Ida Lupino (High Sierra) plays Ellen Creed, a former socialite who is now making ends meet as housekeeper to rich ex-actress Miss Fiske (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. Fiske demands that they all leave her home, and Ellen comes up with a devious plan to stay in the house, forever ever.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Lupino, who was at the peak of her Hollywood career, energizes this adaptation of Reginald Denham’s and Edward Percy’s popular stage play. Ladies in Retirement, adapted by Garrett Fort and Denham, and directed by Charles Vidor (Gilda), is somewhat too talky and stagy, but Lupino’s performance is outstanding, and George Barnes’s (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Spellbound) atmospheric camera work is rock-solid. The supporting cast is very good too.
Perhaps the film’s chief claim to fame is that it turns 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 particularly likable (well, the main male character, played by Lupino’s then husband Louis Hayward, star of And Then There Were None, is indeed despicable). It is, however, still strangely pro-women.
Lupino’s anti-heroine constantly does the wrong thing yet you can’t help but sympathize with her. We instinctively understand that sometimes women have to choose from a bouquet of bad choices. That moral ambiguity makes Lupino’s character very interesting to modern eyes. Hayward is perfect as an odious heel, and Barrett and Lanchester are appropriately dotty. The cast also includes Emma Dunn (Life With Father), Queenie Leonard (The Narrow Margin), and Clyde Cook (The Docks of New York).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The ending is disappointing — the censors always spoiled the fun — but Ladies in Retirement is an interesting and highly entertaining excursion into Victorian Gothic. Remade in 1969 as The Mad Room. B&W, 91 minutes, Not Rated.