Venus in Furs - That Lady in Ermine

This paper was presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference 2000 at the Congress Plaza Hotel, Chicago on March 11, 2000, as part of the panel I2: Giving Hollywood the Slip(page): The Carnivalesque in Musical Movies.

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There’s something carnivalesque about the very phenomenon of American movie stardom, with its odd fusions of contradictory character elements: and certainly there is something contradictory about Betty Grable’s comparatively long World War II reign as queen of Hollywood musicals. Grable’s stardom was built on a discourse of the domestic, the cherubic, but Grable could become threatening when her abundant physical energy took on a life of its own. Between sugar and threat, Grable paradoxically amalgamated a dangerous, raw energy with an image of the safe mainstream blonde. Her career charts an interesting course between the disparate poles of her attraction.

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Grable’s famous World War II pinup, her most widely circulated image, celebrates her body and its high voltage feminine energy, while, on the other hand, in her heyday, at least until 1948, her films tended to chastise the power of her flesh and teach her how to be a real (that is, constrained) woman. These enigmas form the context of the failure of That Lady in Ermine (Otto Preminger, 1948), the first of two Grable films that do narrate her authoritative body, as does the pin-up, as a force that she is entitled to use.

By and large, Grable’s star paradox played into a sadistic scenario. The paradigmatic Grable narrative is her 1943 film, Coney Island (Walter Lang), in which she plays Kate, the featured singer at a Coney Island night spot, who has made her name as a red hot mamma, giving all-out performances. The new director, Eddie (George Montgomery) demands that she strut her stuff differently, and be the cooing, sweet Betty that the movie audience is waiting to see. Oh, yes, she coos, that is better, after Eddie conflates sadism with therapy, stunning Kate into submission when he literally manacles her seconds before the curtain reveals her to the audience, forcing her to stand still. To keep Kate’s voice as muffled as her body, the orchestra has been given instructions to play down tempo. The scenario worked so well for her that it was recycled only seven years later in Wabash Avenue (Henry Koster, 1950). Grable’s reputation as a “normal” American girl tended to fuse gender business as usual with sadism.

Naturally, That Lady in Ermine, an exception to this pattern, was not a success. It was orphaned when Ernst Lubitsch, who developed it, died after only eight days of shooting it, then disowned by Otto Preminger, who finished directing it, as a hack job he never again wanted to discuss. When it failed to become the boost to her career that Grable needed in 1948, she disowned it too. And yet, there remains in That Lady in Ermine, despite the best efforts of the Production Code Administration to suppress it, that Lubitsch flavor – a reflexive, carnivalized, self-parodying use of Hollywood conventions in the service of the primary masochistic text, Venus in Furs, by Baron Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. This permitted Grable to take off the manacles and give us an alternate version of her synthesis of danger and reassurance.

In That Lady in Ermine, the all-American Grable is incongruously plugged into a Lubitchian Mittle-European duchy. Grable multiplies the misrule by playing a double role. She is both a 19th Century “sweet thing” named Angelina, Countess of the principality of Bergamo, and the dangerous Francesca, Angelina’s ancestor from the 16th Century. The movie weaves together the parallel stories of the two women. It’s a Bakhtinian carnival all the way with Safe Betty (Angelina) always somehow under the abiding influence of Unruly Betty (Francesca). The first frames of the movie track through the “Ancestors’ Gallery” in Angelina’s castle, full of historic paintings of men and women in appropriately gender defined clothing and postures. But in a gender reversal, it is Francesca, painted seductively in her ermine coat, and not the painted men in armor, who saved the castle three hundred years ago. And we are prepared for another such reversal. On this night, Francesca’s great, great, great granddaughter Angelina is poised to repeat Francesca’s triumph.

It is Sweet Angelina’s wedding night, but when she and her new husband, the Baron Mario (Cesar Romero) enter their bedroom after the vows have been exchanged, Mario has fears for his manhood. Mario is fresh from a traditional Bergamo wedding ritual, a sword ceremony in which Angelina wields the sword. Angelina remonstrates that he is the man in the family, when suddenly a horde of Hungarians, led by the infamous Colonel (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), attacks, and Mario leaves Angelina as the canons are roaring in the distance, protesting, just a little too much, that he’s only going so he can return with an army to save her. Hmmm. The segue sound cue of chiming cuckoo clocks does not bode well for Mario, nor does the segue back into the Ancestors’ Gallery where the painted Count Alberto comes to life and pathetically runs to his wife, Dynamic Francesca, to plead that she repeat her heroics, and she replies by singing a song about what she’ll do to the approaching Colonel which climaxes in her shouting repeatedly, “Let him come!”

