Thursday, February 28, 2013


I’m a big Ida Lupino fan. She was a true Hollywood maverick. She was a writer, producer and director who formed her own company. She was the first woman to direct film noir(The Hitch-Hiker 1953) She played everything from sassy comediennes, treacherous femme fatales to author Emily Bronte. While there are many Lupino films that I hold in great esteem, there are several films of Lupino's that are so good that whenever I see them turn up on Turner Classic Movies, I never miss the chance to watch them again. The Hard Way (1943) Starring Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson is one of those films. The Hard Way starts off in classic film noir style. A despondent, immaculately dressed Lupino is walking by the pier late at night. She removes her expensive white fur coat...lays it gently across one of the pilings...and jumps into the ocean. A homeless man sees her jump and calls the police. We then see in flashback the events that lead to this desperate decision.

Ida Lupino (left) and Joan Leslie in The Hard Way
Lupino plays the worn out wife of a poor blue collar slob, both working themselves slowly to death in a small industrial town with a sky so full of black smoke that you can barely see the sun. Joan Leslie plays Lupinos young sister, just graduated from high school. Lupino is a devoted sister and tries to steer Leslie clear of all the mistakes that Lupino has already made, trying to make sure she has a better life. Leslie is a perky kid with dreams of being on the stage, a diamond in the rough. One night, while watching a traveling vaudeville show, she happens to meet one of the acts...Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Morgan and Carson are a singing/dance act... two guys that don't seem all that talented, but enjoy the life. During their four day stop over, Morgan and Carson happen to see Joan Leslie in a diner, entertaining her friends by mocking Morgan and Carsons act. Both men see that she's talented and Carson and Leslie take a shine to each other. Morgan warns his friend not to get involved with "the locals". But in spite of the warning Carson falls for Leslie.

Dennis Morgan and Ida Lupino in The Hard Way
Lupino sees an opportunity for Leslie through Carson and encourages a marriage between the two. Soon, Lupino has left her husband and is off with Leslie and the vaudevillians. Before long, Lupino manipulates the two men into adding Leslie into their act. Not long after that, Leslie, with Lupino behind her, starts to become a rising star, leaving Morgan and Carson in their wake. As time goes on, Lupino goes to ever greater lengths, to see her kid sister become a star. But as the two sisters climb higher on the ladder of success, the more burned out and love starved Leslie becomes.

Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Ida Lupino
This was a great movie. While it looks as though the film will make Lupino out to be the quintessential "evil" stage mother (or in this case, older sister) the film avoids this cliché, thanks to a wonderful screenplay that leaves plenty of wiggle room for Lupino to give her character some nuance. She is so incredibly good in the role that she rises above such one dimensional pigeonholing. There is no doubt that Lupino does live vicariously through her sister. However, she is also very loving, devoted and protective of her. What could have ended up as simple manipulation by Lupino, actually comes off as Lupino being a very smart, savvy and ambitious woman who leaves her husband because she wants more for herself and her sister. Something that we didn‘t often see in film during the WW2 years. This gives Lupino even greater complexity as she weighs the right and wrong of her actions (and there is some wrong, no doubt) against what she thinks is best for her sister and, yes, herself.

Lupino tries to sway Joan Leslie in The Hard Way
When we finally see the inevitable confrontation between Lupino and Leslie, neither comes away unscathed even though the film forces Lupino to bare the brunt. Even the victims of Lupino’s manipulations seem hypocritical when Lupino confronts them with their own imperfections. Lupino gives her character this great sense of frustration at dreams denied and an even great frustration at those who judge her methods in achieving her dreams. Lupino is impatient with those who don’t understand her and have no idea about her struggles and if she could just get through to them, explain to them that she and Leslie are deserving, then maybe they wouldn’t mind her being so calculating and ruthless. Having watched a lot of Lupino films over the last few years, both obscure and the more well known, I have to say that, in my opinion, this is her greatest role. I enjoy her performance in The Hard Way more than I do in popular roles such as the gangster girlfriend Marie in High Sierra whose love for gangster Bogart is unrequited. And I like it more than the blind woman she plays to Robert Ryan’s angry cop in On Dangerous Ground. Not that these last two films aren’t great, they are, but that will give you some idea how great she is in The Hard Way.

The always classy Ida Lupino
Lupino is more complex, more subtle, more polished, more natural than I have ever seen her before. It amazes me that she didn't even get an Oscar nomination. Lupino’s performance is certainly more engaging and more complex than some other nominees of that year such as Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph. Everyone turns in solid performances, including Joan Leslie whom I always thought rather limited and certainly didn't think she had the depth to pull off a role like this. Leslie is fascinating to watch as the little sister who is every bit as ambitious as Lupino while at the same time she is more than happy to let Lupino do the dirty work while she plays the innocent. While Lupino uses Leslie to achieve her dreams, Leslie quietly and rather insidiously uses Lupino in turn. The film is also beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.

From left to right--Lupino, Jack Carson Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan in The Hard Way

The story is also interesting in that it is loosely based on the life of Ginger Rogers, her first husband and Gingers mother. Even though the Hollywood community of the day knew it was based on "someone in Hollywood", it didn't come out until years later when director Vincent Sherman spilled the beans (one has to wonder if Rogers knew who it was about, as she was offered the Leslie role and turned it down) While not a musical per se, there is plenty of great music in this from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. Not just a great Lupino film, but a great film period.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Hard Way on Tuesday March 5th at 10:00 pm.  Don't miss this rarely seen gem!

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