Stars: Bette Davis and Charles Boyer
Bette Davis is the new French teacher at Miss Haines School for Young Ladies, hardly surprising given that she's playing a character called Henriette Deluzy-Desportes and there's a little hint of accent in her voice. The young ladies she'll be teaching carry names that are as close to American nobility as any, names like Van Buren, Van Horn, Vanderbilt, lots of Vans. It's Emily Schuyler who causes her trouble though, dredging up an old scandal during her very first lesson. Apparently Miss Deluzy has a history, one involving a French prison called Conciergerie and a man called de Praslin.
And so we head back in time to 1846 and across the Atlantic to Paris, in which she soon arrives by boat from Southampton where she's been a governess for five years. She's hoping to become a governess in Paris too, to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin: three girls, from eight to thirteen, and a younger boy who is obviously the root of many arguments between his parents. There seem to be many arguments between Teo and Frances, the Duc and Duchesse, mostly the angry and impulsive Duchesse, a twitchy drama queen in the form of Barbara O'Neil. The Duc, on the other hand, is the charming and composed Charles Boyer, who of course has by far the best French accent in the film, given that unlike everyone else, he was actually French.
This pair are arguing the moment Miss Deluzy arrives and we're given plenty of hints that the Duc can hardly bear to even touch his wife nowadays. Reynald is the product of his parents' conciliation, making him torn in the affections of his father: he loves his son and heir but resents the 'mistake' that led to his birth. Reynald is Richard Nichols, who is the sort of child who women find utterly adorable and men find a painful overdose of cuteness. He soon becomes the focus of the story, as he gets the sniffles just in time for the Duchesse to overrule her governess and take him out for a ride. Sure enough, the next we see he's dying of diphtheria, with Henriette given the Duc's full trust and authority and the Duchess relegated to her bedroom. He does get well but you can bet those bridges aren't going to get rebuilt overnight. We see very little of him from then on, but he still gets too much chance to demonstrate his broad and conspicuously non-French accent.
Reynald's sisters are an intriguing set of child actresses. Isabelle, the eldest, is June Lockhart, a quarter of a century before she'd become the mother in Lost in Space. She looks amazingly plain as a kid so obviously grew into her face over time. Louise is Virginia Weidler, the same year she stole scenes from Cary Grant, Kate Hepburn and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, which was the peak of her career. At thirteen years of age, she was already nearing the end of it, with 32 films behind her and only 11 to go. She'd retire at sixteen in 1943. Berthe, the youngest, is nine year old Ann E Todd, not to be confused with the English actress Ann Todd, because of whom she adopted the middle initial. All are capable here without ever having to steal scenes by being children. That's a compliment in my book.
While the stars of the film are Bette Davis and Charles Boyer, it was surprisingly Barbara O'Neil who was Oscar nominated. Davis is certainly the good girl for a change, which gives her less opportunity to shine than usual. There's still opportunity there, given that she's the servant and victim of circumstance throughout, but it's far less obvious opportunity than O'Neil gets as the temperamental and conniving bitch of the piece. Yet, as good as she is, we're often watching Barbara O'Neil act rather than the character she plays. Perhaps she was practicing what her screen daughter did a year earlier: she was Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone with the Wind. Davis, for all that she's so much quieter as a character, is at least a character and not a performance. She stays that way throughout the turmoil.
Boyer is fine but there's nothing here that he hasn't done before or since and in parts that had more depth than this one. He was so good at the romantic pursuer that he became the chief inspiration for the stereotype, Pepe le Pew, yet he was just as good at seething and quietly threatening and stalking the room in suppressed rage and he thankfully gets a few darker scenes like that here. The only problem is that they aren't long enough. The film would have been better for more Boyer and more for him to do. In fact he doesn't even get to do the usual romancing, or at least not to the usual degree.
Being a golden era Warner Brothers picture, and an expensive one given that it contained a record 67 sets to be built by studio the and 37 costumes for Miss Davis that cost $1,000 each, which value is utterly not visible on screen, there are a number of regular names here, some of whom I'm always glad to see. Their names reoccur so often that they become even more frequent screen friends than the leads, however brief their parts usually are. There's Montagu Love as the Duchesse's father, the Marechal Sebastiani, and there's George Coulouris as a valet who is thrust upon the Duc by his father-in-law. Fritz Leiber, so often a priest, is the Abbe Gallard, the Duchesse's father confessor. Henry Daniell is a French policeman. Best of all, there's Harry Davenport as the knowing and characterful Pierre, one of the de Praslin's servants, who sees what goes on behind the windows of the house.
While the story here is well told, it's a melodramatic thing that doesn't hold many, if any, surprises to the viewer. The ending is as thoroughly expected as it's gloriously emotional and overblown. I could hear the primarily female audience at the time sobbing through it, almost seventy years in the past. The only thing in the film that was unexpected to me came in the name of the man who reports certain later events in the newspaper, something that has absolutely no bearing on anything else. Then again the simplicity and inevitability of the story is probably due to the fact that it's based on a novel by Rachel Field, who died two years later and was best known as a children's writer. While this was one of her adult novels, it unfolds with the emotions of a child and certain darker things are worthy of much more depth and far less deliberate oversight.
Make no mistake, it's a gem for those of an overly sentimental bent and I can fully see why many people would find this becoming a personal favourite. For my part, I became more fascinated by the penmanship used by a number of characters, hardly something most people would care about. Maybe it's the typographer in me or maybe it's the fact that I write all my work on a laptop keyboard while back in the 1840s people wrote with quills dipped in ink. Perhaps it's the fact that even if I do write with a pen, my handwriting sucks royally, while a number of characters here write very capably and very beautifully with a quill. I don't know if it was the actors themselves, like Barbara O'Neil, or handwriting stunt doubles but whoever it was deserves much credit, more than the writers of the story.
There's something else of interest here too, something behind the scenes. I wonder how the two leads felt about the characters they played. Bette Davis plays a woman who falls in love with a man who falls in love with her, though precisely nothing happens that is untoward. Yet, she had been having an affair with the film's director, Anatole Litvak, while he was still married to Miriam Hopkins. They divorced a few months before shooting started on this picture. Hopkins played opposite Davis twice during this period and the chemistry is unmistakeable, at least in The Old Maid, where there are scenes of pure hate between them. I hadn't realised at the time that they may have had real life depth behind them.
Charles Boyer was married only once, apparently very happily indeed, something that is rather surprising for classic Hollywood and somehow even more surprising for such a great romantic lead of the screen. Fans of his screen image must have imagined him following in Valentino's footsteps, or at least Pepe le Pew's, and seducing a new woman every night. However his happy marriage lasted 44 years until the death of his wife, actress Pat Paterson. He followed her two days later with an overdose of barbiturates. His character here commits suicide by self poisoning also, albeit for different reasons. Art often imitates life, but sometimes life imitates art in return.