Hollywood was coming off a banner year in 1940; still basking in the afterglow of box office returns from Gone With The Wind – the titanic Oscar-winner that only a scant few months before had been dubbed producer David O. Selznick’s grand folly. At Warner Brothers the sting from this independently produced colossus was particularly felt. At the height of pre-production on GWTW, Jack L. Warner had pitched a rather lucrative deal to Selznick that would have included considerable investment and profit sharing. To sweeten the deal, Warner had also promised Selznick the loan out of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn – two of his most bankable stars. That Selznick had quietly refused such a generous offer – and excelled in spite of it – was perhaps a bitter pill for Jack Warner to swallow. It was even more painful for Bette Davis, who only the year before had won her second Best Actress Oscar playing another spoiled southern belle in Jezebel (1938) and had seen herself as the very embodiment of Margaret Mitchell’s beloved/conflicted heroine.
Davis was well compensated for this loss on her own back lot, starring if four memorable movies in 1939: Juarez, Dark Victory, The Old Maid, and Warner’s splashy Technicolor spectacle designed to rival GWTW in its lavishness; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Furthermore Davis was, at least until that time, one of only a few actresses to win more than one Academy Award. Coming off that meteoric run Davis and Warner decided to conspire and do Selznick one better with Anatole Litvak’s All This And Heaven Too (1940). Based on a real life incident from author Rachel Fields’ ancestry that she had managed to transform into a best-selling novel, All This And Heaven Too was a story tailor made for Bette Davis. It had a strong heroine, a melodramatic arc dedicated to female suffrage (always popular in the movies), a doomed love story at its crux, and, an historical context rife with cinematic possibilities for period costumes and settings. In short, it seemed like another Gone With The Wind.
Jack L. Warner was taking no chances. Indeed, at a 146 minutes, and with 65 individual sets and 35 costume changes for Bette Davis alone, All This And Heaven Too was shaping up to be one of the longest and most profligate productions in Warner’s history; and this from a company more readily known for its gritty, contemporary ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach to storytelling. On this outing Warner also gave Davis something her other films rarely had; a presence in her leading man who was every bit as charismatic as she. Charles Boyer had burst onto the screen as the great intercontinental lover; a sensual lady’s man with an inimitably sexy voice that belied his diminutive figure. Darkly handsome, Boyer was undeniably an asset to the production. And Davis, understanding the intricacies of the story and her character, frequently demurred to her costar – something she rarely did – to deliver a performance that, at times, was slightly less central to the narrative’s tone and theme.
One of the popular slogans used to market Bette Davis back in the day was “Nobody’s better than Bette Davis when she’s being bad”. Indeed, Davis’ tenure at WB had a very rocky start with Warner attempting to transform her into just another platinum glamor gal or sultry vamp that was completely at odds with her formidable strengths as an actress. Walking out of her contract to demand better roles, Davis lost the battle (the courts recognized her in breach of contract) but won the war at Warner Brothers. Jack afforded her unprecedented opportunities to choose her own projects, contented by the understanding that if Davis failed she would be beholding to him for her bread and butter. But to everyone’s surprise Bette Davis instinctively knew what suited her best and this intuitiveness allowed her to bounce from one magnificent triumph to the next, unencumbered by the studio’s meddling. When things became harried on the set of her movies she would simply march up to the front office to make her demands clear. It is rumored that Jack Warner frequently ducked into the men’s room when he saw her coming to avoid their confrontations.
By 1940, with two Oscars under her belt, Bette Davis had transcended the once stifling moniker afforded her looks, as the ‘little brown wren’. Indeed, at the start of this new decade she was deftly positioned as the reigning diva at Warner Brothers and one of the most revered leading ladies in all of Hollywood. Her pictures always made money: a tactical bargaining chip Davis exploited to the fullest in her pursuit of more ambitious parts. All This And Heaven Too played right into Davis’ master career plan; an ambitious and haunting period piece that had all of the ear-markings of another instant classic. That the resulting film proved something of a minor misfire at the box office was indeed a mystery since critical praise for the movie and its ambitious star was practically unanimous. Perhaps at 143 minutes Litvak’s methodical and deliberate pacing seemed off or, at the very least, too slow. Certainly, Ernest Haller’s evocative photography captured the broodingly oppressive visual style described in Fields’ novel – perhaps too oppressively.
