Illicit romance, murder, scandal… it should all be so much more exciting than this film makes it
Director: Anatole Litvak
Cast: Bette Davis (Henriette Deluzy-Desportes), Charles Boyer (Duke Charles de-Praslin), Barbara O’Neil (Fanny Sebastiani de-Praslin), June Lockhart (Isabelle de Choiseul-Praslin), Virginia Weidler (Louise de Choiseul-Praslin), Jeffrey Lynn (Reverend Henry Martin Field), George Coulouris (Charpentier, Harry Davenport (Pierre), Montagu Love (Army General Horace Sebastiani), Helen Westley (Mme LeMarie), Henry Daniell (Broussais)
In the 1840s, Henriette (Bette Davis) arrives as governess at the home of the Count de-Praslin (Charles Boyer). She’s calm, collected, patient and caring: in short she’s everything that the count’s wife Fanny (Barbara O’Neil) is not, and it doesn’t take the count long to work it out. With Henriette swiftly becoming a second mother to his four children, the count and Henriette find themselves falling, unspokenly, in love. But Fanny isn’t fooled – and neither is the gutter press – and as scandal brews, the count takes drastic action to stop his wife, leading to a legal case that will shock France.
All This, and Heaven Too was conceived as a sweeping romance to rival Gone with the Wind. Money was lavishly splashed on sets and costumes (Bette Davis has no fewer than 37 costumes in the film, averaging at one every five minutes). Based on a famous murder case – that some felt had contributed towards the anti-monarchy atmosphere that led to the revolution of 1848 – All This, and Heaven Too had everything on paper to challenge Gone with the Wind in romance stakes. So why doesn’t it?
There is something too restrained, too slow and controlled about the film. It’s overlong – the original cut was over three hours, reduced to 2 hours 20 minutes – and takes a very long time to get going. The two stars underplay very effectively – with Davis cast very successfully against type as a mousey, rather timid Jane Eyre-ish figure – but it also means that the sort of grand romance the film is aiming for never quite takes fire, for all the careful shots of burning flames between the two lovers as they discuss their romantic predicaments in roundabout terms.
Litvak’s film saddles itself with a framing device that, while accurate to the real-life story, adds very little. The film opens with Henriette teaching children in America – children who have no respect for her, having heard whispers of her scandalous past – which leads into her telling the story to them (and us) about her past. The film returns to this framing device at the end, but as a whole it provides very little insight or interest to the core thrust of the film’s action. The film also wastes time on Jeffrey Lynn’s Reverend (Heinrette’s future husband), a relationship that seems largely in there to absolve Henriette of any possible indirect responsibility for the murder (she can’t be a hussy, she marries a man of the cloth!).
A large chunk of the film is designed to minimise what was a major scandal that rocked French society. This was a (possible) sexual affair between an unhappily married aristocrat and the governess to his children. It culminated in the countess being stabbed and beaten to death and her blood-stained husband found on the scene, claiming he had fought and chased away an intruder (which, writing it down, is basically the plot of The Fugitive). He never confessed, but committed suicide via arsenic in prison a few months later. Henriette was arrested as an accessory (presumably for encouraging the count to kill his wife) but released.
This should have been racy, racy stuff – but the film shies away from it. It’s probably linked to the expectation that the Hays Code would never accept the idea of Henriette as an adulteress who never goes unpunished. The possible Therese Raquin style set-up is instead translated into a more Jane Eyre model, with the employer in love but the servant too noble to act on her feelings and expose herself to disgrace. The film does pull no punches in making clear that the count committed the crime (the camera zooming in on Boyer’s starring eyes as he advances on his pleading wife) but since he was always destined to meet a historical punishment (he helpfully absolves Henriette on his deathbed) there were no concerns there.
All This, and Heaven Too can’t have a passionate, lusty drama so it avoids any overt spark between Boyer and Davis. Both actors play this unspoken attraction extremely well, but the film has to work overtime to get drama out of their several scenes of standing carefully apart or side-by-side, talking about everything except their own feelings. Boyer, as ever, is first class: his expressive eyes and beautiful ability to listen and react is as perfect for an unspoken romance, as it is for a man who becomes convinced murder is his only escape. Davis’ meeker, Joan Fontainesque role suits her extremely well, even if it disappoints those expecting fireworks.
Those fireworks come from Barbara O’Neil instead, raving and unreasonable as a woman driven to the edge by this semi-imagined affair, in an energetic performance that gained one of the film’s three Oscar nominations. But the film’s strange momentum affects her too: she is left to repeatedly hit the same notes over again, as the film repeats its established set-up over and over for 90 minutes before she is murdered (then squashes everything connected to the historical scandal and the murder trial into the final 40 minutes).
It’s productions standards are high and it’s well shot by Gone with the Wind cameraman Ernest Haller. There is some beautiful use of shadows and several ball scenes are expanded with some gorgeous use of mirrors. It ticks many of the boxes you expect a period romance to have, but is fatally hampered by its caution and by its restrictive narrative choices. It ends up feeling long and drifts too often through its build-up, forcing it to rush its pay-off. All of this contributes to its lack of challenge to GWTW in the romance stakes.