Mademoiselle Fifi
Mademoiselle Fifi

MADEMOISELLE FIFI, Wise's second film working as director with producer Val Lewton, provided a great challenge for the new director: creating a period film on a small budget.

Mademoiselle Fifi

Kurt Kreuger and Simone Simon

The film, an historical drama set during the Franco-Prussian war of the late 19th century, was based on the short stories "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant. Lewton, who was trying to develop his reputation outside of the horror genre, offered some useful advice for developing the feel and look of the picture:

"When doing a period film, he [Lewton] would go back to the artists of the time and get prints of their key works to use as a direction in terms of composition, lighting, sets, costumes, and character types. When I did MADEMOISELLE FIFI, he said, "We must get Daumier prints."*

Well-executed sets and costumes did not make the movie fare well at the box office, however. Negative audience reaction during previews of the film seemed to be indicative of the wider theater-going public: at a time when the U.S. was fighting the Germans, the film's ending was seen as a surrender to the Prussians.

Synopsis In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, the little French village of Cleresville is occupied by Prussian invaders.  In defiance of the ruthless German officer Lt. Van Eyrick, known as Fifi because he proclaims the town to be his "Fifidom," the curé of Cleresville refuses to ring the church bell. Meanwhile, in the town of Rouen, the young priest who is to replace the retiring curé prays at the tomb of Joan of Arc and then boards the coach bound for Cleresville. Among his fellow passengers are the Count and Countess de Breville; a wine wholesaler and his wife; a merchant and his wife; the outspoken liberal Jean Cornudet and Elizabeth Rousset, a poor laundress returning home to Cleresville.  On the long cold journey through the barren French countryside, Cornudet denounces the bourgeoise among the passengers as corrupt and self-serving.  Although Elizabeth has been snubbed by the others, she offers to share her hamper of food with them and later voices her defiance of the Prussian occupiers. When the coach stops at an inn for the night, Van Eyrick, a guest at the inn, demands to speak to Elizabeth.  She returns from her interview flustered, and the next morning, Van Eyrick refuses to allow the coach to continue unless Elizabeth agrees to dine with him.  When Elizabeth refuses to eat with her enemies, her fellow travelers applaud her patriotism. As the next day dawns, however, they grow impatient and denounce her scruples.  When Cordunet, who has expressed his admiration for Elizabeth, concurs with the others, she relents and agrees to dine with Van Eyrick.   In a private dining room upstairs, Van Eyrick tries to humiliate Elizabeth and break her spirit, while downstairs, the others celebrate.  The next morning, when Von Eyrick announces that he plans to ride the coach to Cleresville, the passengers welcome him and snub Elizabeth.  In Cleresville, Elizabeth, Van Eyrick and the priest leave the coach, and after the others begin to make snide comments about the laundress, Cornudet denounces them for betraying her and goes to beg her forgiveness. Although Elizabeth refuses his apology, her defiance has renewed his sense of patriotism, and he vows to defend the bell against the Prussian soldiers. Meanwhile, at the chateau, the bored Prussian officers decide to throw a party and send the corporal to town to find five beautiful girls to entertain them.  When the corporal states that the Prussians will take their business away from her aunt's laundry unless Elizabeth joins them, she has no choice but to attend the party.  Before the festivities begin, the Prussian captain decides to visit the church with his troops to ring the bell, but he is met by an armed Cordunet, who shoots him and runs away.  Learning that Elizabeth has gone to the chateau, Cordunet follows her there.  Meanwhile, at the party, Elizabeth is paired with the haughty Van Eyrick. Infuriated by his boasts of French cowardice, she stabs him and flees the chateau. When Cornudet pulls her into a passageway to protect her from the soldiers, her faith is restored by his newfound patriotism.  The two find refuge in the church, and when the Prussians order the bell to be rung at Van Eyrick's funeral, the priest agrees, knowing that Elizabeth has already struck the first blow for freedom by killing the Prussian officer.  As the bell peals, signaling an awakening of pride and resistance in the village, Cornudet leaves to join the resistance fighters.

From the AFI Catalog of Feature Films

Wise Facts
  • Captain Carl F. Cook, a German naval officer who served in World War I, acted as the film's technical advisor.
  • Snow scenes for the movie were shot in Big Bear, California.
  • Credits:69 min. RKO Radio Pictures; Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures;  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Val Lewton;  Screenplay by: Josef Mischel & Peter Ruric;  Edited by: J. R. Whittridge;  Director of Photography: Harry Wild;  Music by: Werner Heymann;  Production Design by: Albert S. D'Agostino & Walter E. Keller;  Sound by: Francis M. Sarver;  Gowns by: Edward Stevenson;  Make-up by: Mel Berns;  Hair by: Alice Monte.
    Simone Simon Cast  Simone Simon (A little laundress Elizabeth Rousset), John Emery (Jean Cornudet), Kurt Kreuger (Lt. von Eyrick called "Fifi"), Alan Napier (The Count de Breville), Helen Freeman (His Countess), Jason Robards (A wholesaler in wine), Norma Varden (His wife), Romaine Callender (A manufacturer), Fay Helm (His wife), Edmund Glover (A young priest), Charles Waldron (The curé of Cleresville), Mayo Newhall (M. Follenvie), Lillian Bronson (Mme. Follenvie), Alan Ward (Coach driver), Allan Lee (Coach driver), Daun Kennedy (Maid), William von Wymetal (Major), Max Willenz (Captain), Marc Cramer (Lieutenant), John Good (Fritz), Frank Mayo (Sergeant at inn), Margaret Landry (Eva), Rosemary LaPlanche (Blondini), Marie Lund (Helene), Margie Stewart (Pamela), Violet Wilson (Aunt Marie), Tom Burton (Ulhan), Steve Winston (Ulhan), Paul Marion (Devoir), Richard Drumm (German sentry), Victor Cutler (Soldier waiter), and Ed Allen.

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    1. Robert Wise On His Films, p. 68

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