In 1861, amidst the Italian principality of Bergamo, Countess Angelina (Betty Grable) has only just married Count Mario (Cesar Romero) when their kingdom is invaded by Hungarian hussars led by grim-faced, snarling Colonel Ladislas Karolyi Teglas (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). While Mario is forced to flee and reluctantly leave his bride behind, the Colonel grows enamoured with a portrait of Angelina’s ancestor, Countess Francesca (Grable again), her exact double. Known as “The Lady in Ermine” by locals, on account of the fur coat she wears in the portrait which the Colonel notes leaves her with conspicuously bare feet. Three hundred years ago, Francesca’s feminine wiles repelled another invasion force in identical circumstances. At night her ghost emerges from the portrait to haunt the Colonel’s dreams, while Angelina finds herself falling for the enemy.
One imagines Betty Grable was expecting something special when she signed up to work with Ernst Lubitsch, master of the sophisticated farce whose filmography included such polished gems as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939) and Heaven Can Wait (1943) to name but a few. Instead, That Lady in Ermine emerged the strangest and for the most part, misconceived of all the great man’s works. It was also his last as Lubitsch died of a heart attack after just eight days of shooting. Otto Preminger stepped up to complete the film, which must have been fun for the cast given his reputation as a ranting tyrant, although he gallantly insisted Lubitsch receive sole directorial credit in recognition of a departed master.
Based on the operetta “Die Frau im Hemelin” by Rudolph Schanzer and Ernst Welisch, That Lady in Ermine makes an ambitious attempt at combining the pageantry and romance of the costume drama with musical comedy featuring subversive wit and vaguely anti-war satire. While as meticulously crafted as anything else in Lubitsch’s considerable filmography, the mix never quite catches fire. Exhibiting the director’s usual sophisticated handling of sexual themes, the plot hinges on a typical Lubitsch conceit that feminine sensuality can quell even the most warlike temperament, implying that Francesca (who sings the notably bizarre “Ooh, What I’ll Do” the moment she lays eyes on Colonel Ladislas) repelled the invasion by sleeping with the enemy, hence those bare feet.
It is Beauty and the Beast fable at heart as love does indeed mellow into a much nicer person, with the oft-underrated Douglas Fairbanks Jr. giving a nicely judged performance. However, the concept stalls midway as the film lurches into straight romantic drama. The sexual politics prove more problematic than in past Lubitsch farces and the feel-good fadeout rings false. Grable looks ravishing in Technicolor as usual and certainly rose to the challenge of etching two distinctive personalities with gusto, yet remains irrefutably miscast. Aside from some amusing gags (notably Mario inflitrating the castle as an outrageously accented gypsy) and a certain magical frisson as the ancestral portraits come to life, the fantasy aspect seems heavy-handed and unecessary. There is however, one memorably strange sequence wherein Grable, clad in an amazingly voluminous dress, flies with Fairbanks in her arms right through the roof!