Ladies in Retirement (1941) Though this be madness

I am so thrilled to be joining CMBA’s Hidden Classics Blogathon! There are many great contributions this year–  so many unsung gems for the offering! Thank you CMBA for allowing me to share this little obscure suspense yarn with all of you!

The Great Broadway Melodrama Comes to Flaming Life on the Screen!

Ladies in Retirement, with its play-bound vibe and all its macabre thought processes, is directed by Charles Vidor who did not shy away from films that manifested a gutsy imagination. Vidor is known for films that bordered on the edge of their genres, such as the 1930s horror classic The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932, the sinister obscurity Double Door 1934, and the symbol of unforgettable film noirs like the tension-filled Blind Alley 1939 and the seductively arousing  Gilda 1946.

While it’s been referred to as film noir, I believe it meets the criteria of the 1940s suspense genre with a trace of — I don’t know — ‘Gothic melodrama noir’ for its use of light and shadow and familiar noir tropes like the focus on class, scandal (Fiske was a courtesan, Albert -thief and blackmailer, Ellen -murderess, Emily-dangerously unstable), and of course by the end fate steps in. In addition, there’s the use of noir iconography, with its visual interest in staircases.

It’s also an old-fashioned horror story– not vampires or ghouls– but the haunting feeling you’d get from fog-filled marshes off the Thames River, the tinny sound of a not quite tuned piano, a body behind the wall, or the disorder of insanity vs a murder of desperation and opportunity. Whereas with all of Val Lewton’s startling contributions, the “unspoken and the unseen were the true sources of dread.” (Judith Crist)

The lighting particularly accents the player’s expressions as they emerge from the dark edges around their form, with merely an aureole on their face or eyes– like a lit mask. This is truly effective in bringing out the intense concentration of Ida Lupino’s beautiful eyes and Ellen’s inner turmoil. The angles in the set up of the interior are odd and sharp, once again the source of light, Lupino’s face lit from underneath used to provoke the contrast between black and a deathly pale white.

Columbia Pictures studio purchased the rights to Denham and Percy’s story with Rosalind Russell in mind for the starring role of Ellen Creed. Russell was featured as the lead Olivia Grayne in another psychological thriller Night Must Fall in 1937. But, Ida Lupino, as always, was worthy of the role and had a remarkably innate grasp of a woman torn by her strong sense of preservation. She was also married to Louis Hayward at the time of filming.

Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60-minute radio adaptation of the movie on September 27, 1943 with Ida Lupino reprising her film role. According to contemporary articles in The Hollywood Reporter, Lillian GIsh Judith Anderson, Pauline Lord, Laurette Taylor and Helen Chandler were all considered for roles as one of the demented Creed sisters. 

Though the film is stage-bound, it preserves the feel of the original play and has a visual moodiness thanks to distinguished and skillful cinematographer George Barnes (Footlight Parade 1933, Marked Woman 1937, Rebecca 1940, Meet John Doe, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, Force of Evil 1948, The File on Thelma Jordan 1949, The War of the Worlds 1953). Barnes started as a still photographer which explains the aesthetic of framing scenes like an arrangement of still lifes. He was nominated 7 times, one for his work on Ladies in Retirement, with over 200 films to his credit, he was a hard-working cinematographer from 1935- 1949. 

Responsible for the art direction and interior design that won him an Academy Award is Lionel Banks (The Awful Truth 1937, Holiday 1938, Golden Boy 1939, His Gal Friday 1940, The Boogie Man Will Get You 1942, The Soul of a Monster 1944, Cry of the Werewolf 1944. He designed the South American set for Only Angels Have Wings 1939, and conjured up the turn of the century for the fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan 1941 and again for Charles Vidor’s lavish A Song to Remember 1945. Banks added to the stage play atmosphere of the film with its collection of sparse surreal, gnarled trees that look fake, fog-shrouded heaths, and a heaviness to the interior as a suffocatingly enclosed space. The entire exterior scenes have a look of unreality, the outside appears like a murky dreamscape with painted clouds floating in a painted sky, where there is no departure.

Filmed mostly as a set piece in the parlor of a slowly waning old house on the marshes of the Thames Estuary some ten miles to the east of Gravesend, in 1885. The shots are set up with odd angles and the shadows create a sense of confined spaces with unseen rooms and staircases that go nowhere. Barnes and Banks even made a low stone wall of the cottage, which seems to constrain the borderline of the house.

