powered by AFI
Ladies in Retirement isn't the most exciting title a movie ever had, but don't let that fool you. There are plenty of dark doings in Charles Vidor's spooky 1941 melodrama, even if its payoffs seem too understated by the rollercoaster standards of today's thrillers.
The story takes place in a country house belonging to a retired music-hall actress named Leonora Fiske, who lives there with Ellen, her housekeeper, and Lucy, her maid. Lucy is a rural girl, but Ellen is a Londoner still adjusting to the quiet life in the hinterlands. And these hinterlands are really quiet: A house call by the local nuns is considered a major event, and everyone gets in a tizzy when Albert Feather, a rascally relative, drops by Miss Fiske's place to borrow a few quid.
Things get shaken up when Ellen receives a letter demanding that her two sisters, Emily and Louisa, be removed from the London house where they've been living, because their behavior has been too scandalous for decent folks to tolerate. Ellen pleads with Miss Fiske to let her eccentric sisters "visit" for a while, and when they arrive it's clear they aren't just eccentric, they're downright crazy. Emily is full of unfocused energy and fuzzy rebelliousness, while Louisa has the wandering mind of a backward child.
It's unlikely that prim and proper Miss Fiske will put up with these messy, chatty oddballs any better than their London landlords did. Sure enough, she soon announces that she's had enough chaos and confusion for one lifetime - among other offenses, the weird sisters have littered the house with dead birds and underbrush-and the visitors must immediately leave. Ellen is distraught, since Emily and Louisa will certainly be committed to a madhouse if they have no other place to live. Once again she argues with her employer, and this time the old lady not only stands firm but fires Ellen.
The next morning, Ellen gets her sisters out of the house and takes decisive action. [Spoiler Alert] As the haughty dowager plays Gilbert and Sullivan on her piano, the housekeeper creeps up and strangles her, then stashes her corpse in a bricked-up oven. And now the plot thickens rapidly. Albert returns, needing more than a few quid to escape an embezzlement charge, and asking uncomfortable questions about Miss Fiske's unexpected absence. Lucy the maid also starts wondering where the old lady might have gone, and--in a scene that anticipates Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) by almost twenty years - she puts on a wig and helps Albert scare Ellen into revealing the truth. Justice is served in the finale, which is happy for some characters, unhappy for others.
Ladies in Retirement belongs to the mini-genre of stories about seemingly dignified folks who cause undignified things like violence and death. The most famous of these is Joseph Kesselring's comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), about a journalist who discovers that his maiden aunts are serial killers; it was written for the stage in 1939 and filmed by Frank Capra in the same year Ladies in Retirement was made, although Capra's picture was held for release until the Broadway play closed in 1944, three years later.
Kesselring's comedy might have inspired Reginald Denham and Edward Percy when they wrote the stage version of Ladies in Retirement, which ran on Broadway for several months in 1940; and it may have been a continuing influence when Denham and Garrett Fort wrote the screenplay for Charles Vidor's film. The popularity of Arsenic and Old Lace could also explain why Columbia Pictures tried to market Ladies in Retirement as a madcap romp rather than a madhouse-fearing melodrama. In its 1941 review of the movie, the New York Times described it as "an exercise in slowly accumulating terror," and then complained that "the producers have tried to create the impression that [it] is almost, though not quite, as hilarious as an Abbott and Costello comedy." This is a good reminder that misleading promotional blitzes are nothing new. Whatever else it may be, Ladies in Retirement is definitely not a laugh riot.
Charles Vidor was a less inventive filmmaker than his near-namesake, King Vidor, but he did direct the 1946 noir Gilda and a few other significant pictures. The low-key dramatic power of Ladies in Retirement comes mainly from George Barnes's moody camerawork and the solid acting of the principal cast. Top honors go to Ida Lupino, a bold and strong-minded actress who became a prolific film and TV director in her own right starting in the late 1940s. Although in the stage version Ellen was sixty years old, Vidor gambled that twenty-three-year-old Lupino could look forty with the right makeup and strong lighting to wash the softness from her face. It worked. Lupino seems almost ageless in the part, playing Ellen as a tightly coiled bundle of nerves, seething with determination beneath her generally calm appearance.
Elsa Lanchester, of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) fame, is memorable as Emily, the tempestuous sister. Vidor's then-lover Evelyn Keyes does well by Lucy, a secondary but important role. Isobel Elsom moved over from the stage production to reprise her portrayal of Miss Fiske, making the most of her image as an indomitable old dame. On the downside, Louis Hayward plays Albert Feather's roguishness too broadly, and Edith Barrett overdoes the eye-rolling innocence of Louisa, the childish sister. In all, though, they make a capable ensemble, moving with assurance through the creepy house outfitted by Lionel Banks and George Montgomery, who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction. So did Morris Stoloff and Ernst Toch for the music.
Seeing the picture today, it's hard to imagine how the Times reviewer could find it a "hair-raising" experience; modern moviegoers are more likely to agree with critic Pauline Kael, who said it "seems to take itself too seriously, as if it really were a psychological study." But watch it with the lights off and you're certain to find a chill or two.
Producer: Lester Cowan
Director: Charles Vidor
Screenplay: Garrett Fort and Reginald Denham, based on the play by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy
Cinematography: George Barnes
Film Editing: Al Clark
Production Design: David S. Hall
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: Ernst Toch
Music Director: M. W. Stoloff
Cast: Ida Lupino (Ellen Creed), Louis Hayward (Albert Feather), Evelyn Keyes (Lucy), Elsa Lanchester (Emily Creed), Edith Barrett (Louisa Creed), Isobel Elsom (Leonora Fiske), Emma Dunn (Sister Theresa), Clyde Cook (Bates), Queenie Leonard (Sister Agatha).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt