Not Wanted is something of an outlier in director Ida Lupino’s oeuvre because she was actually brought in to finish the film when original director Elmer Clifton became dangerously ill. How much of the film Lupino directed is therefore up for debate, but she also holds writing credit on the script. Much of the imagery and camera movement, especially in the birth sequence, is very much of a piece with the rest of her work.
Not Wanted stars Sally Forrest (who would go on to work with Lupino in Never Fear) as Sally Keaton, a young woman in a small town who becomes infatuated with Steve Ryan (Leo Penn), a piano player moving through town and performing at the local bar. Sally eventually pursues Steve to San Francisco, where he ultimately rejects her, before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Terrified and alone, unable to return home for fear of being rejected by her parents outright, Sally has to navigate unwed motherhood and the choices she must make for the future of herself and her child.
Not Wanted deals with a fairly straightforward concept – the experience of an unwed, pregnant woman in 1949 – but takes the interiority of its lead character’s experience to an unexpected and fascinating level. As with many of Lupino’s films about women, and men, dealing with the social mores of 1940s and 50s culture, the narrative takes a psychological as well as a sociological approach to its subject. Despite her unenviable position, Sally does find friendship and help – she gets a job at a local gas station, owned by war vet Drew Baxter (Keefe Brasselle), and then later checks herself into a women’s home to give birth to her child. Steve himself is never villainized – he’s unaware of her pregnancy, and his greatest crime is sleeping with a woman that he does not intend to stay with.
Not Wanted effectively exposes women’s internalization of shame surrounding sex and motherhood—to Sally, the baby is a proof of her shame, a physical manifestation of her social rejection, and the rejection of a man who did not love her. But Not Wanted doesn’t place the blame on her, really—it evades that by not moralizing over her. Sally is aware of sex, and presumably of the potential results of it, but she’s also naïve, romanticizing a young man and her future with him. The choices she’s forced to make, fleeing from her home, trying to survive on her own, and eventually having to give birth and live in a women’s home because she has nowhere else to go, are choices shaped by her psychology and her culture. She’s not a bad person and the film does not treat her as bad; more to the point, she is only “fallen” in her own eyes. She believes her parents will reject her if she asks them for help; she refuses to contact Steve about the baby. Though many support her, her shame is both internal and a product of the culture around her.
Much of Not Wanted is about Sally finding a way to overcome that shame and to accept the mistake as a mistake that does not doom her to a life of being unloved. It also deals with the unfair restrictions placed on women in her position. She wants to keep her baby, but knows that she cannot care for him by herself and has no one to help her. In one of the film’s most powerful, painful sequences, she talks to her newborn about his future, about how she cannot leave him alone at home while she goes out to work, about how she can never earn enough money to give him the life he deserves. She gives up her child not out of lack of love, but out of lack of support.
Not Wanted deals intelligently and carefully with a difficult subject – difficult certainly in 1949, and difficult in 2019. Yet it manages to do so with a degree of nuance and sympathy almost unprecedented in post-Code Hollywood. If the film occasionally falls into the trap of melodrama and moralizing, it undercuts these elements by providing a deep, painful look into the trauma of a woman faced with an accidental pregnancy. The birth sequence – again, nearly unprecedented in 1940s and 50s American cinema – focalizes the experience through Sally in a series of Expressionist-tinged POV shots. If the rest of Lupino’s oeuvre did not exist, Not Wanted would be enough to argue for her inclusion in the cinematic canon.
Not Wanted is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.