The actors are positioned as the primary focus on the screen backdropped by the scenery that hints only at the suggestion of dank marshes, melancholy trees, and craggy rocks surrounding the house. Much of the set pieces remind me strongly of an episode of Boris Karloff’s anthology series THRILLER, titled ‘THE LAST OF THE SOMMERVILLES’ released in 1961. Elements that are similar are the exterior shots that seem unreal, depicting an obscuring fog with fake trees and pale grays, with the interiors also as closed-in spaces of an antiquated house owned by an equally flitty old dowager (Martita Hunt) like Leonora, who preens and is prone to theatrics. She is taken care of by her dutiful companion played by Phyllis Thaxter who plans to murder the old gal. This perfectly macabre installment of the series happened to be directed by Ida Lupino! Perhaps she drew her inspiration from Ladies in Retirement. The art direction for that episode is done by Howard E Johnson, set by Julia Heron and John McCarthy Jr.

Martita Hunt and Phyllis Thaxter in The Last of the Summervilles 1961.

Ladies in Retirement flourishes from its tense and stodgy narrative more than the dark humor that Denham could have chosen. Unlike the brisk screwball comedy of Arsenic and Old Lace 1943, by director Frank Capra and screenwriter Julius Epstein which was also based on a play by Joseph Kesserling. That play inspired Denham and Percy to write their own story about a pair of eccentric older women.

The stage play in 1939 went on to receive rave reviews with 151 performances at the Henry Miller’s Theatre. The story was written by Reginald Denham who spent the main part of his career directing Broadway theater, and Edward Percy. The play starred Flora Robson in the role of Ellen. Director Bernard Girard’s psycho-sexual and often grotesque The Mad Room 1969 is a modern re-working of Denham and Percy’s play. The film stars Shelley Winters, and Stella Stevens with Michael Burns and Barbara Sammeth replacing the mentally ill Creed sisters. Denham also wrote the screenplay for the 1969 movie. He penned 2 episodes of Lux Video Theatre, ‘Help Wanted’ episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956, 4 episodes of Suspense 1949-1950-‘Help Wanted’, ‘The Suicide Club’, ‘Murder Through the Looking Glass’, and ‘Dead Ernest.’ Denham also directed films from 1934-1940.

Years ago, The Mad Room, was a hard film to track down, but I did manage to find a copy and add it to my library and have yet to write a post about it, but I want to, as it has always stuck with me as a strangely disturbing piece of work since I saw it’s theatrical release when I was just 8 years old. I cringed from its gory blood-smeared walls and severed body parts and Shelley Winter’s masterful way she chews up the screen with her ability to push the boundaries of performance conformity. The film possesses that queasy atmosphere that started to pop up at the end of the ’60s and led into the early 1970s within the subgenre of unsettling psychological horror. The Mad Room is more or less a modern Gothic exposition with a post-Hollywood veneer of dis-ease, sickly affluence, and a bourgeois preoccupation with self-indulgence. Now for me, it inspires a bloody sweet nostalgia and it is not surprising that it has its roots in the screenplay by Reginald Denham and Garrett Fort. But in the place of classical horror, there is no subtle hint of crimes, this time we see in vivid color the bodies hacked to death, and the insanity of two siblings more blatant.

Flora Robson as Ellen Creed and Isobel Elsom in the original stage production of Ladies in Retirement in 1940.

Isobel Elsom and Estelle Winwood sign a show bill for their play Ladies In Retirement.
Show Bill signed by: “Isobel Elsom” and “Estelle Winwood” Show Bill for Gilbert Miller’s production of Ladies in Retirement at Henry Miller’s Theatre, New York, beginning May 20, 1940. ISOBEL ELSOM was seen in 1928 in a revival of The Outsider, and in the two previous seasons had been prominently involved in The Ghost Train, The Mulberry Bush, People Don’t Do Such Things, The Silver Box and The Behavior of Mrs. Crane.

A bread oven as a stash for valuables or a secret tomb, a creepy blonde wig of curls, a dead crow, a spinet piano, the Mikado, an ink blotter as significant clue and some prying nuns, are some of the fundamental elements that are dramatic props for Ladies in Retirement.

Ida Lupino plays the pathologically protective sister Ellen Creed, a woman of obscure sorrows– a repressed spinster desperately embattled to keep her two batty sisters, Emily and Louisa, safe. Lupino was actually in her mid-twenties at the time, though the role was meant for a woman in her sixties. Ellen’s mannerism, starched and reserved is in sharp contrast to Miss Leonora Fiske’s (Isobel Elsom) theatricalism. The film even unfolds with the severity of Ellen’s expression, which speaks of hidden torments and dark thoughts, as misery washes over her face when she reads a letter, putting it out of sight in her apron. Ellen exudes hostility as she is bent on keeping her peculiar, unstable family together. In contrast to the flightiness of her two sisters, the tightly coiled Lupino is solitary beautiful, and menacing as she anguishes over the fate of the pair who act more like undisciplined children, and less the obvious brand of lunatics.

