Ida Lupino and the Making of Jennifer

Ida Lupino starred in the 1953 film noir JenniferBy the 1950s Ida Lupino had expanded her career as an actress to include work behind the camera as a producer, writer and director, making her one of the few women in Hollywood at the time to work behind the scenes. In an age when it was expected for women to conform to the studio system and be little more than a pretty face on the screen, Lupino was a star willing to take risks when it came to her career. She was described in a 1951 Collier’s magazine article as “brainy, imaginative, and unfazed by conventions.”

In 1947, after spending 14 years making films at Paramount, Warner Bros. and other studios, Ida severed ties with the studio system for the rest of her career choosing instead to freelance, which allowed her to choose her own projects and gave her more creative control over her films. The following year, Lupino and then-husband Collier Young formed their own production company, The Filmakers, which usually made low-cost films on location about real life events. In 1949, at the age of 31, Lupino produced, co-wrote and ended up directing her first feature film, Not Wanted (At her request, she received no on-screen credit for directing: the film’s original director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack and was unable to work on the picture.), and over the next few years she would continue to write, direct, and produce many films for The Filmakers. In 1950 she became the second woman admitted to the Screen Directors Guild, and by 1953 Ida was an accomplished actress and distinguished director who had been working in Hollywood for nearly 20 years. Eventually she became the first woman to direct herself in a theatrical release in The Bigamist (1953), but before she attempted that, she appeared in a little-known thriller titled Jennifer, earlier that same year.

Surprisingly, this little gem of early ’50s film noir is hardly ever mentioned when discussing Lupino’s filmography, and many people have neither seen or heard of it. The movie was based on a short story called “Jennifer,” written by Virginia Myers, that had appeared in the February 1949 issue of Cosmopolitan. In the film, Ida plays Agnes Langley, a lonely woman who becomes caretaker of the Gail estate, an imposing old mansion in a small California town whose previous caretaker, Jennifer, has mysteriously disappeared. Agnes first becomes interested in the disappearance after finding Jennifer’s diary and quickly jumps to conclusions about the cause of her disappearance. Was Jennifer murdered? Did she run off with a lover? Is her ghost haunting Agnes at the mansion? Her curiosity is heightened even further after hearing the town’s gossip. Agnes uncovers many odd clues while searching for answers; an eerie old record and Jennifer’s old bankbook, with no money withdrawn, among them. She then begins to suspect Hollis, played by Lupino’s then-husband Howard Duff. The character of Agnes is reserved, timid and jittery, which was definitely a departure from the sultry and world-weary women audiences are used to seeing Lupino play. While somewhat weak, the script is good enough to keep the viewer guessing as to what happened to Jennifer, and takes a surprise twist at the end.

For decades the mystery surrounding Jennifer’s director Joel Newton, with no biographical information available and only one film credit to his name, has puzzled film scholars, critics and fans alike. Many thought it was a pseudonym for someone, but whom? Some thought it was ILupino herself. The director was actually Barney Gerard under a pseudonym. In an interview for this article, Lupino’s co-star Robert Nichols said, “It was directed and written by Barney Gerard. I thought he was very gifted. Ida had final cutting rights and she was not happy with it. She re-cut the film and Barney took his name off as writer and director” Nichols thought this was possibly because in the final version “she came across as being very neurotic and she didn’t like that and she changed a few scenes so she was less neurotic.” Which is understandable, considering that ever since her star-turning scene where Ronald Colman drives Lupino to hysterics in The Light That Failed (1939) and her role as the insane murderess in They Drive By Night (1940), she had often been portrayed as highly eccentric by the press, not only on screen but in her personal life as well, much to her dismay. This image was utilized to a great extent by the media, especially in the early-mid 1940s to make for more interesting publicity.

At the time of its release, the Monthly Film Bulletin described Jennifer as, “A neatly contrived mystery story,” and that “Ida Lupino gives an intelligent performance as the alarmed Agnes, and the supporting cast does adequately.” While it’s obvious the film was a “B” release that does not hold up as well today when compared with other classics of the time period, the film has its redeeming qualities, including impressive photography by award-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe and the striking on-location shooting. With this being one of  Lupino’s more difficult to find films, it would be nice to see a proper DVD release to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its release this month.

Jennifer Berzin is a student and classic film enthusiast who enjoys writing about movies.