Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941)

If Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) were a tragic drama instead of a screwball comedy, it might play out something like Ladies in Retirement (1941), in which a desperate young woman goes to extreme measures to protect her psychologically complicated sisters. We talk about insanity and mental health very differently today, as well we should, but the trope of the mad woman (or women) has a long history in literature and film, and in Ladies in Retirement we get a profoundly moving depiction of the type from both Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett, who play the two older sisters of Ida Lupino's grimly determined anti-heroine. Director Charles Vidor keeps the suspense brewing even though there's very little mystery about the story's central murder, while sharply defined performances from the stars and supporting cast members Louis Hayward, Evelyn Keyes, and Isobel Elsom draw us into multiple tangled webs of desire and deception.

Lupino leads the cast as paid companion Ellen Creed, who struggles to keep her difficult sisters out of an asylum or worse. Gentle Louisa (Edith Barrett) is a harmless chatterbox, but Emily (Elsa Lanchester) is prone to outbursts and mischief, and soon enough Ellen gets an eviction letter from the landlady in London where the two sisters have been living. Ellen deceives her wealthy employer, Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom), into letting the sisters stay with them in the country, but Leonora soon tires of the troublesome guests and insists that they depart. After Leonora mysteriously disappears for a sudden trip abroad, the sisters seem to be settling into the house for good, but the arrival of a charming, amoral cousin named Albert Feather (Louis Hayward) puts Ellen's schemes in danger.

Ladies in Retirement offers a feast of fascinating characters, with actors who know how to hold their own against scene stealers like Lanchester and Barrett. Both of those gifted character actors play their roles with sensitivity that tempers the more outlandish quirks of the sisters, and we sympathize with Ellen's desire to protect them. The aunts of Arsenic and Old Lace are comical figures, but Louisa and Emily grieve us because they cannot comprehend the tragedy of their situation or the despair to which they drive their devoted younger sister. Louis Hayward, who was married to Lupino when they made this picture, brings both menace and charisma to the cad Albert, although it's ironic that his romantic overtures in this story are directed at the gullible maid, Lucy (Evelyn Keyes), and never at Lupino's more skeptical protagonist. Isobel Elsom's temperamental Leonora is more like the sisters than she'd care to admit; it's easy to see why Ellen is so good at dealing with her but also pushed to the limit by having three difficult older women all making demands of her in one small house.

With its Victorian setting and Gothic mystery atmosphere, Ladies in Retirement might seem like a classic tale of suspense, and a very good one at that, but it's also a serious engagement of the limited options available to unmarried women and caregivers struggling with their dependents' mental instability. The Creed sisters have no brothers or husbands to support them in a deeply patriarchal society that also makes no provisions for the humane care of mentally ill people. Ellen is a woman with no good choices in front of her, and the film dares us to judge her harshly for the course of action she takes. Some of Ellen's problems are specific to the time and place of the story, but even today older, unmarried or widowed women are more likely to suffer poverty and become homeless or dependent on overstretched family members (also more likely to be women). As I watched the film, I couldn't help but think about this NPR piece from 2016 about older women who had lost their homes and were reduced to living in their cars. What would happen to Louisa and Emily today? What would Ellen be forced to do in order to care for them? These questions give Ladies in Retirement currency and encourage us to think very carefully about the bonds and boundaries of familial devotion. 

The inspiration for the original stage version of Ladies in Retirement was apparently the 19th century French murderer Euphrasie Mercier, whose brief history makes a great read for true crime fans. A 1969 remake called The Mad Room stars Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters, but it's a more typical horror film that adds extra murders and gore. For other intense performances from Ida Lupino, see They Drive by Night (1940), The Hard Way (1943), and Devotion (1946). Ladies in Retirement would be the last screen appearance of Louise Hayward before several years of service in the US Marine Corps during World War II. His marriage to Ida Lupino ended in 1945, the same year he returned to films with his role in And Then There Were None.