Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Synopsis:

A destitute socialite, Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino (High Sierra), makes ends meet as a caretaker to a wealthy ex-actress (Isobel Elsom, My Fair Lady). When Ellen’s unbalanced sisters (Edith Barrett, The Ghost Ship, and Elsa Lanchester, Witness for the Prosecution) show up for a visit, they immediately get on everyone’s nerves. Ellen’s boss demands that they all leave her home, but the cunning housekeeper comes up with a devious plan to stay in the house, forever ever.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Hell is like the kingdom of Heaven. It’s within.”

Actor Ida Lupino’s compelling performance energizes this fascinating adaptation of Reginald Denham and Edward Percy’s 1940 popular stage play of the same name. Relentlessly moody and perversely funny, Ladies in Retirement belongs to Lupino and Lupino alone — she has a field day playing an amoral housekeeper.

Directed by Charles Vidor (Hans Christian Andersen) from a screenplay by Garrett Fort and Denham, Ladies in Retirement is somewhat too talky and stagey, but Lupino’s cunning performance and George Barnes’s (Rebecca and Spellbound) atmospheric camera work elevates this naughty thriller. The supporting cast is very good too.

Perhaps the film’s chief claim to fame is that it turned the “women’s picture” sub-genre on its ear. Often dismissed (mostly by men, of course) as “chick-flicks” (a truly odious description), these types of films flourished during the war years. Ladies in Retirement stands out among its counterparts because none of the female characters in the film are likable. In that respect, it anticipates the modern anti-heroine.

That being said, Ladies in Retirement remains strangely pro-women. This is the story of a woman trying to survive in a world where women have very few good choices. Lupino’s Ellen does some pretty awful things, but one can’t help but admire her desire to survive at any cost. Edith Barrett and Elsa Lanchester are appropriately dotty.

The main male character in the movie is played by Lupino’s then husband, Louis Hayward, the star of René Clair’s classic 1945 whodunit, And Then There Were None. Hayward’s character is despicable, which makes it easier to root for the ruthless protagonist. The cast also includes Emma Dunn (Life With Father), Queenie Leonard (The Narrow Margin) and Clyde Cook (Sergeant York) as Bates.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

While the ending is disappointing (the censors always spoiled the fun), Ladies in Retirement is an interesting and highly entertaining excursion into Victorian Gothic. Fans of Ida Lupino, in particular, don’t want to miss this odd and bleak little thriller. Remade in 1969 as The Mad Room. B&W, 91 minutes, Not Rated.

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