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15 October 2018

Writing a Detective with a Difference: Feminism and ’40s Hollywood

Screenwriter and story consultant Helen Jacey is renowned for her expertise on feminism and the creative process. This year, she set up a production company, Shedunnit Productions, to develop female gaze content across different platforms. In this guest blog post exclusively for WFTV, Helen reflects on the life and work of Ida Lupino – a filmmaker who defied the strict conventions of the 1940s studio system to make work which still feels as fresh and relevant today –  and introduces us to her new ‘feminist vintage crime noir’ series, Jailbird Detective:

‘Ida Lupino was going to mentor her,’ says one character to another in my new crime novel Jailbird Detective, set in 1940s LA. They are talking about the doomed aspirations of a woman who never gets to make her directorial debut.

Through this interchange, I am paying homage to an unsung heroine of film. Ida Lupino, actor-screenwriter-director-producer, whose centenary falls this year, was a pioneer filmmaker who very simply was ahead of her time.

Born into a theatrical family in Herne Hill, South London in 1918, Lupino crossed the Atlantic to work in Hollywood when still young. She was soon fed up playing female stereotypes offered by the studios and by the late ‘40s set up a production company The Filmmakers to make films about subjects that mattered to her.

Lupino achieved a body of work as a writer/producer/director at a time when women routinely served men in these roles. She had a unique female gaze, as well as the guts and determination to focus it on subject matter that was difficult for the time, such as unmarried pregnancy and giving up a baby (Not Wanted, 1949), the impact of illness and disability (Never Fear, 1949), and the violation of a sexual assault (Outrage 1950).

Today, Lupino’s female gaze still feels contemporary as she follows her female characters experiencing acute identity crises as a result of trauma. Lost aspirations, shattered dreams, entrapment, abuse, the inevitable descent into shame, and despair are all put under Lupino’s microscope. Women in the 1940s walked on very fine lines; fall off, and there was often nowhere to go. Lupino’s characters also live with a very real fear of society’s rejection and their sense of self shattered.

Her female characters are not saints or martyrs either, also going against the idealized types of desirable female behaviour peddled by Hollywood. They hate themselves, they lose control, they get lost in the dark side, they get thrown in jail for the night, they are drunk, disorderly, and often cruel. They verbally abuse those who care for them, they test, they shout, they wallow in self-pity. Lupino shows their inner turmoil and growing sense of alienation with real empathy and emotional literacy. Feminist solidarity didn’t exist in many women’s lives but her  films are committed to giving voice to the outcast.

Lupino’s men are also progressive. They are caregivers and healers, often helpless, frustrated and powerless in the role. They are hardly saviours and fixers.  But their nurture, empathy and acceptance help the female protagonists to heal. Ida Lupino had the foresight to show that all humans need non-judgemental care, compassion and understanding.

Writing Jailbird Detective, I wanted to create a main character as a counterpoint to typical female stereotypes of the 1940s. Unlike Lupino, I can write with a feminist hindsight, while she created new images of women in completely unchartered territory.

Like Ida Lupino herself, my character Elvira Slate crosses the Atlantic for a new life in Hollywood. Like Lupino’s characters, she suffers from the traumatic effects of incarceration – orphanage, reformatory school and later Holloway Prison. Elvira heals too, but through female friendship, mentoring and a growing self-respect.

My 1940s world is a place where women have each other’s back, and work hard to make their way in professions as diverse as taxi driving, detecting, screenwriting, book-keeping, art, costume and nursing.  Elvira Slate never meets a fictionalised Ida Lupino.  But cruising around in 1940s Hollywood, hanging out with the creative women’s networks and subcultures where women thrived, I think she would have liked to.


Helen Jacey is screenwriter and story consultant, renowned for her expertise on feminism and the creative process, and has worked with international film institutions, production companies and leading brands. Jailbird Detective, Book One in the Elvira Slate Investigations Series, is Helen’s debut novel (Shedunnit Productions). Helen contributed a chapter on Ida Lupino in Women Screenwriters: An International Guide (2015).  Her book The Woman in the Story: Creating Memorable Female Characters, first published in 2010 has become the industry standard go-to resource for its unique approach to female protagonists in screenwriting.

Helen will be reading from Jailbird Detective at Worlds End Bookshop in London, 6:00pm – 8:00pm on Wednesday 14 November.

She will be presenting Ida Lupino’s film Not Wanted at Kino-Teatr in St Leonards on Sea on Thursday 15 November at the official book launch of Jailbird Detective. More info and booking details can be found here.

See for further information.