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 housekeeper comes up with a devious plan to stay in the house, forever ever.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Ida Lupino’s compelling performance energizes this adaptation of Reginald Denham’s 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 the amoral housekeeper.

Adapted by Garrett Fort and Denham and directed by Charles Vidor (Gilda), Ladies in Retirement is somewhat too talky and stagy, but Lupino’s cunning performance and George Barnes’s (Alfred Hitchcock’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 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 René Clair’s And Then There Were None, is indeed despicable). That being said, the film remains strangely pro-women.

Lupino’s anti-heroine constantly does the wrong thing yet you can’t help but sympathize with her. That moral ambiguity makes Lupino’s character very interesting to modern eyes. Hayward is perfect as an odious heel, and Edith Barrett and Elsa Lanchester are appropriately dotty. The cast also includes Emma Dunn (Life With Father), and Queenie Leonard (The Narrow Margin).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

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

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