Cast & Crew
When housekeeper Ellen Creed receives a letter demanding the immediate removal of her two mentally deranged sisters from the house where they have been living, she asks her employer, retired actress Leonora Fiske, to allow the two to visit her at Miss Fiske's house, which is located in the marshes of an estuary of the Thames river. After Miss Fiske consents, Ellen travels to London to fetch her sisters. In her absence, a rogue named Albert Feather comes to the house, looking for his aunt Ellen. Informed by Miss Fiske that Ellen is in London, Albert divulges that he desperately needs twelve pounds to replace funds he embezzled from the bank where he is employed. Albert's tale strikes a chord of nostaglia in Miss Fiske, and she unlocks her oven, which now serves as her safe, and hands the money to him. Albert then departs, and several days later, Ellen arrives with her sisters: the fractious and defiant Emily and the simpleton Louisa. Six weeks later, Miss Fiske, exasperated by the chaos and disorder that Emily and Louisa have wrought upon her home, asks Ellen to send them away. When Ellen begins to argue with her employer, Miss Fiske fires her and orders her to leave immediately with her sisters. Later, Ellen apologizes to Miss Fiske and begs her to relent, claiming that Emily and Louisa will be institutionalized unless she cares for them. When Miss Fiske turns a deaf ear to her pleas, Ellen tells her sisters that Miss Fiske has agreed to sell her the house and is going away and then sends them out for a picnic. As Miss Fiske sits alone at her piano playing her favorite tune, "Tit Willow," Ellen sneaks up from behind and strangles her. Some days later, two nuns from the local priory visit the house to borrow some oil, and Ellen tells them that Miss Fiske is away on an extended voyage. Ellen then sends Lucy, the maid, to the shed to retrieve some oil, and there, Lucy finds Albert hiding. After ascertaining from Lucy that Ellen, who has never met him, is unaware of his previous visit, Albert knocks on the front door and introduces himself. When Ellen tells him that Miss Fiske is traveling, he confides that he is wanted by the police for embezzlement. Ellen agrees to let him stay at the house until she can arrange for his passage out of the country. After everyone has gone to bed that night, Albert picks the lock of the oven-safe and discovers that it has been bricked up. The next day, Albert tries to seduce Lucy as she cleans Miss Fiske's room, and when Lucy resists him, she knocks over a case containing Miss Fiske's best wig, causing them to wonder why she would leave it behind. Albert's puzzlement deepens the next day when Emily blurts out that Miss Fiske sold the house to Ellen, and later, the nuns visit and comment that Miss Fiske never mentioned that she was leaving. His curiosity piqued, Albert opens a letter addressed to Miss Fiske and learns that the bank is questioning the signature on her recently cashed checks. Becoming suspicious, Albert studies Ellen's expression as she opens the letter from the bank. After urgently penning a response, Ellen hurries off to post her letter and Albert uses a mirror to read her reply on the ink blotter. Upon discovering that Ellen has signed her reply "Leonora Fiske," Albert realizes that Ellen has been impersonating Miss Fiske and deduces that she has killed her. Enlisting Lucy in a scheme to blackmail Ellen, Albert begins to dismantle the bricks in the oven. That night, Ellen demands that Albert leave the house by morning because Miss Fiske is coming home. In response, Albert taps his pipe on the oven and says that he dreamt that Miss Fiske was dead. As Ellen tosses in her bed later that night, she hears "Tit Willow" being played and slinks down the stairs to see a strange woman seated at the piano. Although it is only Lucy wearing a wig, Ellen screams and faints. The next day, Albert forces the tormented Ellen to confess her crime and then demands money for his silence. At that moment, the nuns knock at the door to warn Ellen that the police are in the vicinity searching for her nephew. Overhearing their conversation, Albert flees, and Lucy, finally realizing the depravity surrounding her, screams and runs away. Soon after, Emily and Louisa report seeing Albert being led away by some men. Deciding to turn herself in to the police, Ellen kisses her sisters goodbye and disappears into the marsh.
William Gilbert S.
M. W. Stoloff
Best Art Direction
Ladies in Retirement
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
Ladies in Retirement
During the film's opening credits, the camera pans across a marsh, revealing tombstones with the cast members' names inscribed on them. According to pre-production news items in Hollywood Reporter, Lillian Gish, Judith Anderson, Pauline Lord, Laurette Taylor and Helen Chandler were all considered for the roles of the demented "Creed" sisters. An item in New York Times added that Rosalind Russell was also interested in playing one of the sisters. Although an April 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Michael Hogan was working on the film's screenplay, the extent of his contribution to the released film has not been determined. According to a news item in Hollywood Citizen-News, Gilbert Miller, the celebrated stage producer who owned the rights to the Reginald Denham-Edward Percy play, disdained the film business and refused to allow any of his plays to be made into motion pictures until he met Lester Cowan. Miller was so impressed by Cowan that he agreed to give him the motion picture rights to the play in exchange for an interest in the production and the position of co-producer. Isobel Elsom also portrayed "Mrs. Fiske" in the stage production. Ida Lupino, who was married at the time to her co-star Louis Hayward, was borrowed from Warner Bros. to appear in this production. According to Lupino's biography, the part of "Ellen Creed" was her favorite film role.
The picture received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Score. In 1969, Columbia remade the film as The Mad Room, directed by Bernard Girard and starring Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters. The 1951 NBC teleplay Ladies in Retirement, starring Lillian Gish, Una O'Connor and Betty Sinclair was also based on the Denham-Percy play, as was the 1954 Lux Video Theatre teleplay of the same name. The 1954 version was directed by Richard Goode and starred Claire Trevor, Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett, the latter two of whom reprised their screen roles.