. She was a co-star, alongside Joan Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien, which was odd for reasons I’ll get into later. She also directed. And she ran, with her husband, the independent production company, The Filmakers, which self-financed it. And she did all this in 1953, which sits at the heart of the era when women had two jobs to do, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. Then again, she had done what wasn’t expected from the beginning of her career, taking the role in 1932’s Her First Affaire that her mother wanted. The Bigamist is one of the issue films in which The Filmakers specialised and it has great resonance to her own life at the time.

As with many issue films, it’s not about the what but the why. For instance, we know who the bigamist of the title is, because he’s identified on the very second title card. It explains that the picture stars Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn ‘and Edmond O’Brien as the Bigamist’. Given those names, it’s pretty clear which two women he’ll marry and, sure enough, we open the movie with him and Fontaine trying to adopt a child. He’s Harry Graham and she’s his wife Eve, who’s eager to adopt, because she has a medical issue, we presume, that prevents her from having a child naturally. They’re working with the thorough Mr. Jordan, who immediately flags up Harry’s reluctance to sign the form authorising him to check into ‘every detail’ of their private lives. Now, I wonder why that could be! Well, we watch Mr. Jordan, superbly played by Edmund Gwenn, follow the trail to Harrison Graham’s house in Los Angeles, where he lives with his other wife, Phyllis, in the lovely form of Ida Lupino, and their baby boy, Danny.

Given that Graham opens that door to Mr. Jordan only fifteen minutes into the movie, it can hardly be described as a spoiler. What matters here can be summed up in a single line of dialogue that Mr. Jordan delivers a few minutes later: ‘How could a man like you—successful, admired—get into a position as vile as this?’ Well, we promptly dip into a set of flashbacks to answer that question and they wind closer and closer together as Graham falls deeper and deeper into the downward spiral of unfortunate circumstance. I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasise those last two words carefully because, as much as this is clearly a woman’s picture (‘the film every woman should see’ suggests one of the posters), the bigamist of the title is treated sympathetically throughout. He loves both his wives and his child too and he doesn’t want to hurt any of them. He just has to explain, transforming Mr. Jordan into his confessor and a long overdue confidante. His story in flashback takes up most of the film, of course, before we get to the surprising finalĂ©.

Now, beyond a 1953 feature dealing with a child born out of wedlock to a bigamist, hardly the sort of story you might expect from the Production Code era, there’s an additional real life overlay that seems even more bizarre. As I said earlier, The Filmakers was a production company run by Ida Lupino and her husband. That would be her second husband, Collier Young, whom she married in 1948, but whom she had also already divorced in 1951. Apparently they remained on good enough terms to remain as business partners, which might seem understandable until I add two more facts. Firstly, when Lupino filed for divorce in September 1951, she was already two months pregnant by Howard Duff, who promptly became her third husband the following month. Secondly, Young had also moved on, marrying Joan Fontaine in 1952. So, we have a film about a bigamist, in which Edmond O’Brien marries both the wife and the ex-wife of the scriptwriter with two of those latter three people self-financing the movie. Weird, huh?
Young’s script is solid enough on the surface but it has a lot of hidden depths, as perhaps you might well expect from that previous paragraph. You see, Eve and Phyllis are really the two halves of womanhood at the time, one half of which was traditional and the other revolutionary. Eve is the latter, a businesswoman who’s good at her job and good at losing herself in it as well. She and Harry own and run a company together, selling refrigeration equipment, and it’s Eve who’s doubled their profits. Given that Lupino was a director and Young a producer and they co-ran The Filmakers, it’s easy to see some of Ida Lupino in Eve Graham. However, it was Young’s current wife, Joan Fontaine, who took that role; Lupino plays firmly against type instead as the traditional side of woman, the stay-at-home mother. In between the two, Harry Graham really becomes a traditionally female character, capable and strong but constantly blown by the winds of circumstance and never in control of his own destiny.

Looking back from the supposedly enlightened 21st century, certainly one in which the Production Code is not a prominent factor, I could actually see The Bigamist being remade with Eve being male. In 1953, many would have viewed a successful businesswoman as someone who just wants to be a man; in 2018, she could become one. The underlying pressures would remain unchanged, with Harry still the travelling salesman for their company, spending half his life with his husband/wife in San Fran and the other taking care of clients down the coast in Los Angeles. Even in the world of instant long distance calls from the phone in his pocket and the benefits of Skype from his hotel room, he’d still be lonely on the road, especially with his husband so dedicated to work that their weekends at home involve little more than meetings and sleep. Back in LA, he might still take a walk to shake that feeling, jump on a bus tour of Hollywood to get off his feet and strike a conversation with the intriguing lady on the other side of the aisle.
And, a string of moments later, he’d be in the same situation, but with some old angles lessened and some new ones heightened. I did notice one angle that seems different today anyway, namely the scene in which Harry wants to go to bed with Eve but she goes to sleep on him. Today’s audiences would read something different into them having separate beds than was intended at the time, simply a moral requirement of the Production Code. Really, they’re never estranged, they’re just busy and apart a lot and that has a strain on their relationship that doesn’t affect the love they have for each other. Harry’s merely lonely away from home and his initial relationship with Phyllis is entirely above board: no kisses or touches, just two lonely people sharing each other’s company. We know, of course, that this eventually blossoms into something else, or Danny wouldn’t have been born, but that’s handled with extra subtlety: sex and pregnancy aren’t mentioned, just ‘I can take care of it by myself’ and ‘No, I don’t trap my men this way.’