The ensuing juxtaposition of the two stories is structured on the carnivalesque blurring of multiple boundaries in addition to those between male and female roles: boundaries between life and death, then and now, image and flesh, dream and reality, and it is full of the primary carnivalistic locations, doorways, dreams, and above all staircases. Into this carnivalized uproar, rides the Colonel–a manly man–as we see when he assumes absolute dictatorship over Angelina’s castle. Or tries to, for the minute the Colonel sees the painting of “The Lady in Ermine”, he is rocked by the 16th Century version of the Grable pin-up.

And when demure Angelina descends the stairs behind him as he stares at the painting of Francesca, she traps the Colonel between the twin images of a dangerous fur-covered nude and a Victorian ingenue, sporting the world’s biggest hoop-skirt. This is the Bergamo experience. This, of course, is also a reflexive spin on the Betty Grable experience. Grable’s Angelina maintains Grable’s status as the object of sadistic male impulses, but as Francesca she is also an unprecedented, for her, Hollywoodized embodiment of the Venus in Furs, goddess to the masochistic among us.

As That Lady in Ermine progresses, the Colonel’s sadistic behaviors yield to another scenario, one very close to Masoch’s “Venus,” which narrates an ambiguous love frenzy, with a scripted, costumed fantasy based on the male demand that his woman make him her slave, wielding a whip, clad only in luxuriant furs. The Masoch fantasy is basically carnivalistic in nature, with its shifting boundaries, its dangerous fun, its indeterminate tone of violence and play. The hero Severin initiates the script, but it is ultimately impossible to tell who is really in charge, as his abdication of control to his Venus is now another form of control, now a really horrifying experience of abjection. Finally, the situation becomes so amorphous that neither Severin nor his Venus know whether their relationship is based on passion or contempt, and it unravels, painfully, of course. The Masochian carnival contains its own self-destruct mechanism within it.

That Lady in Ermine remarkably preserves the ambiguity of the fantasy of the furred Venus. As Francesca, she turns the Colonel inside out, but, since conquest of him takes place almost entirely in his two dreams about her, there is a tantalizing indeterminacy about whether she has invaded his dreams or he has used her for his own fantasy purposes. His dreams reflect not only his fascination with the painting but also with the legend of how she seduced and, in an erotic moment, stabbed to death his predecessor as invader, a16th Century Duke of Ravenna (also played by Fairbanks in a flashback that he imagines). The first of these dreams takes place when Angelina fails to keep an appointment for an intimate dinner with the Colonel. He, then, drinks himself into a stupor and dreams that Francesca arrives in Angelina’s place, exchanging her furs for Angelina’s hoopskirts, but keeping her knife handy. All the boundaries give way in the dream as the two women and the two time periods are carnivalistically fused, and the erstwhile sadistic Colonel enjoys subjugation.

The dream sequence shows a tense but stimulated Colonel, slavishly obeying the whims of Francesca, fetchingly clad in a white and gold version of Angelina’s customary wardrobe. Gulping as Francesca fondles a large knife from a sumptuously heaped buffet table, the Colonel, nevertheless, enters into her embrace and is rewarded for his submissiveness as she flings the knife to stop time, rather than to end his life, by impaling the extremely phallic pendulum of the nearest clock. He then discovers that her patronage permits him the power to dance and sing, talents he has never previously explored, and in his exhilaration, he picks her up intending to carry her up the long, winding castle staircase toward untold erotic joys. However, as they reach the bottom of the staircase, Francesca pulls a switch and carries him up the stairs. As he grins with amazement and delight, the two leave the ground and go flying through the roof of the castle, in an obvious metaphor for an erotic rush.

The Colonel’s Masochian dream carnivalizes Grable, Fairbanks, and Hollywood. Grable is the one here who puts the lid on her hero’s all-out belting of a song. The Fairbanks action figure who usually jumps on tables to fight, here jumps on tables to dance; and the dream reflexively inverts the big scene in Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) when Gable establishes his macho image for all time by carrying Leigh up a big staircase. The film also ludically inverts Grable as a war icon, since Grable’s pin-up was supposed to send the soldiers happily onto the battlefield, and the painting of “The Lady in Ermine” removes the Colonel from the sphere of combat to seek gratification in willing the cruelty of that furry little Venus.