Ellen Creed: “Hell is like the kingdom of Heaven. It’s within.”

Claustrophobic, moody, macabre, and theatrical, with a musty air of the Gothic we’re left to wonder if Leonora’s remains lay hidden in the bake oven that has been bricked up by Ellen.

The film is a quiet and delicately creepy hybrid of the “old dark house” subgenre of horror, mixed with a suspenseful psychological thriller, whimsically touching on the subjects of mental illness and the darker sides of human nature. The subtle intrusions of reality impinge on the characters’ terminal state of fantasy, bringing out the self-centered, insulated psyches of the two sisters. This creates an environment of insanity, and while they 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.

It retains one of the original cast members from the Broadway play, Isobel Elsom, who revised her role as murder victim Leonora Fiske. Elsom’s flair is subtle and fabulous as the board-treading egotism of a cabaret hall singer from years gone by. Miss Leonora Fiske could have been perceived as a ridiculous peacock if a different actress were cast in the role. With Leonora’s flouncy self-absorbed little indulgences, her streak of cruelty, and her theatrical flightiness, she is still possessed of a forbidding determination to maintain her quaint lifestyle. And when considering the situation she was thrust into, one cannot blame her for being angered by Ellen’s scheme.

Elsa Lanchester whom I consider to be an off-beat actress, inhabits the belligerent and rebellious Emily perfectly. She glares and maintains her Stygian look with the exception of the apparent delight at Albert’s (Louis Hayward) presence in the house. Emily (Lanchester) an intense skeptic, and a compulsive collector of cat -o- nine tails, bullwhips, shells, and other fetishes, is the sinister sister, a figure of presentment in the narrative, an essence of foreboding in which the fate of the characters hang. Her intensity inspires fear with her voice that never loses its slack. Emily is portrayed with a deliciously vague sort of poisonous loony by Lanchester.

Louisa, played by actress Edith Barrett who had been married to Vincent Price and known for her roles in Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie 1943, Jane Eyre 1943, The Ghost Ship 1943, and Ruthless 1948 gave a perfect performance as a fragile, frightened and whimsical sylph with a screwy bird that looks like it’s just landed on Louisa’s hat. She has an innocence that is a stark difference from her deranged sister Emily, as fay as an aging wood sprite, wide-eyed and childlike with her periscope. Barrett’s doolally facial expressions lift her out of the darker narrative and bring a sense of harmless gentility.

Louis Hayward is in a role not dissimilar from other cads he’s portrayed (And Then There Were None 1945, Ruthless 1958, House By The River, Night Gallery: Certain Shadows on The Wall) and plays Ellen’s nephew Albert Feather. He brings his usual charming malevolence to the role. Albert is a crafty scoundrel who prowls around the house, hiding out from the police, looking for a few pounds to evade the police who are hunting him down because of money he stole from the teller’s drawer in the bank he works for. He shamelessly flirts with Lucy the maid.

Louis Hayward in House by the River (1950).

Leonora charmed by Albert’s suggestive playfulness reminds me of a similar dynamic between Robert Montgomery and Dame May Witty in Night Must Fall 1937, which was adapted to the screen from yet again another stage play written by Emlyn Williams. Like Hayward, Montgomery as Danny, too, casts a flirtatious spell on Witty, who is also a frivolous old lady mesmerized by a charming though psychotic young drifter. In the case of Albert Feather, he is just a cunning swindler with no morals, but no outward sign of being homicidal, yet he tolerates Ellen’s murderous side if he gains to score a few pounds.

For Albert’s purposes, he seduces Lucy, Leonora’s cheeky domestic played by Evelyn Keyes. Albert is cocky and swift with his sexual innuendo delivered with his cockney accent and very tricky smile, and Lucy becomes swayed and smitten with the cad. Keyes is at her best when she huffs around the bossy Leonora.

Character actor Queenie Leonard (And Then There Were None 1945, The Lodger 1944, My Name is Julia Ross 1945, The Locket 1946, The Narrow Margin 1952) and Emma Dunn are cast as Sister Agatha and Sister Theresa. Clyde Cook whose facial expressions are priceless, is cast as Bates.

There are tremors of an ethical dilemma, evocative of pity and mercy when considering that the sisters do not have other options for supporting themselves, and mental illness was something to be locked away out of sight. The simple thread of veracity is encompassed by the cloud of madness and desperation, enshrouded by the misty moors, and the imposing sky filled with oppressive clouds.