As for Davis and costar Charles Boyer – they proved very much to have the sort of palpable chemistry desired in star-crossed romantic screen teams. In the end, perhaps world weary audiences were simply not eager to embrace long term suffrage in a world already teetering on the cusp of another world war. The screenplay by Casey Robinson yields to a remarkable fidelity in Fields’ story, but on the whole is sandbagged by its episodic quality, as well as by a pro and epilogue that seem unnecessary and feature the rather ineffectual Jeffrey Lynn as a kindly minister who presumably will be embraced by our heroine as her future love interest. Lynn, who found his way into supporting roles in many a Warner movie from the 1930s as the most congenial milquetoast, and was also very briefly considered by Selznick for the part of Ashley Wilkes in GWTW, never rose above mere competency as an actor. Indeed, in his career Lynn often played pabulum-styled good guys that leading ladies threw over for more ruggedly decisive men.
All This and Heaven Too has two more connections to GWTW; the casting of Barbara O’Neil to play the Duchesse de Praslin, a rather shrewish and insecure harpy whose unwarranted jealousy eventually destroys two lives and three reputations, and Henry Davenport, appearing in the minor role as Pierre; a dotty caretaker with a foreboding message for Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Bette Davis). O’Neil, a young and vital actress (indeed she was only a year older than Vivien Leigh, to whom she played Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in GWTW) was hardly pleased by her follow up role in All This And Heaven Too. Jack Warner attempted to compensate O’Neil by making the Duchesse a glamorous creature; something she is not in Fields’ novel. But this transformation somewhat diffused the point of Fields’ story; that the Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) was both a gentleman and a statesman of some position and authority, hampered by an inadequate and neurotic wife who neither looked nor complimented his social status and therefore was an embarrassment to both him and his household.
As our story begins we first meet Henriette Deluzy-Desportes’ (Davis) in her latest employ at Miss Haines’ all-girl’s private school. Henriette has come to America under the patronage of the kindly Henry Martyn Field (Jeffrey Lynn) who has secured her a teaching post under Miss Haines (Janet Beecher) expert council. But Henriette’s salacious past has followed her from Europe. After being openly confronted by one of her more belligerent students, Emily Schuyler (Ann Gillis) Henriette retreats to Miss Haines’ office where she is comforted by Henry. Realizing that she must confront the rumors and face her past once and for all, Henriette returns to her class to regale them with the tragic story of her life, hoping that its compensation will be a better understanding between her and them.
From here the film is told as one giant flashback. We find Henriette aboard a ship bound for Paris where she inadvertently meets American Rev. Henry Martyn Fields. On the flimsiest of introductions he inexplicably becomes instantly smitten with her. But Henriette’s manner is both timid and reserved. Indeed, she has been a sheltered creature for most of her life, and Fields confides to Henriette that he can see great unhappiness buried deep within her soul. Polite, though nevertheless circumspect of Henry’s affections toward her, Henriette arrives at the home of the French diplomat, Duc de Prasin (Charles Boyer); entrusted with the care and education of his four children: Isabelle (June Lockhart), Louise (Virginia Weidler), Berthe (Ann Todd) and Reynald (Richard Nichols). But before she can even enter the grand estate Henriette receives a warning from its caretaker, Pierre (Henry Davenport) instructing her to not enter the house. A cloud of suspicion seems to hang over these grand halls, coldly elegant, yet starkly realized in Carl Jules Weyl’s mammoth production design.
Unheeding of the warning Henriette is introduced to the Duc and Duchesse (Barbara O’Neil) having already overheard one of their frequent and rather venomous arguments through the door of their boudoir. Henriette also meets the children to whom she will become so much more than a governess. She takes an immediate and very special interest in Reynald who, as the youngest, most sensitive and only male child born to the household has been indifferently ignored by his mother and brutally chastised by the attending governess. Henriette’s attentiveness only seems to infuriate the Duchesse. She desperately craves her husband’s love but suffers from a malignant and highly neurotic tendency to push virtually everyone – including her own children away. In absence of any maternal affection the children naturally gravitate to Henriette whose generosity and kindness also win her points with the Duc.
