All This, and Heaven Too (1940). 141 minutes. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Starring Bette Davis (as Henriette Deluzy-Desportes), Charles Boyer (as Charles, Duke de Praslin), Barbara O’Neil (as Francoise Sebastiani de Praslin), June Lockhart (as Isabelle de Choiseul-Praslin), Virginia Weidler (as Louise de Choiseul-Praslin), Ann E. Todd (as Berthe de Choiseul-Praslin), Richard Nichols (as Reynald de Choiseul-Praslin), Jeffrey Lynn (as Rev. Henry Martyn Field), Harry Davenport (as Pierre), Montagu Love (as Horace Sebastiani), Helen Westley (as Mme. LeMaire), and George Coulouris (as Charpentier). Based on the novel by Rachel Field. Music by Max Steiner.
All This, and Heaven Too is about a couple that is simultaneously both having an affair and not having an affair. The lovers in question, governess Henriette Deluzy-Desportes and her employer, Charles, Duke de Praslin, never utter the words “I love you” to each other, and they appear to have no physical relationship. You may be tempted to think that such a story would not be romantically enticing, but All This, and Heaven Too encourages us to find its characters’ restraint appealing and the development of their affair over time delicious and complex. One of the ways that the movie invites us to appreciate its particular brand of romance is through implied comparisons with another movie about a nineteenth-century love conflict: the blockbuster epic film version of Gone with the Wind (1939) that was released the previous year. In contrast to Gone with the Wind, however, which features passionate relationships and high drama throughout, All This, and Heaven Too saves its fireworks for a conclusion that includes murder; and its ending would be much less effective without the subtlety of Henriette and the Duke’s interactions beforehand. It is compelling viewing, both for fans of period pieces and for those who are interested in elegant romances.
The story is based on Rachel Field’s book of the same name, in which she presents the notorious story of her great aunt Henriette (played by Bette Davis) and the Duke de Praslin (played by Charles Boyer), whose scandalous relationship resulted in murder and contributed to the ruin of King Louis-Philippe of France in 1847. At the beginning of the movie, Henriette has just started a teaching appointment at an American girls’ school, presumably in the mid-1800s, but her first day goes horribly. The girls in the class have learned that she was caught up in a scandal in France years earlier for which she spent time in a French jail. Henriette is distraught but determines that the best way to handle the situation is to tell the girls her story; the remainder of the movie is a flashback to her life on the Continent.
Years earlier in France, we see Henriette arriving at the residence of the Duke and Duchess de Praslin in search of work as a governess. As she enters the house for the first time, she is ominously warned by the de Praslins’ groundskeeper Pierre to leave immediately if she is wise. Henriette disregards Pierre’s advice, enters, and discovers that the Duchess Francoise de Praslin is cold and unfeeling towards her four children and that Francoise’s relationship with her husband is in shambles; but Henriette takes the job anyway and soon sees the Duchess’s cruelty in action. Francoise insists, for example, on taking her youngest child Reynald on a carriage ride in spite of Henriette’s protestations that he is ill, with the result that the boy nearly dies. Henriette nurses him back from the brink of death, winning the heart of the Duke in the process.
Soon thereafter, when the Duchess leaves town, she is horrified to learn from afar that her husband takes Henriette and one of the de Praslin daughters to the opera, where Parisian society sees the threesome and gossips about the Duke and the governess’s relationship. The Duchess demands that the Duke repair their marriage by appearing with her socially, but it is clear that he is merely going through the motions. The Duchess’s jealousy reaches a fever pitch when the Duke visits Henriette and the children as they holiday at his family estate in Melun. Francoise fires Henriette but promises to write her an outstanding letter of recommendation. Henriette lives in poverty in Paris waiting for the letter she has been promised, but it never arrives. When the Duke learns that the Duchess has never given Henriette the letter, he confronts his wife, who provokes him mercilessly, and he murders her. Henriette is immediately seized by the authorities, and the Duke is placed under house arrest. He commits suicide, but not before confessing his love for Henriette to Pierre. Henriette is released from prison for lack of evidence and leaves for America, where an acquaintance of hers, the Rev. Henry Field, helps her to adjust to normal life again. At the end of this flashback, back in the American classroom, Henriette’s students embrace her and apologize for libelling her. Field appears in the classroom and proposes to Henriette, who accepts.
As I mentioned, All This, and Heaven Too shares much in common with the earlier Gone with the Wind. Both are very long, are dramatic nineteenth-century period pieces, have two passionate and fickle women as head of the household (the Duchess in All This, and Heaven Too and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind), feature actor Harry Davenport (here he plays the groundskeeper Pierre, and he plays Doctor Meade in Gone with the Wind), have a musical score by Max Steiner, and involve a curious final sequence towards their conclusions—in an emotional moment on a staircase, the female protagonists (Henriette on the one hand, Scarlett O’Hara on the other) hear the disembodied voices of important people in their lives that give them strength. But All This, and Heaven Too’s superficial similarities to the at times bombastic Gone with the Wind actually serve to highlight how different the two movies are, and those differences are part of what make All This, and Heaven Too engaging. While Gone with the Wind‘s story is sprawling and complex, the plot of All This, and Heaven Too can be summarized in merely a sentence: a French governess falls in love with the father of the family she cares for and is implicated in the murder of the lady of the house. Compared to the more emotive Gone with the Wind, All This, and Heaven Too shows that Hollywood in this period was capable of producing dramas that were reserved and subtle.