The cozy remote 1880s house is lit by candlelight and guarded by Ellen Creed, housekeeper and live-in companion to the stagy Leonora Fiske. Fiske, though retired as a chorine and music hall actress, still possesses her theatrical eccentricities and now lives in her cottage in the English countryside. She spends her sentimental days at her grand piano with an air of nostalgia,  singing Tit -Willow from The Mikado… “and I said to him Dicky bird why do you sing, Tit Willow, Tit Willow Tit Willow.”

Ellen’s peculiar sisters Emily and Louisa live in London. She receives a letter from their landlady threatening to call the police and have them sent away to an asylum, due to their queer, outlandish, and uncontrollable doings.

“The scandalous way they’re acting.”

Ellen is the obsessive guardian of the loosely screwed brooding Emily and the chattering, guileless Louisa.

Miss Leonora Fiske stuffs her face with juicy cherries as Ellen manipulates her into allowing her quirky siblings to come and visit for a few days, well aware that she has no intention of making it a temporary stay. She’s planning for it to become a permanent arrangement. Leonora now becomes obliged to open her home to the dotty pair.

Ellen will not allow her sisters to be institutionalized, but Leonora is unaware of just how much the sisters are nutty when she agrees to let them come. Bates arrives to take Ellen to the station.

While Ellen has gone off to pick up her sisters, Leonora sits at her piano playing the Mikado, a tintinnabulation of musical comedy rings out about the house, a snappy young stranger walks in singing along, Tit Willow. Startled, Leonora tells him to mind his manners. Albert Feather (Rose’s boy) tells her that he’s come from Grave’s End looking for his aunt Ellen, but Leonora informs him that she has gone off to London.

Ellen’s nephew Albert! “Her mother was my stepfather’s uncle’s second wife.”

He tells her he’s in need of 12 pounds because of a girl. “Are you engaged to her? “No! she’s an actress.” from a traveling theatre company – she was a cheat! He begins to play the piano and sing the Mikado for Leonora’s benefit. Lucy the maid comes in, she’s heard a young man’s voice, though all the men who come around she tells him, are old. When Leonora leaves the room, Albert asks Lucy for a kiss.

Albert Feather: “How about makin’ the most of a male fish now one has been washed up, ay? What about a smacker?”

Lucy: “No, you mustn’t! I don’t know you!”

Albert: “You don’t have to know people to kiss them.”

Lucy: “I do!”

Leonora comes back down the stairs in good humor, charmed by Albert’s enticements. She agrees to give him the money and allows him to see her hiding place in a small box hidden in the old bake oven. Albert quips about the oven, “proper tomb isn’t it” — shades of things to come.

AlbertDo I give you an IOU?”
Leonora “No thank you. This isn’t a loan. Shouldn’t like you to incur the remorse of not paying it back.”
Albert kisses her hand“You’re a daisy!”


Leonora tells him, “I suppose I owe it to you in a sense. Or to some other fool.” Albert makes her promise not to tell Ellen that he’s come around the place nor that he’s taken money from her.

Leonora informs Albert that Ellen has gone off to fetch the two sisters. He comments, “What, the dotty ones?… queer as mice in a cage… watched over like wayward babes.”

The set is surreal – as if the characters were dropped into an oil painting with a baleful tone.

Bates has picked up the Creed sisters in his carriage. Emily seems to hate everything, the ringing of church bells, the marsh grass, Catholics, and untidiness.

Louisa – “Isn’t it funny Ellen. You can’t see the wind, you can’t touch it. But it’s there.”
Ellen – “I think you’d better have this around you dear. (She puts a wrap around Louisa’s shoulders) it’s getting quite chilly.”
Emily “Listen, what’s that?”
Ellen- “those are the priory bells from over the marshes”
Emily- “oh, shan’t like that.”
Louisa leans over and tells Bates that Emily hates bells.
Emily adds, “especially church bells. Ding dong ding dong ding dong”
Louisa- “Aren’t the marshes pretty?”
Emily- “the grass is too long and untidy. If I had a knife and a bit of string I’d cut it and tie it up in bundles.”
Bates looks horrified Louisa asks Bates, “Are there any sheep here in the marshes?”
“Yes Miss”
Louisa “I think sheep are so clever to chew their cud the way they do. It’s fairly difficult. I’ve tried.”
Bates-“you oughta be a sailor Miss, they’re always chewing tobacco.”
Louisa- “The man I was to marry was a sailor. He gave me this.(She shows him her periscope) it’s all I have to remember him by. He was wrecked at sea. They were all drowned.(a dreamy smile washes over her)
Bates-“must have been a bit of sadness for you Miss.”
Louisa“Oh no, I’ve quite forgotten what he looked like.”
Emily“I saw a drowned man once. They took him out of the Thames. He was green.”
Louisa wide eyed like a little girl“Frogs. There must be lots of frogs. We used to have such fun with them at home. We used to put them on the dining room table, and make them jump in the marmalade pot.”

