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Robert Wise, the celebrated film editor (Citizen Kane , The Magnificent Ambersons ) who became an Oscar®-winning director (West Side Story , The Sound of Music ), began his directorial career by default when he replaced Gunther von Fritch on producer Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Wise's work on that RKO classic of low-budget fantasy, completed in 10 days, convinced Lewton to continue working with him as a director. Before moving on to more elaborate projects, Wise directed two more films for Lewton, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945).
Both films were made on shoestring budgets, with Lewton and Wise conjuring maximum atmosphere for minimum expenditure. While the chiller The Body Snatcher emerged as another classic of its genre, the straight drama Mademoiselle Fifi was not a commercial success and has fallen into relative obscurity, despite praise from influential critics of its day. "I don't know of any American film which has tried to say as much, as pointedly, about the performance of the middle class in war," James Agee wrote in The Nation. "There is a gallant, fervent quality about the whole picture, faults and all, which gives it a peculiar kind of life and likeableness, and which signifies that there is one group of men working in Hollywood who have neither lost nor taken care to conceal the purity of their hope and intentions."
Screenwriters Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric based their screenplay for Mademoiselle Fifi on two stories by Guy de Maupassant, "Boule de Suif" (which was the inspiration for several other films including John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach) and "Mademoiselle Fifi." Set in France during the Prussian occupation of 1870, the film draws strong parallels between that era and the Nazi invasion of the 1940s, admiring the simple people who remained faithful to their country's principles and censuring those who collaborated with the enemy for selfish reasons.
The French actress Simone Simon, noted for her starring roles in Lewton's Cat People films, plays Elizabeth Bousset, a young laundress who boards a coach bound from Rouen to her hometown of Cleresville. Snubbed by fellow passengers for her low social standing and patriotic convictions, Elizabeth is propositioned by a Prussian officer (Kurt Kreuger) nicknamed "Mademoiselle Fifi" by his fellow soldiers for his habit of saying "Fi, fi donc!" Elizabeth declines his advances at first, but is persuaded by her companions to sacrifice her principles for the sake of the group. She will only be pushed so far, however, and eventually takes a stand against her oppressor. Meanwhile, a newly arrived priest (Edmund Glover) has pledged to keep the local church's bell silent until the first blow for France's freedom has been struck. Elizabeth's courage leads to a stirring ending in which the bell rings out again. Fittingly, Mademoiselle Fifi was the first American film to be shown in France after the Normandy invasion.
Lewton and Wise shot Mademoiselle Fifi in 22 days on a budget of $200,000 -- a record low for an American studio sound feature for a costume picture. They were able to make use of a large studio set left over from 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but had meager means for other sets and were reduced in some instances to using cardboard cutouts. Even so, Lewton was able to employ his detailed knowledge of period styles, costumes, decor and military lore to expressive effect. With Wise he studied hundreds of paintings from the period by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Daumier and Detaille. "Because those were low-budget films, we had to stretch our imagination and get results without too much to work with," Wise said later. "How we staged them, how we lit them, how we placed our camera was to get strong, effective results without having the material at hand."
Simon, happy with her role and her co-workers, was in high spirits throughout filming. To provide the "oomph" that was expected of a sexy star, she wore false breasts for films and referred to them as "my eyes." It was reported that, just before each take, she would command with mock imperiousness, "Bring me my eyes!" Her performance in Mademoiselle Fifi is considered by some to be her best in an American film.
Producer: Val Lewton
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Josef Mischel, Peter Ruric, based on stories by Guy de Maupassant
Cinematography: Harry Wild
Film Editing: J.R. Whittredge
Original Music: Werner R. Heymann
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Cast: Simone Simon (Elizabeth Bousset), John Emery (Jean Cornudet), Kurt Kreuger (Lt. von Eyrick, called "Fifi"), Alan Napier (The Count de Breville), Helen Freeman (The Countess de Breville), Jason Robards, Sr. (A Wholesaler in Wines), Edmund Glover (A Young Priest).
by Roger Fristoe