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 it’s 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 it’s 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 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. Where as 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 Rosiland Russell in mind for the starring role as 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 it’s collection of sparce 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 dream-scape 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, seem to constrain the borderline of the house. 

The actors are positioned as the primary focus on the screen back dropped 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 it’s 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 as 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, 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.

Continue reading “Ladies in Retirement (1941) Though this be madness”

Heroines & Scream Queens of Classic Horror: the 1940s! A very special Drive In Hall🎃ween treat!

Evelyn Ankers
promo shot for The Wolf Man- Evelyn Ankers

THE WOMEN OF CLASSIC HORROR: THE 1940S!

You could say that Evelyn Ankers is still the reigning queen of classical 1940s horror fare turned out by studios like RKO, Universal and Monogram. But there were a host of femme screamtales that populated the silver screen with their unique beauty, quirky style and/or set of lungs ready to wail, faint or generally add some great tone and tinge to the eerie atmosphere when ever the mad scientist or monster was afoot. Some were even monstrous themselves…

For this upcoming Halloween I thought I’d show just a little love to those fabulous ladies who forged a little niche for themselves as the earliest scream queens & screen icons.

ELSA LANCHESTER 1902-1986

I’m including Elsa Lanchester because any time I can talk about this deliriously delightful actress I’m gonna do it. Now I know she was the screaming hissing undead bride in the 30s but consider this… in the 40s she co-starred in two seminal thrillers that bordered on shear horror as Mrs Oates in The Spiral Staircase 1945 and a favorite of mine as one of Ida Lupino’s batty sisters Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941

I plan on venturing back to the pre-code thirties soon, so I’ll talk about The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter, Frances Dade (Dracula) and Kathleen Burke (Island of Lost Souls) Gloria Stuart and Fay Wray and so many more wonderful actresses of that golden era…

Elsa Lanchester in The Spiral Staircase
Elsa Lanchester as Mrs.Oates in director Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase 1945
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The Sisters Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941 starring Elsa Lanchester, Ida Lupino and the wonderful Edith Barrett (right)

ANNE NAGEL  1915-1956

Anne Nagel
the playfully pretty Anne Nagel
Anne Nagel & Lon Chaney Man Made Monster Promo photo
Anne Nagel & Lon Chaney Jr in a promo shot for Man Made Monster
Anne Nagel, Lon Chaney & Lionel Atwill Man Made Monster
Anne Nagel strapped to the slab and at the mercy of the ever mad Lionel Atwill. Here comes the glowing Lon Chaney Jr! in his electric rubber suit in Man Made Monster!

The depraved mad scientist Lionel Atwill working with electro biology pins gorgeous red headed Anne Nagel playing June Lawrence, to his operating slab in Man Made Monster 1941. Lon Chaney Jr. comes hulking in all aglow as the ‘Electrical Man’ which was his debut for Universal. He carries Anne Nagel through the countryside all lit up like a lightning bug in rubber armor. Man Made Monster isn’t the only horror shocker that she displayed her tresses & distresses. She also played a night club singer named Sunny Rogers also co-starring our other 40’s horror heroine icon Anne Gwynne in the Karloff/Lugosi pairing Black Friday in 1940.

She played the weeping Mrs.William Saunders, the wife of Lionel Atwill’s first victim in Mad Doctor of Market Street 1942. And then of course she played mad scientist Dr Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco’s) daughter Lenora in The Mad Monster 1942. Dr Cameron has succeeded with his serum in turning men into hairy wolf like neanderthal monsters whom he unleashes on the men who ruined his career.

Anne Nagel and Lionel Atwill Mad Doctor of Market Street
Anne Nagel and Lionel Atwill Mad Doctor of Market Street

Poor Anne had a very tragic life… Considered that sad girl who was always hysterical. Once Universal dropped her she fell into the Poverty Row limbo of bit parts. Her brief marriage to Ross Alexander ended when he shot himself in the barn in 1937, and Anne became a quiet alcoholic until her death from cancer in 1966

Anne Nagel Lon Chaney Lobby Card

Lon Chaney Jr and Anne Nagel Man Made Monster

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Dr Cameron’s daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) discovers the wolf-like man in his laboratory in The Mad Monster
Hairy beast The Mad Monster
Glenn Strange as Petro the Hairy man in The Mad Monster 1942

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1940 UNIVERSAL
the sultry Anne Nagel and Bela Lugosi in Black Friday 1940 photo courtesy Dr Macro

MARTHA VICKERS- 1925-1971

Martha Vickers
the beauty of Martha Vickers

Martha was in noir favorites The Big Sleep 1946 & Alimony 1949. This beauty played an uncredited Margareta ‘Vazec’s Daughter’along side Ilona Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein and the marvelous older beauty Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy! in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 1943. Then she played heroine Dorothy Coleman in Captive Wild Woman 1943 and Miss McLean in The Mummy’s Ghost 1944.

Originally Martha MacVickar she started modeling for photographer William Mortenson.David O Selznick contracted the starlet but Universal took over and put in her bit parts as the victim in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and in other ‘B’ guilty pleasures like Captive Wild Woman & The Mummy’s Ghost. She was also the pin-up girl for WWII magazines.

Martha also starred in other noir features such as Ruthless 1948 and The Big Bluff 1955. She was Mickey Rooney’s third wife.

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Martha Vickers and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep photo courtesy of Dr Macro
Martha Vickers and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the wolf man
Martha Vickers and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Martha Vickers and John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman
Martha Vickers and John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman
Martha VIckers
I just can’t resist Vicker’s sex appeal here she is again… Wow!