Ellen learns that their landlady used to harm them. Louisa- “Miss Fiske won’t beat us,” Ellen-“No one ever will again, I promise.”  Ellen instructs them not to talk with Leonora, assuring them that she won’t find out about their mental instability. Louisa- “How will she get to know us?”

Leonora to Lucy “Well they seem harmless.”

Ellen arrives with Emily and Louisa, Leonora is there to greet them. Louisa recoils from Leonora’s attempt at touching her hand, “I don’t like people to touch me.” Leonora is shocked that they seem to have brought everything with them, then Louisa tells her they had to when the police were called.

Emily “That smelly train was dirty”
Louisa remarks to Leonora FiskeShe’s always fussing about the dirt. I hope you keep things tidy here”
Emily “cleanliness is next to godliness. Don’t you agree?”
Leonora “Well I’m quite clean I believe. But I don’t know if I’m particularly godly.”
Louisa “Oh I thought you were a Roman. Isn’t that yours? (She points to the statue of Jesus)
EllenMiss Fiske is a Roman dear. And a very devoted one.”
Emily “father didn’t approve of Romans… (she turns and grumps) and neither do I.”

Louisa notices the beautiful furniture “It reminds me of our things before we lost all our money.” Ellen tells her “These are some of our things. Miss Fiske bought them at my curio shop.”

Later on, Ellen and Louisa talk under the twisted tree with an ashen-painted sky. Though Louisa seems airy, she knows that she doesn’t like Miss Fiske.

Louisa “I wish I were brave like Emily. I should like to take long walks too. And pick up things. Perhaps I shall be able to after I’ve stayed here longer.

Ellen looks so lovingly at her “I’m sure you will dear.”

Louisa “I shall be staying here shan’t I? You’re not planning on sending us away? Are you Ellen?”

Ellen “No dear, of course I’m not.”

Louisa “This is what you’ve always promised us. A little place in the country. Where we can always be safe.”

Ellen “Yes, it’s the one thing I’ve been working for. Ever since we had to give up the old house… Miss Fiske has been very kind to us.”

Louisa “Miss Fiske ( with a skeptical stare) May I tell you something Ellen? Just one of my secrets.”

Ellen “of course you may.”

Louisa “I don’t like Miss Fiske. Couldn’t we send her away. Then it would really be just the three of us.”

EllenBut I keep telling you Louisa, it’s her house.”

Louisa “Oh no, you’ll never make me believe that. All our lovely things are there. We’ll never have to go away, will we?”

Ellen “no darling I promised you. Never.” (It’s in this moment the idea forms)

Louisa “I think Miss Fiske wants us to go… both of us”

Two days have turned into six weeks and Leonora feels like she’s living in Piccadilly Circus. It isn’t long before they become unbearable to live with and a burden not only for her but for Lucy as well, messing up the house, wrecking Leonora’s beloved possessions, and giving her the jitters– possessions that once belonged to the Creed sisters.

Emily comes back from her walk on the moors and brings back an armful of her treasures, wood, and as Leonora puts it ‘ridiculous shells’ that scratch Leonora’s polished table. Leonora can be ‘tactless.’ 

Emily “They’re my treasures (the things she collects) We don’t understand expensive things, it’s so long since we’ve had any.”

Leonora is overwhelmed by how disruptive they have become and is done tolerating their presence in her house and demands that they leave. Leonora argues with Ellen, pointing out that two days have turned into six weeks. Once Leonora realizes that Ellen’s sisters are batty, she demands that they leave. But Ellen has no intention of making them leave. She’s been working to keep them safe since they had to give up their house and what was once theirs.

Leonora -“This is the last straw, you’ll drive me as crazy as yourselves!”

Louisa promises to polish every bit of furniture all through the winter, but Leonora tells her that she won’t be there through the winter. She insists she will because Ellen just promised her when they were out on the marshes. Ellen denies it in front of Leonora and sends them upstairs to their room.

Ellen and Leonora have a turbulent confrontation about compassion, entitlement, and classism, and why her sisters must remain together. She dreads that they will be sent to a mental institution for the remainder of their days if Leonora sends them away. Though Leonora has been put out by Ellen’s deception, she can be cruel.  “You mean to foist your wretched brood on me.”

