From The Vault: Ladies in Retirement (1941)


Directed by Charles Vidor  the man responsible for the eminent noir classic, Gilda 1946 and no relation to the more well know King Vidor. With a screenplay by Reginald Denham (The Mad Room 1969 a modern reworking of the same play, Suspense, Kraft Theater and Alfred Hitchock Presents)

The Mad Room 1969 a modern reworking of Denham’s Ladies in Retirement starring Shelley Winters and Stella Stevens.

Based on his play, and given a cast of intelligent performers like Ida Lupino, Elsa Lanchester, Isobel Elsom, Edith Barrett, Evelyn Keyes and Louis Hayward. 

The film is a suspenseful story with tremors of ethical dilemma, evocative of pity and encompassed by the moor like fog of madness and desperation.

Ida Lupino plays the reticent Ellen Creed, housekeeper to the colorful Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom) who has retired from the music hall stage. Ellen is the obsessive guardian of her two loosely screwed sisters Emily and Louisa portrayed deliciously vague sort of loony by Elsa Lanchester (Emily) and Edith Barrett (Louisa).

Ellen manipulates Leonora to allow her quirky siblings to come and visit, well aware that she has no intention of making it a temporary stay. Once Leonora realizes that the two are batty, she demands that they leave forcing Ellen to do the unthinkable, to not only murder her employer, but create a deceptive strategy that will allow the sisters to dwell in sanctuary at the cozy manor house by the moors.

Unfortunately, Ellen not only has the full time job of wrangling her nutty sisters, she becomes the target of her blackmailing nephew Albert Feather, played with a dash of charming malevolence by Louis Hayward. ( And Then There Were None 1945, Ruthless 1958, House By The River, Night Gallery: Certain Shadows on The Wall.)

The film is moody, macabre, theatrical, with a musty air of Gothic as Leonora’s remains lay hidden in the coal bin behind the bricks, near the grand piano where she once boisterously sang Tit -Willow from The Mikado

The atmosphere stays closed in, as all three sisters flit about exposing their disconnection to reality. Evelyn Keyes is Lucy the house maid who brings a bit of naivete to the atmosphere as she too falls prey to Albert the ‘charming rogue” who gets her to participate unwittingly in his ruthless scheme of blackmail.

A quiet and delicately creepy hybrid of the old dark house sub genre of horror, mixed with suspenseful psychological thriller as it whimsically touches on the subject of mental illness and the darker sides of human nature.
The brooding Lanchester and the chattering, guileless Barrett (I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship, Jane Eyre all 1943) are wonderful as the one who is intense and a compulsive collector, to the one who is as fay as an aged wood sprite, wide eyed and childlike.
In contrast to the flightiness of her two sisters, the tightly coiled Lupino is beautiful and menacing as she anguishes over the fate of the peculiar pair who act more like undisciplined children, and less the blatant lunatics.
It’s the subtle intrusions of reality that impinge on the character’s terminal state of fantasy,which brings out the self-centered, insulated psyches of the two sisters. This creates the environment of insanity, and while they cause the situation to ignite a criminal conspiracy because of their unchallenged instability they are essentially harmless ultimately exposing Ellen as the most dangerous and cunning in the family.

Albert charms his way into Leonora’s home and heart!

Louisa Creed: I hate the dark. It frightens me.
Sister Theresa: It shouldn’t, my dear. Don’t you believe we’re watched over?
Louisa Creed: Oh yes. But I’m never quite sure who’s watching us.

Ida Lupino on the set of Ladies in Retirement 1941

There are thousands of films as fabulous as this in my collection, this is just one of them!-MonsterGIrl

5 thoughts on “From The Vault: Ladies in Retirement (1941)

  1. Joey, by sheer happenstance, I happened to read two blogposts focusing on seriously unbalanced people, and I don’t mean acrobats! The first was LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN over at COMET OVER HOLLYWOOD, and the next was your brilliant review of LADIES IN RETIREMENT! (I’ve also known real people with serious issues, sadly, but I won’t bore you with the details.) Never saw THE MAD ROOM, but I saw most of LADIES…, and it was chilling and poignant, and so was your excellent review! Is the world trying to tell us something? Yeah, probably just “Wow, what gobsmackingly good suspense movies!” :-)

    P.S.: Maybe I’m getting addled, but I can’t seem to find the second half of your terrific CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE blogpost. Am I looking in the wrong place? Please let me know; thanks, pal!


      Dori I’ve got stories of madness in my life, even in my family. It inspires the sympathy in me. We’ll talk sometime and exchange horror stories. Thanks so much for the comment about Ladies in Retirement, It’s a special film and I’m such a fan of Lupino, Lanchester and Barrett. The Mad Room, is quite a more brutal and trashy version from the 70s. I love it especially because Shelley Winters is one of my favs…I was thinking of watching Leave Her To Heaven, isn’t it Gene Tierney who is bonkers in that? Saw it a long time ago. You also inspired me to watch Mirage which I’m gonna watch in the next few days….! Hope you’re doing well. It’s always great to see you here….! Pal Joey

  2. Dude I love your freaking blog ! I have to say……a cinephile pal turned me on to it and I am hooked to your posts. There is so much that is wonderful about it that I can’t even muster the words because I’m on the clock at work, but I would like to at some point :) Thank you !!

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