One of the few failures of Val Lewton’s RKO era, Mademoiselle Fifi is based on two Guy De Maupassant tales, with Boule de Suif being the main inspiration. This was his shot at breaking out of horror and RKO had suggested a period film with Erich von Stroheim directing and Simone Simon and George Sanders as the stars.
Instead, Robert Wise directed. He’d stepped in to work on scenes for The Magnificent Ambersons when Orson Welles was called to South America. Welles had been working on that film and It’s All True at the same time for RKO when he was personally asked by Nelson Rockefeller to make a film in Latin America as part of the wartime Good Neighbor Policy. But the story of how Welles’ films were taken from him is one for another time. Wise’s directing here — and taking over for Gunther von Fritsch on The Curse of the Cat People got him this job.
With just a $200,000 budget — low for a period costume picture — Lewton had Wise study the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Daumier and Detaille to bring out the details that they could in spite of the lack of funding. Some of the sets from The Hunchback of Notre Dame were used, but if you look closely, you can see that many of the sets are made from cardboard.
The story takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, though it’s obvious that the film is about World War II. Indeed, it was released on D-Day and would be the first film shown in France after the Allies liberated the country.
Mademoiselle Fifi refers to a Prussian officer (Kurt Krueger) who has taken over a village. When a stagecoach comes into town, they are all detained by the man, with the passengers pushing Elizabeth (Simon, who wore false breasts that for this film, calling them “her eyes,” yelling “Bring me my eyes!” before each scene) to give her body to the madman so that they can be free. She’s amused by the way that the passengers treat her, as they’d looked down on her as a woman of loose morals before, but now depended on that very same lack of modesty to save their lives. The truth is, she’s too loyal to France to allow any Prussian to invade her southern border.
While this was the worst Lewton would perform at the box office, he would soon release four more films for RKO — Youth Runs Wild, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam — before RKO head and Lewton supporter Charles Koerner died in 1946. Lewton himself would have a minor heart attack from the stress and leave the studio to work at Paramount and MGM. A failed attempt at starting an independent production company with former protégés Wise and Robson left Lewton in the cold after no one could agree on which production to start with, leading to him working at Universal and Columbia before two heart attacks would end Lewton’s life way too early at the age of 46.