Leonora “They are insane both of them.”
Ellen“Please don’t use that word again. Emily was right. But then people who have they want never seem to understand how much the smallest things mean to those who haven’t
Leonora “Oh really. I don’t think this calls for a sermon. I’ve been more than generous to you and your sisters”

Ellen“Well people have always been very generous to you Miss Fiske. My sisters and I have never had any friends to send us money.”
Leonora“Well that’s hardly my fault is it.”
Ellen“No but don’t you ever feel like you might have a responsibility to those less fortunate than you?”
Leonora“I don’t know what you’re talking about”
EllenLife hasn’t been very kind to us Miss Fiske. Every penny I’ve ever had, I’ve had to work for. Every penny. But at least we’ve had our self respect.
Leonora“How dare you!, How dare you criticize my life
Do you think I don’t envy women who have respectability, who have families who aren’t just forgotten and just pensioned off and then they’ve lost their stock and trade.” (
Was she also a courtesan? – this revealing comment might be hinting at it)
Ellen“well then you can’t blame me for fighting for my family”
Leonora“well that’s very admirable, but it’s your family and not mine. And let me tell you this. Your sisters insane or not have overstayed their welcome. I invited them here for two days they’ve stayed six weeks or perhaps you were planning to keep them here forever.”

Leonora “Ellen, you’re a hypocrite! You’re worse! You’re a cheat! You meant to foist your wretched brood upon me and bleed me white! And when I saw through your little scheme, you had the insolence to turn on me and abuse me! But you’ve chosen the wrong woman! You get those sisters of yours out of the house at once! And you take a month’s wages and go with them.”

Ellen contemplates the unthinkable, to not only murder her employer but to set in place a strategy that will allow the sisters to dwell in an untampered sanctuary at the cozy house on the marshes.

Later, she goes to Leonora’s bedroom and apologizes to her, telling her about the threatening letter that makes certain Emily and Louisa will be sent to an institution. Ellen promised to care for them in a way that won’t be a worry for Leonora and begs Leonora to let them stay. Ellen will set them up in the attic and will never have to see them. But Leonora tells Ellen that she wants all of them out tomorrow or she’ll send for the police.

Emily and Louisa hear the argument, but Ellen promises them that they will not be sent away. Emily calls Miss Fiske ‘wicked’. The sisters have also been talking about hidden places like Leonora’s bake oven that must hold her jewels and talk of dungeons and bats. Their imaginations are ripe with dreams and nightmares.

Within the dark shots of Lupino’s face, there is always a small focused light around her eyes, exposing her inner machinations.

The next day, Ellen sends the two of them out for the day, telling the sisters that she is going to talk with Leonora about buying the house. (The sisters always refer to Leonora as Miss Fiske.) What Ellen is really doing is planning to murder her. She makes the two of them take a sacred oath on the bible that they’ll never talk about the old gal again or that Leonora has sold the house to her. Emily intones in that coldly calm rudeness, “I won’t swear on the bible, it’s wicked.” but she agrees with a note of doubtfulness in her voice.

The lighting falls on Ellen’s eyes as she creeps up behind Leonora with the braided curtain pull. Leonora is pouring herself a glass of champagne and toasting, “To dear Emily and Louisa, may we never meet again.” She begins to play Tit Willow. Off-camera Ellen strangles Leonora in a chilling scene because its sobering simplicity is disquieting. It’s a little taste of Grand Guignol. We hear the impact of the falling body on the piano keys, it leaves the scene with a visual and audible dissonance.

A rainy night, Sister Agatha and Sister Theresa from the local church show up at the house during the storm, looking to borrow a can of paraffin. Louisa answers the door, they are making jam. The nuns address the sisters, “Good evening.” In her usual cynical style, Emily responds, “It isn’t a very good one is it.”

Ellen tells the visiting nuns, and Lucy that Leonora is traveling. Sister Agatha and Theresa who also refer to Leonora as Miss Fiske are very surprised that she has gone away without telling them, but Ellen assures them that she is off handling her affairs. 

Ellen sends Lucy to the shed to get the paraffin. There Lucy is surprised there by Albert, whom she shared a flirtation with the first time he was there. He trifles with her again and asks her to promise not to tell Ellen that he’s been there, or met her in the shed now. He tells her that he wants to come to the front door and Lucy should act as if she’s never met him before. Lucy giddy from his phony amorous ploy – agrees.

With the storm having put the lights out, Louisa tells Sister Theresa that she fears the darkness.

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.”

Emily, a suspicious sort is not quite sure that Ellen isn’t in league with the nuns. She’s been lighting Roman candles at the foot of the statue every night, Emily begins to grow agitated by Ellen’s behavior. The truth, she is feeling haunted by the guilt of what she has done.

Unfortunately, Ellen now has the full-time job of wrangling her nutty sisters, as the two of them flit about exposing their disconnection from reality.

