Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Five to ten minutes past the title sequence in Ida Lupino's The Bigamist, you feel the urge to dismiss it as a parochial one-reel morality lesson on the dangers of adultery. This urge comes from our learned cultural impulse to mock any pop art that places traditional, wholesome values at its center. Of course, if Michael Clayton cries in front of three equines over his corporate litigation guilt we're moved, but if Lupino frames a husband between two wives in a courtroom, we scoff. For sure, The Bigamist can come off as simple-minded in moments, but there is no doubt Lupino takes her tale of sexual and marital loyalty seriously.

Harry (Edmond O'Brien) is a freezer salesman torn between the comforts of wives Eve (Joan Fonatine) and Phyllis (Ida Lupino). Harry and Eve want to adopt a child, but before they can, the adoption agency must conduct a background check. The investigator (Edmund Gwenn) plays a hunch and ambushes Harry at his second home, with Phyllis, in Los Angeles. From here, The Bigamist rolls out in flashback fashion, explaining how Harry got himself into such a marital pickle.

In a different era, Ida Lupino - at the time, she was just the second female to ever direct a Hollywood feature - might have been given the space to hone her raw talents behind the camera. As an actress, she had already developed an insider's understanding of movie art. By the time of They Drive By Night (1940) and The Sea Wolf (1941), it was the big boys - George Raft & Edward G. Robinson - that were elbowing for the spotlight with her! (There are even rumors that she stepped in for Nicholas Ray when he went ill during the filming of On Dangerous Ground).

For The Bigamist, Lupino filtered Larry Marcus's story through a noir-ish haze of work-a-day L.A. The cinematic doom typically affiliated with street thugs and g-men gets handed over to the plight of an average man that just wanted to have a family... oops! he got two! The first meet-greet of Harry and Phyllis (his second wife-to-be) is on a Homes Of The Stars bus tour. Lupino cleverly frames the couple's encounter as if it's two awkward fools riding the school bus on the first day of class.

Lupino's underrated craftiness, as well as her willingness to take on taboo subjects - such as rape, in her film Outrage - at a time when the production code was rockin' the screens, demands a reevaluation of her career and a much MUCH better availablity of her films on DVD.

[NOTE: The current DVD version of The Bigamist, that Netflix stocks, is crappy ... it looks like a 1984 VHS copy transferred to DVD. I don't know if this is the only DVD version on the market or not, but be warned. ]


Jason Bellamy said...

Well, you sold me on "The Bigamist" only to finish with the poor DVD quality via Netflix. Drag!

The good news is that it makes me feel not so guilty for my painfully slow pace with my queue. I'm hooked on movies in my own collection at the moment. But I guess that's a good thing.

Sorry to ramble. I always enjoy my stops at "Tractor Facts." Good post.

Fox said...

It looks like KINO released it on VHS in 1998, so hopefully they will give it the DVD treatment.

I mean, really, the quality was SO BAD that I feel like I need to see a better print of it to really get a good viewing of it.

bryan h. said...

Ida Lupino is one of those filmmakers I've always heard fascinating things about, but have never committed to actually seeing her films. I bet a semi-serious new DVD release would do a lot to maintain a legacy for someone like her, who found a way to thrive (artistically if not commercially) at the margins.

RC said...

what a title!