Saturday, February 8, 2020

Paris Underground ( 1945 )

During World War II, it was difficult enough trying to aid one British airman in escaping Germany under the watchful eyes of the Nazis, but one woman not only managed to sneak one airman out of the country but 150 soldiers! This woman was Etta Shiber, a Manhattan housewife who adopted Paris, France, as her new homeland. 

In the spring of 1940, she was fleeing from her apartment in Paris, along with her friend Kitty and her two French poodles, in order to escape the Nazi invasion. As they were traveling south, they stopped at an inn where the innkeeper informed them that he had rescued a British airman and was hiding him. Etta and her friend decided to smuggle him across the border to safety in the trunk of their car. And then they were brave enough to remain in France and contact the "Paris underground" to see if there were any other airmen needing passage back to Britain. 

Etta and Kitty were both captured by the Nazis in December 1940, just six months after she began this rescue operation. Etta was freed in the spring of 1942 when the United States did a prisoner swap and exchanged her for Johanna Hofmann, a German who was convicted of spying in the States. 

One year later she wrote a novel about her experiences smuggling soldiers and titled it "Paris Underground". This novel was turned into the film Paris Underground, released in Britain as Madame Pimpernel.
The film, produced by Constance Bennett, switches the main character to Kitty ( portrayed by Ms. Bennett ) and makes Etta, renamed Emmie, a secondary character. This part was given to Gracie Fields, the wonderful English actress/singer. Together, they make quite a good team. 

Paris Underground was tautly directed by Gregory Ratoff ( All About Eve ) and features all the elements one would want to see in a World War II espionage film: underground agents, quaint "Parisian" settings, secret passageways, diabolical Gestapo men, and plenty of action. The film focuses on two smuggling missions that the gals undertake and then hastily skims over several months until we find them captured and put into prison. They are supposedly released together and honored with medals for their heroism, but in reality, Etta did not know whether Kitty was alive, even at the time of writing her novel. 

Dame Gracie Fields, lovingly called "Our Gracie" by the Brits, had a long career in film, stage, radio, and television. Paris Underground was her last picture before she retired to the Isle of Capri where she operated a restaurant. The film does not showcase Gracie at her best ( comedy was her forte ) but she does a marvelous job with the does Constance Bennett as Kitty. Also in the cast is George Rigaud as Kitty's husband, and Kurt Kreuger as the Nazi captain. Character parts were given to Eily Malyon, Vladimir Sokoloff, Andrew McLaglen, and Leslie Vincent ( who memorably played Dr. Watson's "nephew" Nicholas Watson in Pursuit to Algiers ). 


  1. Great review! It would be interesting to know why the focal point shifted from Etta to Kitty. It's very impressive that Constance Bennett produced it given how male-dominated Hollywood was in the 1940s. BTW, I must admit I like the title "Madame Pimpernal" better, though perhaps it was too close to "Pimpernal Smith."

    1. I think the reason for the switch may have been because Constance Bennet had the role of Kitty - she was probably considered "bigger box-office'. And yes, Madame Pimpernal is a great title and reminds me of another excellent WW2 spy film - Pimpernal Smith.

  2. Incredible! What a story! This is a movie I will have to see. I'm a fan of "Our Gracie" and haven't heard of this before. How do you do it? You always open my eyes to something "new."

    1. Another Gracie wonderful! She really was a gem and I'm so glad to put you on the scent of this film. I'm sure you will enjoy it. :-)