The Lady of That Lady in Ermine (1948), the final film from legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, may be 300 years old at the start of movie but she looks remarkably alive in the painting that dominates the castle at the center of the story. In fact, she’s downright restless as she smiles at observers and steps out to confer and sing with the subjects of the paintings around her. She is Francesca, played with a gusto more American than continental by Betty Grable, and she is a national hero in the adorable (and completely fictional) little Principality of Bergamo for saving castle and country from invaders in the 16th century. Grable also plays the beautiful Countess Angelina, Francesca’s descendant, who faces another invasion on her wedding day. With the future of Bergamo at stake, the spirit of Francesca is roused from the painting to once again make the ultimate sacrifice and save her kingdom and castle through romance and song.
Ernst Lubitsch was a living legend when he embarked on That Lady in Ermine in 1947. He had directed some of the most elegant and beloved comedies in the American cinema, from Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933) to The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Ninotchka (1939), and had even run Paramount Studio for a year. His distinctive mix of sophisticated comedy, slapstick, sexiness and innuendo was branded “the Lubitsch touch” throughout the industry. He brought that quality to That Lady in Ermine, a lightweight musical romance based on an operetta with an old Europe setting and a dramatis personae filled with witty royals, handsome soldiers, and wily servants.
Lubitsch first started developing an adaptation in 1943 as a vehicle for Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. By 1947, 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck thought the story would be a fine way to relaunch Betty Grable, a light musical comedienne and all-American girl famed for her million dollar legs, in a more sophisticated role. Grable was the studio’s top box-office draw and Zanuck thought that working with a director of Lubitsch’s caliber would add prestige to her popularity. He promoted the project to a lavish Technicolor production and gave Lubitsch the biggest budget of his career.
Plays on Friday, December 28 on TCM