Often imitated, never duplicated, Gone with the Wind‘s massive success in 1939 saw every studio attempt to find their own literary epic to adapt in the hopes of sweeping up awards (and box office dollars). Warner Bros., known for its conservatism went full-steam ahead with their take on Rachel Field’s popular novel, All This, and Heaven Too after snapping up the rights in 1938. The million-dollar production, one of the grandest at that time, was nominated and lost in all three categories it was in during the 1941 Academy Awards. (If you want proof of GWTW’s omnipotence, look at the films nominated for Best Picture in ’41). All This, and Heaven Too isn’t as memorable as the year’s other costume epics, like Best Picture winner Rebecca. It isn’t even the best Bette Davis film of 1940 – The Letter was nominated for Best Picture too. However, its poised portrait of a marriage gone to rot and chaste romance helps transcend an exhaustive runtime and maudlin conclusion.
Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Bette Davis) is a governess with a scandalous past after teaching the children of the Duke and Duchess de Praslin (Charles Boyer and Barbara O’Neill). When the Duchess assumes Henriette is trying to seduce her husband, it threatens to ruin Henriette and the Duke’s lives.
There’s a behind-the-scenes story juicier than what we get on the page. This film reteamed Davis with director Anatole Litvak, a man she’d infamously had an affair with while he was married to Miriam Hopkins. In fact, it was hoped Hopkins would star opposite Davis to get some on-screen flames from their off-screen hatred. (The two eventually starred in two films together. When’s Ryan Murphy going to depict that feud?) Remove its tabloid trappings and it’s impossible not to see this production in the context of its tempestuous relationships. Henriette’s arrival to the de Praslin manor is the spark that lights the family’s fuse. The scraps of happiness Henriette is eager to take are non-existent in her new abode, and all that’s needed is a stiff wind to topple the house of cards. What’s unique, sort of, about Casey Robinson’s script, is how it doesn’t immediately demonize the characters. Like many stories of divorce and eroding marriages, especially in the 1970s, these are simply selfish people making decisions they presume to be for the best. Boyer’s stoic Duke has all the cards in his favor, considering France in the 1800s still favored men in divorce regardless of the Duchess’ wealth, yet he blindly hopes pretending things are good benefits his children.
The same goes for the Duchess, played by Barbara O’Neill at peak melodrama. Garnering an Academy Award nomination, it’s ironic that O’Neill lost to the picture of motherhood, Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. O’Neil”s duchess starts out emulating the women Betty Friedan examined in The Feminine Mystique. It’s evident the Duchess has nothing to do with her time short of attending parties and talking to her maid. Spying on others is her one thrill in life. Her children are labeled a burden, but they’re also be beings she can’t connect to. She lacks the mommy gene, and that’s not surprising in a landscape where women were expected to have children, and nothing more. The Duchess clings to her husband, whom she affectionately calls “Theo” and finds him uninterested in spending any time with her. He cites her mood swings and “madness,” but this seems more indicative of a general disinterest due to their lengthy and fractuous union. Even when Henriette arrives and meets derision from the Duchess the governess is sympathetic, understanding of the limitations of a woman’s duty during the time period. When the Duke and Duchess finally blow up at each other, the children act like many children of divorce, frightened and desperate for the one stable bit of love they have in their life: Henriette.
Bette Davis was the queen of characters fleeing their past. Davis could play this character in her sleep which explains why there’s no true sense of pathos or nuance to her performance. We’ve seen this Bette before and we saw it after. Regardless, Bette at her worst is still an actress worth watching and she’s compassionate and tender as Henriette. June Lockhart (in her first major role), Virginia Weidler, and the utterly adorable Richard Nichols play the children and they’re all as fleshed out and darling as can be. Child stars had such personality in the day, and their interactions with Boyer and Davis are sweet without veering into annoyance. It’s evident they’re desperate for love, and the audience swoons at the thought of a new family unit being created. Henriette’s relationship with the children in her care is a more effective barometer of her character than her work opposite Boyer. The two barely hold hands, and there’s never a kiss between these two, the implication being that their love is inferred. Inference shouldn’t negate knowledge and it’s hard believing the Duke would be willing to die for Henriette simply because she’s a better mother than his wife. Or, if that’s the case, this movie hews too closely to its 1800s time period than it likes to think.
Originally clocking in at three hours, the film was condensed into the 141-minute package we’re presented with. Henriette’s integration into the family unit is expertly plotted – it’s said Litvak planned everything down to the minute. Once the Duchess becomes obsessed with ruining Henriette the script drives straight to Melodrama City. Murder and a court case ensue before suicide and redemption are given. Considering the slow, methodical way the relationships unfold prior, it’s jarring to have typical horror movie trappings injected – close-ups on the Duchess’ face as she screams “No” seem better suited for Psycho (1960) than this.
Davis and Boyer may not have All This, and Heaven Too but the movie is a respectable effort. The script cares about its characters, Anatole Litvak’s precise direction and Orry-Kelly’s marvelous gowns are great, and the actors are all top-notch. This may not be Gone With the Wind or even Jezebel (1938), but Bette fans should make plans to watch this romance.
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