Updated: 13 September, 1997
Veteran Hollywood craftsman who made a name for himself as editor of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Directorial debut with horror film The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Master of many genres: horror, SF, film noir, war film, musical.
Based on two short stories by French author Guy de Maupassant, "Boule de Suif" ("Ball of Fat" - the nickname given to an overweight prostitute) (1880) and "Mademoiselle Fifi" (1882) (the nickname of a Prussian officer in occupied France).
Maupassant wrote short stories in the 1880s to show how cowardly the majority of his compatriots were, how few were those who did resist, and how horrible war is. According to A. H. Wallace:
... many stories of Maupassant relate how an individual reacted against the (Prussian) conqueror in such a way as to show that it was not the conquered, but the conqueror who has been defeated...His characters smolder in silent shame or wrench themselves free of the tyrant's grasp by an act of defiance that would be labeled as either a foolish gesture or the product of madness by the more reasoning, philosophizing members of the society... Maupassant saw war as a death-dealer, not simply because combatants were killed by it, but because it killed the spirit of the people. The only heroic individuals for him in the France of the 1870s were those who were "unreasonable" enough or "mad" enough to refuse to be conquered. War indeed took its toll. More there were who preferred to "get along", to "rebuild", to "face facts" than there were who would defy the enemy. (Wallace, "Maupassant and the War," pp. 91-2)
John Ford also used "Boule de Suif" as the basis of his classic western Stagecoach (1939).
The film has two different titles - one based upon the short story of Maupassant, "Mademoiselle Fifi" (1882) which was the nickname of a Prussian officer in occupied France who tormented the female protagonist; the other "The Silent Bell" refers to the act of passive resistance to the occupying Prussians by the village priest who refused to ring the church bell until the first blow for France had been struck.
The overweight prostitute of the short story is magically transformed into a slim "little" laundress for the purposes of Hollywood's tribute to the French Resistance in 1944. They both share the same working class background, the heart of gold and a fervent patriotism which puts to shame the cynical and collaborationist members of the bourgeoisie with whom she shares a coach (and her food) crossing occupied France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The coach is held up at a village because she refuses to dine with (sleep with in the story) the Prussian officer (nicknamed Fifi by his men) because he is the "enemy". The upper class passengers exert pressure on her to "dine" with him so they can go about their business as soon as possible. The next day they refuse to speak with her as they resume their journey. When she reaches her destination she finds the laundry business where she works handles washing for the Prussians. Once again, she is asked to provide company for the Prussian officers occupying a chateau. Once again, she clashes with "Fifi". Her example gradually inspires others to resist the occupier.
Guy de Maupassant, Boule de Suif and Other Stories, trans. H.N.P. Sloman (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946).
Guy de Maupassant, The Necklace and Other Short Stories, (New York: Dover, 1992). "Mademoiselle Fifi"
A.H. Wallace, Guy de Maupassant (New York: Twayne, 1973).
1. The parallel between the Prussian invader of France in 1870 and the Nazi invader in 1940.
2. The problem of collaboration with and resistance to the occupier and the tensions this created in French society.
3. The message to American audiences that the French "really" are a nation of resisters, even though the majority of French men and women in the film are the opposite.
4. The statement at the beginning:
... based upon the patriotic stories of Guy de Maupassant...
1870. The Franco-Prussian War. Then as is our own time there was Occupied and Unoccupied Territory.
5. The courageous and heroic women in many of Maupassant's stories. "Fatso" inspires men to feats of bravery and resistance with her example.
6. The reference to Joan of Arc: the statute in Rouen shrouded during the war.