The ending is fascinating, because this is an indie picture and it’s able to go its own way. Today, the two women would eventually discover they share a husband and either settle down to a poly relationship or hire assassins to off each other. Classic Hollywood’s usual take would be to have Phyllis die in childbirth, then Eve forgive Harry and take in his child to raise as their own. I won’t tell you how this indie version ends, but I will say that it’s none of the above. Just as Mr. Jordan sets the movie’s tone, he also sums up its message at the end, with a suitably vague statement when Harry finishes his story. ‘I can’t figure out my feelings towards you,’ he tells him. ‘I despise you and I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand and yet I almost want to wish you luck.’ There’s a statement from an attorney too that, had Danny been the product of an affair, Harry’s punishment would be raised eyebrows, but because he tried to ‘do the right thing’ by both his women, he’s a vile criminal. It’s all up to us, folks, it’s all up to us.
Edmond O’Brien does a great job as Harry Graham, even though it’s a very passive role for a tough actor. He was a mainstay in film noir and had turned out a number of strong performances in the years prior to this, including The Killers, White Heat and especially the original D.O.A. Earlier in 1953, he’d played another character who was male but stuck in a role normally reserved for a woman, in The Hitch-Hiker, also for The Filmakers with Ida Lupino again directing. The two would work together again a decade later on an Edmond O’Brien television show called Sam Benedict, with Lupino directing three episodes and guesting on one. Joan Fontaine is excellent too, though the sympathy we have for her is tempered by the sympathy we have for her husband. That’s odd, because she doesn’t do anything wrong here but still ends up in a nightmarish situation for her troubles. I wonder how many women in 1953 looked up to Eve because she was leading the way to equity for women and how many saw the whole crazy mess as being entirely her fault.

Certainly, nothing is Phyllis’s fault. She’s a young lady trying to forget her ex, who found himself a fraulein while serving overseas. She doesn’t want a relationship and she refuses to let Harry tell her anything about his life. When he presses her for dinner, after they leave the Hollywood tour bus, she takes him to the Canton CafĂ©, walks off screen and returns as his waitress, carrying his first course. That’s one way to stay safe in the big city! It’s strange to see Lupino play such a traditional young lady, even if she’s easy to fall for, being smart and quick and characterful, but she does it well. Her career is far more frequently dotted with wild ladies and prostitutes than characters like Phyllis, and she referred to herself as ‘the poor man’s Bette Davis’, having ended up in so many of her hand-me-down roles. Even there, she bucked the system, turning down many parts during the era when the studio owned its actors, and so spent much of her time at Warner Brothers on suspension.
And it was while suspended that she found time to really take a long look at how movies were made, from behind the camera. It’s at this point that she found an interest in directing and she had the balls to follow through and actually do it. The Hitch-Hiker is the first film noir directed by a woman and The Bigamist may mark the first time that a woman directed herself, at least in a major film in the United States. To me, as great as she was as an actress, stealing films like They Drive by Night from her co-stars George Raft, Ann Sheridan and imminent star Humphrey Bogart, she was most important as a director, with pictures like this one emphasising the reason why. Her first film as director was Not Wanted, also about pregnancy outside of marriage, but she inherited that from Elmer Clifton, who had suffered a heart attack only three days into filming; she had co-written the film, so finished directing it, refusing credit out of respect. Strong publicity led her to discuss it on a national radio show hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Filmakers continued to make issue pictures, twelve of them in six years. Lupino directed or co-directed six, wrote or co-wrote five, co-produced one and starred in three. These films are magnetic to me, because they were shot independently on low budgets and tried to highlight issues that mainstream Hollywood refused to acknowledge. They aren’t what they should be, as distribution was only possible with compliance to the Production Code which required inane changes that hurt the films. However, they stand strong in hindsight as edgy, meaningful and important. These are films like Never Fear, featuring a woman stricken by polio (from which Lupino had recovered in 1934); Outrage, about the psychological consequences on one woman of being raped; and The Hitch-Hiker, a serial killer story with an all-male cast. Nobody else was making films like these but nobody else was Ida Lupino. It’s a real shame that her career as the only female director in America during the classic era is not better known.
Part of this is because she was a alcoholic drug abuser who made bad business decisions. She married three times and divorced all three husbands. One story has her invited to present at the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony, only to show up alone as drunk as a skunk. The producer found her asleep in a dressing room, so locked her in a broom closet; he forgot about her until the show was over, whenhe found her still sleeping in the closet. Perhaps, therefore, it’s not too surprising that, as time went on, she moved on from film to television, where she directed dozens of episodes of shows as varied as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun - Will Travel and Gilligan’s Island. She acted on television often too but didn’t appear in a movie between 1956 and 1972; her later pictures seem rather different from her earlier films noir, being horror films like The Devil’s Rain and The Food of the Gods. Another maverick, Sam Peckinpah, did give her a strong role in Junior Bonner, playing the title character’s long-suffering mother.

She came a long way from her beginnings in a theatrical family in London. Her mother was an actress. Her father trod the boards of the music halls, the British equivalent of vaudeville. The extended family also included Arthur Lupino, an animal impersonator who had originated the role of Nana in the 1904 production of Peter Pan, and Lupino Lane, a versatile actor, mostly on stage and in silent comedy. Ida Lupino would, perhaps, eclipse all of these relatives, at least for a period of time. She was a notable actress and director both, the former being a more obvious role to audiences, but the latter being far more important to posterity. She was a great actor but a revolutionary director; The Bigamist ably highlights both sides of her career. As passive as she is, she walks rings around Harry on their first meeting, even with the mild distraction of real Hollywood homes, including that of Edmund Gwenn, a prominent actor in this film. But the whole film is hers, as director, and it highlights what a talent she was, ripe for rediscovery.

Women Directors and Their Films by Mary G. Hurd
The Sad Downfall of Ida Lupino by Richard Harland Smith

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