In Hollywood’s Golden era of 1930-1960 very few women were given much creative power or had much significant influence on the making of films. Sure there were larger-than-life actresses, like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and others. But besides a handful of film editors, several screenwriters, script supervisors, costume designers and set decorators, women were virtually locked out of directing and producing opportunities.
A mere modicum of women actually broke through to become feature film directors, beginning with Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Lupino was a leading actress working at Warner Brothers through much of the 1930s-‘40s, co-starring in action/adventure films with Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, like “They Drive By Night,” “The Sea Wolf,” and “High Sierra.”
By 1949, she found a way to express her creative powers in a very personal way when she co-wrote (with then-husband Collier Young) and directed her first film, “Never Fear”. This low budget B-film melodrama concerned a beautiful young dancer Carol Williams (Sally Forrest) who is suddenly stricken with polio.
Polio was a widespread virus, (it is now virtually cured), that affected many in the early 20th Century, including President Franklin Roosevelt, who spent his entire term as president in a wheelchair, and Lupino herself, who suffered a mild case in 1934.
“Never Fear” begins upbeat and happy, twenty-year-old Carol and her dance partner/fiancé Guy Richards (Keefe Brasselle) are preparing for a dance show at a local California nightclub. Before their opening they rehearse and discuss their future together—maybe one day playing Paris, vacationing in Venice, eventually highlighting at the Copa. Their show-stopping dance number is a sensual piece, resembling a pre-Bob Fosse dance, where they begin using fencing foils and twist and turn is passionate embraces.
But several days after a rigorous afternoon’s dance rehearsal, Carol becomes weak, dizzy and feverish. A doctor diagnoses polio and suggests that the very despondent Carol be sent to a rehabilitation facility. Guy and her elderly father set her up in a private room in a nearby facility to make her as comfortable as possible. But Carol insists she wants to be left alone—convinced she’ll never walk again, let alone ever resume her dance career.
After several months, with the help of Dr. Middleton (Lawrence Dobkin) and his dedicated staff, Carol slowly begins showing signs of progress, as she regains leg mobility and strength. In the dayroom, a fellow patient named Len Randall (Hugh O’Brien) strikes up a conversation, trying to be friendly. He invites Carol to the weekly wheelchair square dance at the facility, and Carol reluctantly accepts.
Meanwhile, Guy tells Carol he’s leaving the dance business to sell houses in the booming real estate business and intends to plan a future for them. After several setbacks Carol nearly gives up hope and returns her engagement ring, stating, “Look into the future, I don’t want you carrying me upstairs.”
But Carol continues to work extra hard, with encouragement from her buddy, Len and the staff she soon is taking steps between parallel bars. When it seems like Carol will eventually be released from the institute, the mood is touched with bittersweet emotions. She’s conquered her affliction but appears to be all alone. But wait—Lupino offers some surprises.
Adding to the film’s realism, Lupino shot the film’s rehabilitation scenes at the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Santa Monica, California. Archie Stout, veteran cameraman of William Wellman’s “Beau Geste” and John Ford’s “Fort Apache”, shoots the film with clear black and white realism. Many of the actors in these institute scenes were actual rehab patients. Several critics felt the film acted as a documentary or docu-drama in its depiction of polio victims’ physical therapies and rehabilitation.
Sally Forrest, who reminds me of a young Ginger Rogers, is truly compelling as Carol. Hugh O’Brien, who later became famous as mostly a television star, is also quite effective as the sympathetic fellow patient, Len Randall. Lupino’s younger sister, actress Rita Lupino, appears in the film as Josie, a patient who befriends Carol and gives her important advice about coping with her disability and trusting the ones who love her.
Although not probably the most pleasant subjects for a feature film, Lupino’s “Never Fear” offers a powerful, unique perspective on the emotional, psychological and physical afflictions of those with polio and the services that were offered to rehabilitate these people to functional lives.