The explosive ending, however, does away with some of the film’s restraint. The Duke ultimately commits suicide by taking poison—a decidedly dramatic and drastic conclusion to his quiet liaison with Henriette. But even before that final action, the nature of Henriette and the Duke’s relationship becomes an explicit matter of legal discussion when the authorities investigate the Duchess’s death and call upon the couple to be quite frank about their affair. It is through this sensational inquisition that the movie weighs in on the value of such a subtle and secret relationship. To what extent, the movie asks, do Henriette and the Duke’s clandestine feelings make them culpable? The inquisitors are convinced that the relationship between the employer and governess does imply guilt, but the two deny that they are having an illicit affair. Their responses are, for the most part, artful and indirect, and we cannot feel that they are being completely honest with the law when they deny that they are in love.
In the end, the Duke and Henriette fail not only because one of them commits a heinous crime but also because they are not completely honest about something as basic as how they feel. We do not want to see them deny their love for each other, even if that requires them to admit that they are engaged in something that is not very upstanding and that the Duke is involved in an act of retribution that is decidedly criminal. In other words, even in this movie, there comes a point where we are ready for their understated romance to be expressed more directly, and yet the lovers are not willing to let go of the restrained terms of their relationship, in spite of the dire consequences they face. Henriette and the Duke’s commitment to the subtlety that we have enjoyed up until this point is also, in a way, their downfall, not merely in the eyes of the French but also potentially in the eyes of the audience.
The Duke and Henriette are not the only couple in this movie, of course. Their romance is a triangle involving the Duke’s wife, the Duchess Francoise de Praslin. The Duke has fallen out of love with her, saying that part of what prevents him from being more intimate with his wife is that she is too passionate. Intensely jealous, hateful, and yet pathetically enamored with the Duke, the Duchess does not have one single positive exchange with him. She constantly writes haranguing letters to him, she scowls and is frustrated with his lack of affection, and yet when someone enters her chamber she assumes, like an infatuated child, that it must be he, seeking her out, even though she behaves cruelly to him and he detests her. She seems increasingly suspicious and unhinged as the movie progresses. It must be said, however, that the Duke also seems disturbed near the end, telling Henriette that he is losing his mind, revealing that he is so frustrated with Francoise that he fantasizes about strangling her, ultimately killing the Duchess brutally, and then taking his own life with poison. So there is not, shall we say, a lot of stability in the de Praslin household.
Henriette in contrast seems very grounded, virtuous, and noble. She is exceedingly loving and kind, putting the needs of the children whom she cares for before her own, devotedly nursing young Reynald back to health when he is so near death. Henriette is reserved and guarded around the Duke; ironically, this seems to appeal to him more than his wife’s passionate behavior (again, in this movie, restraint is sexy). When he comes to visit Henriette and the children at Melun, she is clearly displeased—not because she does not want him there, because she must, but because she knows that no good can come of it. She is wise and knows, as we do, that she and the Duke are being watched. For example, the Duchess’s priest is often shown lurking at inopportune moments; Pierre, the groundskeeper, admits that he knows what Henriette does in private; the Duke acknowledges that his manservant Charpentier, who is assigned to him by his wife, will report everything he does to the Duchess. And of course, there are the watchful eyes of all of Parisian society waiting for the secret lovers to make the slightest slip-up.
The de Praslin household is full of traps and people lying in wait, but there is evidence that Henriette is watching others, too, just as she is being watched. There is a scene where Pierre visits her chamber and says he knows she watches the unlit passage across from her window at night. The passage bridges the Duke and Duchess’s bedchambers, and Henriette knows that as long as it remains unlit they are not together; this seems pretty clearly to point to the fact that there is no sexual congress between the Duke and Duchess, although the movie does not make the point explicit. Additionally, when the Duke throws a ball at the house, we see the children and Henriette on the landing observing the dancers downstairs, whom we see reflected in the mirrors above their heads along the wall. In this way the staging draws our attention reflexively to the act of viewing others. Even when Henriette is living outside of the de Praslin home in the boarding house of Mme. LeMaire, this practice of watching and interpreting continues: when Henriette is visited there by the Duke and the children, Mme. LeMaire takes the Duke aside to speak to him about Henriette’s financial situation, and Henriette can see them speaking through a pair of glass doors.
At one point Henriette watches the snow fall outside of the window and sees her reflection in it, suggesting that she watches even herself. Of course she does: what else is there for her to do? In her situation, it is not really possible to remain a virtuous person in the eyes of the household and express her true feelings, so she watches and notes instead of acting. The passivity that we might normally associate with merely looking at people and things here becomes a meaningful gesture of longing and affection instead. In this way, the movie activates even inactivity, offering meaning and significance in small gestures, minor staging, and simple stares that in another movie we might be tempted to pass over. And yet part of what All This, and Heaven Too accomplishes is a transformation of both the banal and the stoic into high drama. For anyone with a penchant for nineteenth-century domestic narratives, it is sure to please; but for the Golden Age fan interested in seeing a romance that is different from the usual 1940s fare, it is also well worth seeing.