Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lost Ladies: Ladies in Retirement (1941)

An adaptation of a 1940 play, the 1941 film Ladies in Retirement is a grand old Victorian period crime thriller.  Victorian crime is all the rage eight now, so people should like this one.

Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino) gets some bad news 

Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino, much younger than the role calls for, but performing splendidly) is housekeeper-companion for Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom, who originated the part), a stage performer who made good on the favors of gentlemen friends and was able to retire to a charming (though lonely) house on the moors.

The two ladies get along, but Miss Creed gets troubling news when she learns that her eccentric sisters (Edith Barrett and Elsa Lanchester) are being thrown out of their London lodgings and will be institutionalized unless she takes charge of them.  Miss Creed, who will do anything for her sisters, prevails upon Miss Fiske to let her sisters come for a visit.  Miss Fisk acquiesces, and the sisters come--to stay.  After six weeks, Miss Fiske wants them out of her house.  What is Miss Creed to do?

Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters....
Elsa Lanchester, Ida Lupino, Edith Barrett

Also in the cast in Louis Hayward, as Albert Feather, Miss Creed's supposed nephew (he's a family connection of some sort, but they are not really related).  A charming rascal, he's not above a little embezzlement and larceny--and quite a lot of snooping.

Then there's also the not overly-bright maid, Lucy (Evelyn Keyes).  That rounds out the cast, barring a couple of nuns, who pop in every so often, and Bates, the dogcart driver.

I haven't even described the film up to the end of what would have been Act One in the play, but let me say I liked it a lot and don't want to spoil it for people.  It starts off rather like a comedy of manners, but soon turns grim.  Eventually a cat-and-mouse game develops between Ellen and Albert--but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Cat and Mouse (but which is which?)
Louis Hayward and Ida Lupino

I've always liked Ida Lupino, who had these darker depths that just made her perfect for crime films, especially film noir (I understand, incidentally, that she was the first woman to direct a film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, 1953).  She also starred with Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. She's excellent in Ladies in Retirement, bringing a lot of her characteristic intensity to the role.

Louis Hayward was rather a revelation.  I recalled that he played Philip Lombard in the first (and by far best) film adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but he didn't really stand out in that role for me, compared with some of the other actors in the film.

Here he really good as the scapegrace Albert, with his oily mannerisms and cocky grin.  I see he also was the first actor to play the Saint on film, something I would like to see.  Incidentally, Hayward and Lupino were married at the time they made this film together.

The two batty sisters of Edith Barrett and Elsa Lanchester are great too.  Lanchester is always grand to see, but I continue to be bowled over by Edith Barrett, who also played the terrified housekeeper-companion (what is it about housekeeper-companions?) in Strangers in the Night, which I reviewed here last month.  Whenever she's on the screen I find myself riveted to her performances.

I also liked Isobel Elsom as Miss Fiske.  In a lot of films of this sort, the mistress is portrayed as a harridan, but not here.  She has her imperfections, but he is basically a rather kind lady, with a certain charm.

Conscience is a troublesome thing....

The film received Oscar nominations for its art direction and score, both of which indeed are excellent. And there are some strikingly-filmed visuals that definitely enhance the suspense.

A definite winner if you like Victorian crime melodrama.


  1. I must find this film to watch! Thanks for sharing. I love old movies and have never heard of this one.

  2. This sounds splendid! I must try to find it, ideal watching for a lazy weekend afternoon.

  3. Always liked this film a lot for its peculiar atmosphere - great review Curt. Are the image grabs taken from the Sony MOD release? I have been debating whether to get it in fact ...

  4. I managed to see this last year in the Warner Archive DVD and thought it wonderful on so many levels, not the least of which is the splendid cast. This movie deserved a much better DVD release than the MOD treatment it got which is usually reserved for lesser B movies. BTW - those photos look like publicity stills not screen captures. Am I right?

  5. Oh, those are just stills. I thought the recording was quite excellent, however.

    Thanks for the comments. Those of you who haven't seen it, it's very enjoyable!

    1. Saw the film last night on YouTube. Not the first time. Superb. Great atmosphere and social nuances.

    2. Saw the film last night on YouTube. Not the first time. Superb. Great atmosphere and social nuances.

  6. It is available on dvd. Wonderful stuff.

  7. Yes, I really liked this one, great find!

  8. great film - tried researching the real life drama behind it - composer Arthur Sullivan had a reputation as a ladies Miss Fiske one of his exs?