JANICE LOGAN 1915-1965

Though Logan made very few films including Opened By Mistake 1940, her contribution to women who kick-ass in horror films and don’t shrink like violets when there’s a big bald baddie coming after you with a net and a bottle of chloroform, makes you a pretty fierce contender even if you are only 7 inches tall! As Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), Logan held it all together while the men were scattering like mice from the menacing google eyed Dr. Cyclops played superbly by Albert Dekker.

FAY HELM  1909-2003

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Fay Helm as Nurse Strand with John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman

Fay Helm played Ann Terry in one of my favorite unsung noir/thriller gems Phantom Lady 1944 where it was all about the ‘hat’ and she co-starred as Nurse Strand along side John Carradine in Captive Wild Woman. Fay played Mrs. Duval in the Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death with Lon Chaney Jr. 1943

Ella Raines and Fay Helm in Phantom Lady
Ella Raines and Fay Helm in Phantom Lady

Fay Helm plays Jenny Williams in Curt Siodmak’s timeless story directed by George Waggner for Universal and starring son of a thousand faces Lon Chaney Jr in his most iconic role Larry Talbot as The Wolf Man 1941

Fay as Jenny Williams: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Fay was in Night Monster 1942. Directed by Ford Beebe the film starred Bela Lugosi as a butler to Lionel Atwill a pompous doctor who falls prey to frighting nocturnal visitations. I particularly love the atmosphere of this little chiller with it’s swampy surroundings and it’s metaphysical storyline.

Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey) a psychologist is called to the mysterious Ingston Mansion, to evaluate the sanity of Margaret Ingston, played by our horror heroine Fay Helm daughter of Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) a recluse who invites the doctors to his eerie mansion who left him in a wheelchair.

Fay gives a terrific performance surrounded by all the ghoulish goings on! She went on to co-star with Bela Lugosi and Jack Haley in the screwball scary comedy One Body Too Many (1944)

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Night Monster
Fay Helm in Night Monster
Fay Helm with Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man
Fay Helm with Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man

LOUISE CURRIE 1913-2013

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Louise Currie and Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man

Ape Man Bela and Louise Currie

Ape Man and Louise stairs

Bela Lugosi as half ape half man, really needed a shave badly in The Ape Man 1943, and Louise Currie and her wonder whip might have been the gorgeous blonde dish to make him go for the Barbasol. One of the most delicious parts of the film was it’s racy climax as Emil Van Horn in a spectacle of a gorilla suit rankles the cage bars longing for Currie’s character, Billie Mason the tall blonde beauty. As Bela skulks around the laboratory and Currie snaps her whip in those high heels. The film’s heroine was a classy dame referred to as Monogram’s own Katharine Hepburn! She had a great affection for fellow actor Bela Lugosi and said that she enjoyed making Poverty Row films more than her bit part in Citizen Kane! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that she appeared in several serials, from both Universal & Republic like The Green Hornet and Captain Marvel.

Tom Weaver in his book Poverty Row HORRORS! described The Ape Man as “a Golden Turkey of the most beloved kind.”

Louise Currie followed up with another sensational title for Monogram as Stella Saunders in Voodoo Man 1944 which again features Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe who blends voodoo with hypnosis in an attempt to bring back his dead wife. The film also co-stars George Zucco as a voodoo high priest and the ubiquitous John Carradine as Toby a bongo playing half-wit “Don’t hurt her Grego, she’s a pretty one!”

Voodoo Man
Pat McKee as Grego, Louise Currie, John Carradine and Bela Lugosi in Monogram’s Voodoo Man 1944
Voodoo Man
the outrageous Voodoo Man 1944

Continue reading “Heroines & Scream Queens of Classic Horror: the 1940s! A very special Drive In Hall🎃ween treat!”

Twelve Neglected Characters from Classic Film.

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1) The tragically poetic Pete Krumbein in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley 1947 played by Ian Keith
Franzi
2) The flamboyant Franzi Kartos in Caught 1949 portrayed by Curt Bois ‘darling’
Fred Foss- The Dark Corner 949
3) Stauffer, alias Fred Foss in The Dark Corner 1946-played by the wonderful William Bendix in the white linen suit…
Jan Sterling in Women's Prison -Brenda
4) Good hearted kite hanger, Brenda Martin in Women’s Prison 1955 – the eternal pixie Jan Sterling
Brute Force Jeff Corey Freshman Stack
5) Jeff Corey, as the cringing, cowardly informer ‘Freshman’ Stack in Brute Force 1947
Granny Tucker
6) Beulah Bondi as spiittin’ Granny Tucker in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner 1945 ‘Ah shuckity’
Ma Stone- Jane Darwell, The Devil & Daniel Webster
7) Ma Stone in William Dieterle The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941– the grand Jane Darwell
Wills and Jewel talk at tea-Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte
8) Cecil Kellaway as Harry Wills and Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964
Elisha Cook Jr. Jazz wild drummer Cliff-phantom ladyjpg
9) Cliff the jazz sexed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944– the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr.
(Ladies in Retirement)
10) Quirky sisters Louisa and Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941Edith Barrett & Elsa Lanchester
11) The wonderful stoolie Mo whose saving for her headstone and plot out on Long Island played with that razor sharp wit of Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street (1953)
12) Jack Oakie as Slob in Jules Dassin’s realism masterpiece Thieves’ Highway (1949)

 

From The Vault: Ladies in Retirement (1941)

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