The interruption of Albert complicates Ellen’s plan to protect Emily and Louisa, and she becomes the target of her blackmailing nephew. But the sisters love Albert’s presence, thinking he’s always saying ‘funny’ things. Even Emily who is always ill-tempered shows a certain amount of joy around him. Though Ellen is visibly uncomfortable having him around, the other two are excited to celebrate with beef, bread, and cheese. Albert offers to go down into the cellar to bring up some brandy, but Ellen insists on going down there herself, and he follows her. Curious about where the old girl is, he pushes Ellen on Leonora’s whereabouts. He grabs her.

Emily and Louisa want to stay and talk with Albert, but Ellen wants to send them up to bed, treating them like children. Albert wants them to stay and have a drink. Then Ellen discovers that Emily has snuffed out her candles. “Who put out these candles!?” Emily sly, “Must be the wind”, but Louisa says to herself enough to be heard, “It wasn’t.” Ellen with her guilty conscience lights them again.

Albert confesses to Ellen that he has stolen money from his register at the bank, helping himself to a salary he wasn’t entitled to. The police are after him, but no one knows that he has relations out on the marshes. He needs a place to hide, but she wants rid of him, so as not to draw attention to the police.

He needs money for his passage out of the country. She agrees to give him the money and tells Lucy he’ll be spending the night. Behind Ellen, he holds up his finger to his lips mouthing a ‘sssh’ reminding Lucy to play dumb about having met him before.

Evelyn Keyes brings a bit of naivete to the film as she too falls prey to Albert the ‘charming rogue” who gets her to participate unwittingly in his ruthless scheme of blackmail.

Ellen tells Albert there are worse things than stealing. He tells her, “Oh no there’s no blood on my hands. Putting people out takes real nerve.”

Ellen goes up to the bed, climbing the shadowy staircase, the camera superbly brings out the Gothic noir elements to the film/play.

Bates takes Ellen and Louisa to a church sermon, where Ellen becomes lost in thought once she hears, “The wicked flee, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” While out of the house, Albert and Lucy break into Leonora’s oven stash but they discover that it’s been bricked up by Ellen, then they go to Leonora’s room. The old gal’s favorite wig falls out of its hat box. Her best dresses remain in the closet, she would never have left for London without them.

Emily comes back from her walk on the marshes with an arm filled with bullwhips. Albert tries to flatter her by calling her Empress. There’s only one letter from the post today and it’s for Miss Fiske. But Emily breaks her silence willfully and tells Albert and Lucy that she isn’t coming back, Ellen’s bought the house, but it’s a secret, and when Emily and Louisa came back from their walk that day, the deal was done. Emily-“Ellen thinks she’s the clever one.” Albert-“No, not always.” Both Emily and Albert suspect the truth… that Miss Leonora Fiske is dead.

Sister Agatha and Sister Theresa return to bring back the heating oil and their rent to Miss Fiske. Before they leave, they mention that the Reverend Mother is hurt Miss Fiske didn’t tell her she would be away, considering they are good friends. Once gone, Albert and Lucy open up the letter and read it. It’s from the bank questioning the signature on the check sent on October 14th, three days ago, after Miss Fiske had supposedly left for London. Why did they send the reply to the house, with the check made payable to Ellen? They seal the letter back up, and Albert tells Lucy to keep her mouth shut about the matter.

Ellen and Louisa come back from the church where the minister had spoken about Hell and lost souls. “Hell is like the kingdom of Heaven. It’s within.”

Louisa says that the nuns don’t like them any more than Miss Fiske did. Albert asks Ellen about her lighting the candles, “When did she die? You don’t light candles for the living.”

Ellen tries to tell him that she’s been managing Leonora’s affairs. She frantically fixes the signatures. Albert starts whistling Tit Willow, which unnerves Ellen. She goes to post the response to the bank’s inquiry. He takes a mirror to the blotter and reads Ellen’s explanation for the difference in the signature, owing to a ‘sprained wrist.’ And she signed it Leonora Fiske. He says, “Pretending to be Miss Fiske and getting money on the strength of it.”

Now Albert is certain the old gal is not coming back. Why should Ellen reap all the benefit? Albert asks Lucy to help him blackmail Ellen. He kisses her to keep her mesmerized and willing to do anything for him. Next Albert tries to chisel the sealed-up brick behind the oven door. When Ellen returns from posting the letter, she realizes that he’s read the blotter. She’s packing him up tomorrow.

She goes up to say goodnight to her sisters, she asks if they’ve kept the secret about buying the house from Miss Fiske and if Albert has asked about her. Emily lies and says no, you made us swear on the bible.

Ellen tells Albert that he is to sail on the next boat to Canada, that it isn’t safe with Sister Theresa knowing that he’s there, and wants him out because she’s got the news that Miss Fiske is coming back. She will give him money to leave. He bangs on the oven door, which startles her. “Oh I forgot to tell you, Auntie, I had a funny dream last night. I dreamt Miss Fiske was dead.” The camera pulls in close on Ellen’s uneasy face.

