Another recent DVD release that warrants celebration is Fox’s Road House (1948), a wonderfully tawdry melodrama enlivened by first-rate quips. It’s the quintessential film of the great Ida Lupino. To some, Lupino was the poor man’s Bette Davis, but not to those of us who love and admire her talent, guts, and surprising versatility. My favorite Lupino performance is in Deep Valley (1947), in which she was cast against type as a stuttering farm girl awakened by first love. Her director on that underrated drama, Jean Negulesco, also directed Road House, which put Ida back on familiar turf, a milieu in which she could chain-smoke, drink, and toss off sarcastic one-liners. With her throaty voice, Lupino is cast (somewhat hilariously) as a lounge singer. And not even in some seedy nightclub…she croaks out tunes in the bar of a bowling alley!
Beautifully photographed and designed, Road House is an A production of B material. It’s divine rubbish. The second half veers off track, once the power shifts from Ida to a typically loony Richard Widmark (still in his psychotic Kiss of Death mode, laughing maniacally), and the plot becomes less restrained. But Ida is terrific throughout, absolutely at her hard-boiled, no-nonsense best. Cornel Wilde, Widmark’s good-guy rival for Ida’s love, gets to show off his shirtless torso, while classy Celeste Holm, the era’s epitome of feminine wit and sophistication, is somehow stranded here as the bowling alley’s cashier, pining for Wilde. How in the world did Holm end up here? Did she accidentally report to the wrong set?
The film’s highlights are Ida’s irresistibly husky renditions of standards, such as “Again” and “One for My Baby.” She accompanies herself on the piano and leaves her lit cigarettes atop it when she must interrupt a smoke in order to sing. She knocks ‘em dead through the sheer force of her personality, daring listeners not to like her while clearly not giving a hoot. Ida was “unsung” in many ways, and she deserves recognition as one of the Golden Age’s supreme actresses.