“ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” (1940) Review

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“ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” (1940) Review

Whenever one conjured the image of Warner Brothers Studio during the 1930s and 40s, hard-hitting crime dramas or social commentaries come to mind. I would certainly not view melodramas – costumed or otherwise – as part of the studio’s usual repertoire. Then in 1933, Hal Wallis became the studio’s new production chief and eventually allowed the studio to release more films with a wider variety. And when Bette Davis became “Queen of the Lot” in the mid-to-late 1930s, the release of melodramas by Warner Brothers became more common.

One of the melodramas associated with Davis was “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”, the 1940 movie adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. Set in France and northeastern United States during the mid-to-late 1840s, the movie told the story of a newly hired French schoolteacher at an American school, who finds herself reliving her past experiences with a French aristocratic family to her new students gossiping over the scandal that had followed her across the Atlantic. The movie begins in 1848 United States. Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy-Desportes has been hired as the new French instructor at a girls’ school. To her dismay, she discovers that her new students are aware of the scandal that drove her out of France. Instead of resigning from the school, she decides to tell her students about her experiences with the family of the Duc de Praslin and Duchesse de Praslin.

The movie jumps back to 1846, during the last years of the Orleans monarchy, when Henriette arrives in France, following a five-year stint as a governess for an English family. After an interview with the Duc and Duchesse, Henriette is hired to act as governess for their three daughters and son. Although Henriette endears herself to the Duc and his four children, the Duchesse seemed to resent her presence. Due to an erratic temperament and an all compassing love for her husband, the Duchesse begins to suspect that Henriette is not only stealing the love of her children, but more importantly her husband. Despite her happy relationship with the de Praslin children, Henriette is forced to deal with the Duchesse’ increasingly hostile behavior, a growing awareness of the Duc’s feelings for her . . . and her own feelings for him. The tensions within the family culminates in the Duchesse’s brutal death, which leads to a great deal of legal problems for Henriette.

“ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” proved to be a successful film, but not quite a major box office hit. I read somewhere that some at the Warner Brothers Studios blamed the movie’s elaborate production designs for overwhelming the other aspects of the movie. I do not know if I could agree with this assessment. Granted, I found some of Carl Jules Weyl’s art designs of 1840s France a bit grandiose – especially in scenes featuring the de Praslin household. But considering the high level of melodrama and characterization, I find this opinion a bit hard to accept. I also find it difficult to agree with this slightly negative opinion of the movie’s visual style. Personally, I rather enjoyed it. I thought Weyl and his staff did an excellent job in re-creating the movie’s period – 1846 to 1848 via production designs, set designs, Warren Low’s editing and especially Ernest Haller’s Oscar nominated cinematography. I also have to compliment Orry-Kelly’s costume designs. The Australian-born designer had also created the costumes for some of Bette Davis’ movie, including 1938’s “JEZEBEL” and 1939’s “JUAREZ”. The designer could have easily been sloppy and re-used the costumes from those particular movies. Instead, Orry-Kelly created costumes that more or less accurately reflected the fashions of the mid-to-late 1840s.

While reading another review of “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”, the writer complained that he/she found it difficult to believe that a forbidden romance between a French aristocrat and his governess led to the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 and the fall of the July Monarchy in France. Apparently, the reviewer had failed to do any research or read Rachel Field’s novel. AFter all, the novel was based upon history, including Field’s family background. Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (or what was her real name) was one of Field’s ancestors. And from what I have read, the real scandal that surrounded the governess and the duke had a major impact on the 1848 revolution that broke out in France. But was the movie’s historical background completely accurate? I honestly do not know. I would have to read more on the 1848 Revolution in France and the life of the Duc de Praslin. If I have one complaint about the movie’s handling of this historical background, I do wish that Casey Robinson’s screenplay could have provided more hints about the upcoming political upheaval.

Overall, I really enjoyed “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”. It is rare to come across a first-rate costume melodrama that can keep me enthralled during its entire running time. And this movie managed to achieve this, thanks to not only Robinson’s screenplay, but also Anatole Litvak’s steady direction. This was especially apparent in the first two-thirds of the movie that chronicled Henriette’s troubles with her American students, her arrival in France and her working and personal relationships with the de Praslin family. The movie’s best segment centered around the months she spent in the de Praslin family’s employment. Once, Henriette is dismissed by the Duchesse de Praslin for imagined slights, the movie struggled to maintain its momentum. This last third of the film centered on Henriette’s attempts to retrieve a reference from the Duchesse, the latter’s violent death, the legal wranglings that surrounded the murder and the finale in the United States. And yet . . . this last third of the film dragged so much – especially the period in which Henriette was in prison – that it threatened to overshadow my enjoyment of the film.

Aside from one particular performance, I have no problems with the movie’s cast. Bette Davis gave an engrossing and subtle performance as the movie’s lead character, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes. I will admit there were times I found the character a bit ideal for my liking – especially in the scenes featuring the governess and her charges. But the scenes featuring the growing love between Henriette and the Duc de Praslin and her conflicts with the Duchesse allowed Davis to superbly portray the governess more as a human being and less as a figure of feminine ideal. Charles Boyer was superb as the Duc de Praslin, a practical and loving man who found himself trapped in a marriage with a woman he no longer love. I feel it is to his credit that he could make the audience feel sympathetic toward a man who not only harbored adulterous feelings for another woman, but also murdered his wife.

The movie also featured fine performances from a supporting cast that included Jeffrey Lynn as Henriette’s future husband, the Reverend Henry Field; Harry Davenport as the de Praslin groundskeeper Pierre; Montagu Love as the Duc de Praslin’s father-in-law, Marshal Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de la Porta; and Henry Daniell as Monsieur Broussais, the man charged with investigating the Duchesse’s murder. “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” also benefited from excellent performances from the child actors who portrayed Henriette’s charges. I was especially impressed by June Lockhart and Virginia Weidler, who portrayed the Duc and Duchesse’s two older offsprings. The only performance I had trouble with Barbara O’Neil’s portrayal of Frances, the Duchesse du Praslin. I realize the latter was supposed to be an emotional and possessive woman, whose selfishness left her family out in the cold. O’Neil was fine in those scenes in which she conveyed the Duchesse’s coldness and attempts at indifference toward Henriette. Otherwise, her shrill rants and emotional outbursts struck me as hammy. I am surprised that O’Neil was the only cast member to earn an Academy Award nomination for acting.

I cannot say that I agree with the old criticism of the production designs for “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO”. I believe the movie does suffer from some flaws that include occasional hammy acting from Barbara O’Neil and the slow pacing that nearly bogged down the third act. But Anatole Litvak’s direction, along with a first-rate screenplay by Casey Robinson, excellent production designs, and superb performances from a cast led by Bette Davis and Charles Boyer have led me to regard “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” as an excellent example of a Hollywood costume melodrama at its best.

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