That night while lying in bed, Albert sits at the piano and plays Tit Willow to drive Ellen mad. She heads downstairs — the shot is filmed in the darkest of shadows. Sitting at the piano, with only the back of her curly blonde wig and satiny house coat is Lucy impersonating Leonora. Ellen screams and faints, tortured by the weight of what she has done. Albert stands in the darkness, smiling. This is one of those scenes in a classic suspense thriller that puts me in mind of, a moment from Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) where the deceptive double evokes shock in Bette Davis2 and us both.

When Bates comes to drive Albert to the boat, he sends him away. Ellen comes down the stairs having seen the apparition the night before, she sits by the fire and sends Emily and Louisa out for a long walk. Albert says, “That’s a queer turn you had last night.” she asks him, “What’s Emily been telling you?”

She finally confesses to him about the murder, and in turn, he tells her about his crimes. He tells Ellen to treat him right and that he likes the idea of settling down there in peace like a contented family. Ellen tells him that she could always poison him.

Ellen Creed: “It takes a lot of courage to kill for the first time, Albert. Once you’ve sold your soul to the devil, murder is so much easier the second time. Much easier.”

Sister Agatha and Sister Theresa show up at the house again. Albert hides. The police have come to the priory because money has been stolen from the bank. They have figured out that Albert fits the description of the man they are looking for and they have come to warn Ellen. “People are easily lost,” she tells her and she understands that she’s had a heavy burden. “Many burdens.”

It’s clear that Sister Theresa suspects that Ellen has murdered Miss Fiske, and offers for her to come and seek out help from the church. But Ellen tells her that they are not of the same ‘faith’. Sister Theresa assures her that in God’s house, there’s room for all mansions. Ellen lets her know that the only ones who matter are Emily and Louisa. Lucy has been listening and runs from the house screaming.

Ellen gives Albert money and the ticket for his passage to Canada but he needs to dash before the police come looking for him there. He tells her that she should make a run for it too. “Do you know what they’ll do to you? So long Ellen, no hard feelings.”

Ellen resolves to her fate. The sisters come in giggling. “We just saw Albert. He’s been playing tag with some men. They caught him.”

Ellen kisses them both, and tells them in the form of a question, that they have been happy there. She puts on her hat and coat. They ask her if she’ll be back soon, she tells them that she doesn’t know and then walks off into the fog. Louisa tells her, “Don’t worry about us. We can take care of ourselves.”

Has Ellen planned for the security of her sisters? or does she know that the police will come and take them away?

My impression is that the question is left open to interpretation.

Lupino on the set of Ladies in Retirement


The New York Times `reviewed the film favorably, “For the film that opened yesterday at the Capitol is an exercise in slowly accumulating terror with all the psychological trappings of a Victorian thriller. It has been painstakingly done, beautifully photographed and tautly played, especially in its central role, and for the most part it catches all the script’s nuances of horror quite as effectively as did the original play version … Despite all its excellence, however, it must be added that Ladies in Retirement is a film for a proper and patient mood. It doesn’t race through its story; it builds its terror step by step.

Film critic Dennis Schwartz –“crime drama that’s based on the play by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy–which in turn was based upon the true story from 1886. It’s smartly and tautly co-written by Denham and Garrett Fort, while the ensemble cast all give striking performances … The 23-year-old Lupino played the 40-year-old sinister Ellen to ice cold perfection, with no small help from her make-up.

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying I’m not retiring from The Last Drive-In, so stick around and don’t go walking off into the fog!

10 thoughts on “Ladies in Retirement (1941) Though this be madness

  1. Ida Lupino, Evelyn Keyes and Elsa Lancaster – Wow! I have never seen this and now it’s at the top of the list. Great job, Jo!

  2. I’ve not heard of this film (or stage play), I’m embarrassed to say, but I am really looking forward to seeing it. Ida Lupino and Elsa Lancaster in the same film?! Sign me up!

    1. Hey Ruth, don’t be embarrassed it’s a pretty off the beaten path little suspense yarn that is very much like watching a stage play. The cast is terrific! You’re all signed up… Cheers Joey

  3. Great review! I loved that you highlighted the lighting in this film, the camera angles an brought so many quotes to enrich your review. In this movie, sometimes Ida Lupino reminded me of Lillian Gish, and the Gish aura certainly suited her character.

  4. Thank you Le! I’m so glad that you enjoyed the piece. It’s a film that has many notable elements, even as a stage play on film. It works. And yes! I do see the Gish-ness. Great observation. Thanks for that. I should add that and credit you for seeing it…. Cheers, Joey

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