BOOTLEG FILES 525: “The Bigamist” (1953 melodrama directed by Ida Lupino).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and other video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been offered by a number of public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright on a film by an elusive female director.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A new DVD promising an HD restoration was released this week.
During the early 1950s, Ida Lupino earned some degree of notoriety as the only woman to direct feature-length films in Hollywood. Today, Lupino is primarily celebrated for her ability to break a gender barrier in a male-dominated world and not so much for the films that she helmed. Indeed, Lupino’s directorial output was mostly unmemorable – social issue melodramas that were too enervated to be campy and too banal to be praised for emotional honesty. Her only genuinely memorable directing effort was, oddly, her least characteristic: “The Hitch-Hiker,” a minor 1953 noir thriller that received belated critical praise for its harsh violence.
Perhaps the most ambitious film that Lupino directed was the work that all but ended her career as a film director: “The Bigamist,” a 1953 curio that is back in the spotlight thanks to a new DVD release from the Film Chest label. (We’ll get to that later.) It is not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination – and I don’t think it would be fair to say it is a good film. Heck, calling it “mediocre” might be somewhat extravagant. But it is a weirdly interesting endeavor, with a back story that is more entertaining than anything on the screen.
Lupino came to directing thanks to a production company she created with her husband Collier Young called The Filmakers. Young and Lupino divorced in 1951, but they remained business partners and had no problems working together as film production collaborators. Through The Filmakers, Lupino enjoyed the chance to work as a director – none of the studios of that day would even consider assigning the job of directing to anyone but a man. Strangely, she initially resisted acting in the films she directed, as if she did not want to call too much attention to her unlikely position behind the camera.
The Filmakers saw their titles released through Eagle-Lion and RKO, but they were not happy with how these studios distributed their work. Young and Lupino decided to set up their own distribution outfit for “The Bigamist,” but in order to ensure star power at the box office, it was decided that Lupino would come back as an on-screen presence. Jane Greer was approached as Lupino’s co-star, but she was not available. Instead, Lupino agreed to cast Joan Fontaine – a surprising choice, considering that the Oscar-winning actress married Collier Young after his divorce from Lupino. But Fontaine assured the press that there was nothing bizarre about this set up, adding that she and Lupino had been dear friends for years and that Lupino welcomed Young’s marriage to her. Fontaine also agreed to defer her salary in order to keep the film’s $175,000 budget intact.
Lupino shot “The Bigamist” in June and July of 1953 on a leased soundstage at the low-rent Republic Studios lot, with some location footage captured around Los Angeles and in San Francisco. Fontaine would later recall that Lupino was more interested in presenting herself in a better light. “After shooting all my scenes, director Ida saw the rushes, didn’t like the photography, and changed cameramen before actress Ida began her own scenes,” Fontaine said. Lupino would also dismiss her original editor when the rough cut did not meet her satisfaction.
But despite the problems Lupino may have encountered behind the camera, at least she was able to get “The Bigamist” made. Back in 1953, the Production Code had very strictly limits on what subjects were allowed on the screen – and a feature with bigamy, adultery and unmarried pregnancy certainly pushed the limits. Collier Young’s screenplay managed to soothe the censors, but in doing so he created a story that was both stilted and silly.
The title character is a traveling salesman Harry (played by Edmond O’Brien, who starred in Lupino’s “The Hitch-Hiker”). Harry and his wife Eve (Fontaine) are eager to adopt a child – the film quickly establishes that their childless state is solely Eve’s biological fault – and the kindly adoption agent Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) interviews them about their desire to become parents. Eve is delighted with Mr. Jordan and even describes him as being like Santa Claus – a somewhat distracting in-joke, referring to Gwenn’s Oscar-winning role as Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Mr. Jordan is skeptical of Harry, and follows him from his San Francisco home to his second office in Los Angeles. While in La-La Land, Mr. Jordan finds that Harry has another wife and a baby. Confronted by the exposure of his double life, Harry launches into a long, long flashback to describe what happened.
It seems that Eve compensated for not being a mother by becoming Harry’s business partner. Her sales savvy is remarkable, but Harry finds himself growing distant from her. While in Los Angeles, he spends a free afternoon taking a bus tour of Beverly Hills to see the homes of the movie stars. The bus points out the residences of Jack Benny, James Stewart and (in yet another in-joke) Edmund Gwenn. But Harry is more interested in Phyllis (Lupino), who is seated opposite him.
Harry pursues Phyllis and learns that she was raised on a Pennsylvania farm and came to Los Angeles in pursuit of a new life. What she wound up with was a job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant and a tiny apartment in a boarding house. (She also has a designer wardrobe, though it is never explained how she managed to snag that while serving up dim sum.) Harry and Phyllis bond, with a whirlwind trip to Mexico that leaves them with a problematic post-script. Harry nobly agrees to marry Phyllis and set up a home with her.
But what about Eve? Harry wants to divorce her, but that gets delayed when she becomes distraught over her father’s death. Thus, Harry winds up as the polygamist version of a ping-pong ball, bouncing between one wife in San Francisco and another wife (plus an infant) in Los Angeles. Mr. Jordan is left shocked by what he learns. “I can’t figure out my feelings towards you,” he tells Harry, “I despise you, and I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand, and yet I almost wish you luck.” Instead, he informs the police and Harry gets arrested, with both wives meeting each other in court.
The main problem with “The Bigamist” was trying to make Harry into a sympathetic character. As played by O’Brien, he seems like the ultimate bad luck-prone shmuck who winds up screwing up his life by trying to do the right thing. But he is so bland and wishy-washy that it is impossible to imagine any woman would be running after him. The film also stumbles when it gives the impression that Eve’s obsession with running a successful business was enough to drive away an emotionally needy Harry into another woman’s arms (and bed). But Fontaine plays Eve with intelligence and sincerity, and her scenes where she learns of her father’s death are truly touching. Lupino, however, comes across as a Screenwriting 101 character rather than a real person – with her poise and the glamorous manner she is presented on camera, it is impossible to imagine that she was a Pennsylvania farm girl-turned-Chinese restaurant waitress.
A minor bit of complaint can also be offered in wasting the versatile Oscar-winner Jane Darwell in a tiny role as a comedy relief cleaning lady. Seeing this wonderful actress in a throwaway bit is nothing short of outrageous.
“The Bigamist” had the bad luck to open right after another bigamy-inspired film, the British comedy “The Captain’s Paradise,” hits U.S. theaters. That British import proved to be a hit with audiences, who laughed merrily at the zany complications of a man trying to keep his wives apart. But audiences were not eager to experience the somber soap opera of “The Bigamist” – which opened during the Christmas season, not the best time for such a dreary work. The film proved to be a major commercial failure.
Lupino and Collier Young collaborated on one more film, the 1954 “Private Hell 36,” with Lupino serving as star and co-writer while a young Don Siegel handled the direction. The Filmakers also distributed that work, but audiences avoided it and The Filmakers went out of business. Lupino would direct some television anthology episodes, most notably the brilliantly creepy “The Masks” on “Twilight Zone,” but she stayed away from movie directing until the 1966 comedy “The Trouble With Angels.’
The copyright for “The Bigamist” was never renewed and the film wound up in the public domain, where it has been the subject of endless second-generation dupes on cheap labels; some of these battered prints are also on YouTube. Earlier this week, the Film Chest label put out a DVD of “The Bigamist” that is billed as an HD restoration of the title. I am not certain how much restoration actually took place – the print has plenty of scratches and at least one conspicuous bad splice – but it looks somewhat cleaner than many prints that have floated about. If one must check out this curio, the Film Chest version is probably the best way to go.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!