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.