(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Josef Mischel/ from the stories “Mademoiselle Fifi” and “Boule de Suif” by Guy de Maupassant; cinematographer: Harry Wild; editor: J.R. Whittredge; music: Werner Heymann; cast: Simone Simon (A Little Laundress), 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), Norma Varden (The Wholesaler’s Wife), Romaine Callender (A Manufacturer), Fay Helm (The Manufacturer’s Wife), Edmund Glover (A Young Priest), Charles Waldron (The Curé of Cleresville); Runtime: 69; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO; 1944)
“My hat is off to the filmmakers who made this brave film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A prestigious and critically acclaimed by the best of the film critics RKO film for the notable creative producer Val Lewton; but it was not a commercial success. Screenwriters Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric based it on two patriotic Guy De Maupassant tales, Mademoiselle Fifi” and “Boule de Suif.” Robert Wise (“The Day The Earth Stood Still”/West Side Story”/”The Haunting”), in his first solo directing effort, does an elegant but still too much of a stodgy job directing this obvious allegory that compares the occupation of France during the Franco-Prussian war with the current German occupation during WWII.
Lewton and Wise shot Mademoiselle Fifi in 22 days on a shoestring budget of $200,000 — a record low for an American big studio feature costume picture. They were able to make use of a large studio set left over from the 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and then improvised other scenes with cardboard sets.
In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, the French village of Cleresville is occupied by the harsh Prussian invaders. In defiance of the ruthless German officer Lt. von Eyrick (Kurt Kreuger), known by the nickname of Fifi for his habit of saying “Fi, fi donc!”, the elderly curé of Cleresville (Charles Waldron) as a patriotic gesture refuses to ring the church bell.
Meanwhile, in the town of Rouen, a stagecoach leaves for Cleresville with the young priest (Edmund Glover) who is to replace the retiring curé, the Count and Countess de Breville (Alan Napier & Helen Freeman), a wine wholesaler and his wife (Jason Robards & Norma Varden), a merchant and his wife (Romaine Callender & Fay Helm), the outspoken liberal but cowardly Jean Cornudet (John Emery) and Elizabeth Rousset (Simone Simon), the feisty poor but patriotic laundress returning home to Cleresville. The rich businessmen aristocrats are all hypocritical turncoats who have done business with the Prussians and now after making bargains with the Germans are fleeing for safety to England. Elizabeth is snubbed by fellow passengers for her low social standing and patriotic convictions. When the attractive woman is approached by the Prussians she declines Fifi’s advances at first, but is persuaded by her stagecoach companions to sacrifice her principles so the travel ban imposed by the Prussians can be lifted for them to move on. The group gets what they want, but show no respect for Elizabeth when she does so only to please them. But she will only be pushed so far, however, and when she eventually takes a stand against her oppressor, it’s a courageous one that leads to a stirring ending.
This story inspired many films, including John Ford’s Stagecoach. There’s a strong artistic quality this pic has that exhibits a contempt for wartime collaborators (which could also be read to mean that the artists who make films don’t bow to the bosses who are only interested in making money pics), especially from among the middle-class, and reveals how easily they were compromised and lacked the courage to carry out the patriotic convictions they falsely professed. My hat is off to the filmmakers who made this brave film, one of the few films (if any, at the time), that exposed how cowardly were the wartime collaborators.
REVIEWED ON 1/15/2008 GRADE: B