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The Lady of That Lady in Ermine (1948), the final film from legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, may be 300 years old at the start of movie but she looks remarkably alive in the painting that dominates the castle at the center of the story. In fact, she's downright restless as she smiles at observers and steps out to confer and sing with the subjects of the paintings around her. She is Francesca, played with a gusto more American than continental by Betty Grable, and she is a national hero in the adorable (and completely fictional) little Principality of Bergamo for saving castle and country from invaders in the 16th century. Grable also plays the beautiful Countess Angelina, Francesca's descendant, who faces another invasion on her wedding day. With the future of Bergamo at stake, the spirit of Francesca is roused from the painting to once again make the ultimate sacrifice and save her kingdom and castle through romance and song.
Ernst Lubitsch was a living legend when he embarked on That Lady in Ermine in 1947. He had directed some of the most elegant and beloved comedies in the American cinema, from Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933) to The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Ninotchka (1939), and had even run Paramount Studio for a year. His distinctive mix of sophisticated comedy, slapstick, sexiness and innuendo was branded "the Lubitsch touch" throughout the industry. He brought that quality to That Lady in Ermine, a lightweight musical romance based on an operetta with an old Europe setting and a dramatis personae filled with witty royals, handsome soldiers, and wily servants.
Lubitsch first started developing an adaptation in 1943 as a vehicle for Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. By 1947, 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck thought the story would be a fine way to relaunch Betty Grable, a light musical comedienne and all-American girl famed for her million dollar legs, in a more sophisticated role. Grable was the studio's top box-office draw and Zanuck thought that working with a director of Lubitsch's caliber would add prestige to her popularity. He promoted the project to a lavish Technicolor production and gave Lubitsch the biggest budget of his career.
Zanuck wanted Cornel Wilde as her leading man but Lubitsch suggested instead the more dashing and witty Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the conquering Hungarian officer, who invades the little kingdom with his army on Francesca's wedding night. "If only I had known, I'd have delayed my invasion a few days," the proper, polite officer tells Francesca by way of apology. "Or at least a few hours." Cesar Romero completes the romantic triangle as the newlywed count who flees the invasion on his wedding night and sneaks back to the conquered castle disguised as a gypsy.
That Lady in Ermine was Lubitsch's first musical since The Merry Widow in 1934 and he threw himself into the project with renewed vigor. He coaxed longtime collaborator Samuel Raphaelson (screenwriter of Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner, among many others) to transform his treatment into a screenplay and he spent weeks in preproduction and rehearsals with the actors. Lubitsch even wrote lyrics to some of the songs. "He was tripping over himself with ideas," recalled Fairbanks in later years. "During rehearsal he'd laugh with pleasure and sometimes he'd even ruin his own takes. And yes, he loved acting all the parts; he was very good, actually."
Though he was animated on the set, in reality he was in poor health. He was recovering from multiple heart attacks and kept the studio in the dark about his medical conditions as he began production. Raphaelson later confessed that Lubitsch's lack of vitality was evident in their writing sessions. A few weeks into shooting, he suffered another heart attack and he died on November 30, 1947, at the age of 55.
Otto Preminger, who had directed A Royal Scandal (1945), a project developed and produced by Lubitsch, took charge of completing the film, much to the frustration of the cast, who disliked the cold, controlling replacement. In addition to shooting the remaining scenes, Preminger reshot some of Lubitsch's completed footage ("because it was too subtle," according to Fairbanks) and cut other scenes, including two musical numbers, but gave Lubitsch sole credit as director when the film was released in 1948. The box-office paled next to Grable's more profitable Americana musicals like Mother Wore Tights (1947) and When My Baby Smiles At Me (1948) but it received a glowing notice from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who called the film "a bright and beguiling swatch of nonsense cut straight from the rich, gold-braided cloth of best-grade Graustarkian romance and done in a nimble, playful style."
Lubitsch's funeral was a Hollywood event. Hollywood's biggest star, directors, and studio executives attended, many of them as honorary pallbearers, and in a scene that could have come from a Lubitsch film, ended with one of the great Hollywood stories of all time. As directors Billy Wilder and William Wyler walked to their cars after the graveside ceremony, Wilder sighed: "Well, no more Lubitsch." "Worse than that," responded Wyler. "No more Lubitsch films."
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch; Otto Preminger (uncredited)
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson (screenplay); Rudolph Schanzer, Ernst Welisch (operetta, uncredited)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Betty Grable (Francesca/Angelina), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Colonel Ladislas Karolyi Teglas/The Duke), Cesar Romero (Count Mario), Walter Abel (Major Horvath/Benvenuto), Reginald Gardiner (Alberto), Harry Davenport (Luigi), Virginia Campbell (Theresa), Whit Bissell (Giulio)
by Sean Axmaker
"Betty Grable Plays 'That Lady in Ermine,' Lubitsch's Last Picture, at the Roxy," Bowsley Crowther. The New York Times, August 25, 1948.
"Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise," Scott Eyman. Simon and Schuster, 1993.
"Ernst Lubitsch's American Comedy," William Paul. Columbia University Press, 1983.
"The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study," Herman G. Weinberg. Dover, 1977.