Of course this is Classical Hollywood. Not unexpectedly, the Masoch scenario is finally sentimentalized. Ultimately, it is not a self-defeating fantasy, but a bridge between the Colonel’s inner fascination with the idea of a powerful babe and the outer reality of Angelina’s successful conquest of him. In his second dream, the color palette is drained of the richness of the earlier dream, portending death. Instead of killing time with the knife, Francesca/Angelina kills him. However, the death in the scenario signals the death of the scenario. Once the Colonel has killed his masochistic dream, aggressive female sexuality becomes both available and productive. The real Angelina takes charge, annulling her unconsummated marriage to Mario, and corralling a priest who will permit them to finally end the delay of their gratification and stay within the parameters drawn by the Production Code Administration. The romanticized masochistic scenario proposes a thrilling collaboration between Safe and Dangerous Betty that permits Grable to ultimately step out of the dream as a power in her own right.

But, sugared over though it is, the Masochian scenario in That Lady in Ermine is unusual for Hollywood, and a real about-face for Grable. How was this highly unusual film permitted to come to the screen? I have not found any documentation on whether Lubitsch knew Masoch, though it is a good bet that he did. More important, I have found no documentation relative to which of the scenes were actually directed by Lubitsch or who was responsible for the differences between the realized film and the treatment in the Production Code Administration (PCA) files. What is most interesting about the documentation, however, is that it reveals that the finished film was much more intensely carnivalized than originally planned and closer to the Masoch, arguably because of the demands of the PCA. For example, in its attempt to defend its idea of the sanctity of marriage, the PCA insisted that it be clear that Angelina and Mario never slept together. Lubitsch had intended Angelina to be in a much more complex sexual situation. Yet because the PCA somehow did not feel the need to police Francesca’s story, Francesca’s double cuckolding of her husband was consequently spiced up in the film as Angelina was rendered less spicy. One of the touches added was Francesca/Angelina aggressively hoisting the Colonel through the ceiling in his dream; in the treatment, he was to carry her. Was this twist the response of a frustrated Lubitsch (or Preminger) that displaced onto Francesca the erotic playfulness that the PCA literalism crushed out of Angelina, in a kind of return of the repressed tropism?

Similarly, the treatment in the PCA files also makes it clear that Lubitsch, whose title for the film was originally This is the Moment, revised it to more pointedly focus the audience on Francesca’s body, arguably another compensation exacted by Lubitsch for giving up his original intention to tease the audience about Francesca’s nudity with many jokes and innuendos, which the PCA would not permit. Finally, the treatment calls for the film to end with Francesca removing her ermine, and draping “it over the screen in the painting background,…[revealing] what she wore in the Duke’s tent.” What that might have been is not directly stated in the treatment, and, in any case, the plan was dropped, probably on PCA demand though there is no memo to the effect; the film simply ends with the painting. Was this a defeat for free expression? Perhaps not. Given the flattening of the Venus in Furs scenario at the end of the film, perhaps the flattened image was an accidental aesthetic improvement on the original idea.

That Lady in Ermine is an interesting focal point for considering Grable’s star discourse. It is also a site for examining the complex negotiations between the repressive PCA, and the expansive impulses of the Hollywood creative community. But it is most sadly provocative for its damning portrait of the fate of the ludic impulse in the Hollywood of the late 40’s. In his failure to recognize the innovative approach of Lubitsch’s film, Otto Preminger is dismayingly literal and obtuse, to be expected considering how proud he was of defying the Production Code Administration in a pseudo-ludic, pseudo-subversive film The Moon is Blue (1953), a boring little comedy that has but a fraction of the subversiveness of That Lady in Ermine. In writing off the film, Betty Grable displays an unfortunate, if unsurprising, lack of introspection about her image. Preminger and Grable fit all too well the picture we have of a moment in the history of the American mass media when the direction of the movies was determined by a paucity of inventiveness and a reductive literality that passed itself off as social conscience. Hopefully, this critique makes some restitution.

About The Author

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, including The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch. For 26 years a Professor of film at New York University and Mercy College, she is now an Associate Editor for Cineaste.