The Duchesse accuses Henriette of turning the children against her. She also spreads unfounded rumors that Henriette is after her husband. As time goes on these allegations become more vindictive and incur the Duc’s contempt. When the Duchesse’ open disregard for Reynald’s health leads to a near fatal outbreak of diphtheria the Duc’s fears, that his only son may die, are quelled by Henriette’s devotional nurturing and by the simple thoughtfulness she extends to him. Unable to convince the Duc to dismiss Henriette the Duchesse manages to cajol her stern father, Marechael Sebastiani (Montagu Love) into believing that a marital infidelity has begun to brew between the Duc and Henriette.
In private however not even the Duchesse is entirely convinced of her claim. Instead she bribes Henriette into leaving their employ with the promise of a letter of recommendation. Not wishing to harm the Duc’s private or public reputation Henriette acquiesces and quits the household. But the Duc – who has grown as fond of Henriette as his children – continues to visit her with them at the home of a mutual friend. Henriette’s departure was predicated on the promise of that letter of recommendation. Unfortunately, the Duchesse has no intention of honoring their agreement. Thus, Henriette is left penniless and unemployable until the Duc accidentally discovers his wife’s embittered treachery.
Returning home, the Duc demands Henriette’s letter of reference from his wife but is instead accosted by the Duchesse who informs him that any further threats will cause her to destroy Henriette in any way that she can. After enduring a lifetime of her devious instabilities the Duc suffers a breakdown. He murders the Duchesse in an uncontrollable rage, leaving Henriette to take the rap. In the end, justice prevails. A heart-stricken Duc takes his own life with poison, but not before he reveals the truth; that Henriette is entirely blameless in the matter. Although legally exonerated of any wrong doing, in the court of public opinion Henriette remains a marked woman. The story advances into the present. Having thrown her reputation on the mercy of her pupils Henriette is embraced for her bravery. Rev. Fields reappears in the doorway and pledges his renewed devotion to her ongoing search for personal contentment.
All This And Heaven Too is a consummate, clever melding of the woman’s picture and historical drama. Bette Davis’ restrained performance is a minor revelation. We know she is a great actress, and herein she proves it in a very un-Davis-like way; refraining from the usual histrionics and mannerisms that, even by 1940, had become a trademark of her craft. Instead, Davis punctuates this performance with a sustained calm; an inner purpose that at times veers dangerously close to being over-angelic, but without every completely toppling into clichéd sainthood. Charles Boyer remains a fierce curiosity throughout the story; a man unable to defy his gentlemanly grace, yet destructively austere and queerly aloof in his marital relationship. If the film does have a failing within its central cast then it remains Barbara O’Neil’s unapologetically remorseless and utterly tortured Duchesse; a clichéd cardboard cutout villainess, so void of human decency that she becomes all too easy to despise for all the wrong reasons.
All This And Heaven Too is hardly perfect entertainment, and yet it remains solidly crafted and expertly played for the most part. Perhaps the film was slightly too sophisticated for mass appeal. Although it did respectable business at the box office it did not typify that calculus of success as Gone With The Wind had. Moreover, it was completely overlooked at Oscar time, leaving David O. Selznick to walk off with his second consecutive Best Picture win for Hitchcock’s Rebecca at the 1940 awards; an achievement no other Hollywood producer before or since ha matched. In retrospect, All This And Heaven Too does not rival the best of Bette Davis’ work at Warner Brothers. While it is lavishly appointed, with a superb score by Max Steiner (also a GWTW alumni) and yields some very good things throughout, on the whole the film remains something of a middling effort that never quite manages to rise above its melodramatic trappings.
Warner Home Video has given us a rather lackluster DVD transfer. The B&W image is marred by boosted contrast and a distinct and often very distracting flicker in the image. While close ups and medium shots are frequently solid, long shots often look soft, while fine details tend to get lost in the darkness of night scenes. Age related artifacts are present and occasionally distracting. The audio is mono but very nicely represented. Extras include an informative audio commentary from historian Daniel Bubbeo a few shorts, trailers and newsreels a la Warner Night At The Movies.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)