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Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's Blog

Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees • Location: Athens, Georgia
• Member since: March 2004
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All This and Heaven Too
March 31st, 2005 2:32PM

I recently finished reading Rachel Field’s book All This and Heaven Too, which she based on the life of her notorious great-aunt, Henriette Desportes -- the French governess who became embroiled in a scandalous murder case when her employer, the Duc de Praslin, murdered the crazy beyotch he was married to. Field’s novel was the basis for the wonderful 1940 Bette Davis film, in which Davis portrayed Henriette.

As I read the novel, I was intrigued by the changes the film made to Henriette’s character. In the book she comes across as more beautiful, more worldly, and more assertive than in Davis’s characterization; a highlight in the novel is Henriette’s articulate defense of herself during the interrogations to which she is subjected after the murder. In the film’s sole interrogation scene Davis is presented as a figure of pathos; the scene focuses more on the injustice and cruelty of the persecution than on her rising to meet it with courage and intelligence.

At the same time, I’m very fond of Davis’s performance in this film. Her characterization of the governess as a modest, principled, yet sensitive woman is greatly appealing and less mannered than many of her better-remembered performances. And she stands up against the paranoid Duchess with quiet strength in one terrific confrontation. As much as I’d have enjoyed seeing a film adaptation that portrayed a Henriette closer to the novel’s depiction, I can understand why the film made the changes it did: They create a stronger contrast between the governess and the Duchess.

The change works, at any rate, and the film is a very satisfying one. Charles Boyer turns in one of his best performances as the tormented Duke, who finds in his children’s governess the kindred spirit (and maternal figure for his children) that his hysterical wife never was. The love between Henriette and the Duke -- which they can never act on -- is tender and bittersweet, making this one of the most poignant screen romances of Hollywood’s golden age. The Duchess is played by Barbara O’Neil, in a total 180-degree characterization from her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara’s gentle, saintly mother in Gone with the Wind; you really want her to get murdered. The impossibly adorable child actor Richard Nichols brings his American Southern accent to the French locale of the story and still tugs at the heartstrings, just as he did in Kitty Foyle and A Woman’s Face (in which he was so cute Joan Crawford found she couldn’t murder him after all).

Thinking about Charles Boyer’s excellent performance reminds me of how neglected his career is on DVD. Public-domain copies of Love Affair, are in circulation, and the release of Gaslight made available one of his most memorable performances. He is good in Garden of Allah, even if the film is pretty overheated stuff. But we need to see DVD releases of more movies, like All This and Heaven Too, that show his range. His comedic turn in Tovarich opposite his old friend Claudette Colbert is deft and delightful, and his performance in Hold Back the Dawn as a calculating gigolo who falls in love with innocent Olivia de Havilland (who is also shockingly underrepresented on DVD) goes from slyly humorous to deeply moving. Cluny Brown and History Is Made at Night are also greatly entertaining. I think a Boyer boxed set is overdue. And perhaps a miniseries remake of All This and Heaven Too that could follow the fortunes of Henriette Desportes as she makes a new life for herself in America. One of the most enjoyable things about the book is seeing how much more there is to her story after the Praslin tragedy is resolved.

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