For a certain kind of movie buff, there is nothing more romantic and glamourous than what I like to call a “Forties on Forties” film. These are films made in the 1940’s and set in the 1940’s. The men dressed in suits and jackets they don’t take off even at the dinner table. Women wore dresses, gloves, coats, and pearls. Men and women both wore gorgeous hats they take off and put on a dozen times.
Breakfast served on trays with dozens of plates. Coffee poured for every meal from a big silver pot into delicate cups.
Train travel in private compartments. Smoking everywhere, with men lighting cigarettes already in their woman’s mouth.
Films about adults with adult problems. Love, lust, life, death.
And always, whether in the foreground or background, looms World War II. (Even in Mildred Pierce, a film that seemingly avoids the war completely, Monte appreciates Mildred’s bare legs by saying he is “happy nylons are out for the duration,” a reference to nylon rationing.)
Films made during the war, when the outcome was uncertain, and after the war, with the thrill of victory temporarily papering over the deep cynicism that would eventually seep onto the screen as film noir.
I am that kind of movie buff, and This Above All is that kind of film.
Joan Fontaine immediately followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion by starring in this surprisingly tender war romance with Tyrone Power in which she plays a woman who falls in love with a British deserter. (Power would make only two more films after This Above All before interrupting his career by enlisting to himself fight in the very war portrayed in the film.)
There was a multi-studio bidding war for the rights to the bestselling novel of the same name by Eric Knight, and eventually Darryl Zanuck secured the highly anticipated film for Twentieth Century Fox.
British aristocrat Prudence Cathaway (Fontaine) announces to her shocked family that she has joined the Women’s Auxiliary Force, and as a private instead of an officer. During a blackout, she meets Clive Briggs (Power), and they have an instant connection despite not being able to see one another in the dark.
When they meet up the next day, their attraction grows despite their differences. Prue is old money, patriotic, and friendly. Clive is from the lower classes, brooding, and seemingly not telling Prue something. She does not question him as much as she perhaps should about why he is not wearing a uniform.
Despite barely knowing one another, sparks fly and Prue agrees to accompany him on a holiday during her upcoming leave instead of visiting her family as planned.
Zanuck had bitter fights with the production code office over the film’s original script. He’d preemptively removed the novel’s illegitimate pregnancy in a bid for approval, but the code office howled over Prue “going away for a week, for immoral purposes.” Zanuck and director Anatole Litvak were forced to insert scenes that clearly showed Prue and Clive sleeping in separate bedrooms, and Prue several times mentioning that while what they were doing was innocent, to an outsider it could be misconstrued.
Critics and audiences were disappointed by the watered-down romance, but Zanuck and Litvak’s hands were tied.
Clive is a haunted man. Prue hears him screaming in his sleep (initially from the other room, of course) and he eventually breaks down and admits that he has overstayed his leave and will soon be classified as a deserter. He despairs of his country; he does not want to fight to save a British class system that has oppressed him and kept families like Prue’s living off their generational wealth and the backs of the working class. Already in love, Prue greets his tortured confession with tenderness instead of scorn.
In fact, everyone in the film is sympathetic to Clive’s plight. His friend and fellow soldier Monty insists that Clive return and not ruin his life. His commanding officer gives him a second chance when he finally returns.
There are no recriminations, no judgements, no scorn of Clive as a weakling or a coward. This was more surprising than any illicit affair could have been.
Patriotic Prue stands by him, and although Clive returns to his station, he does not have a dramatic change of heart. He loves Prue and marries her, and he will help win this war so that he can eventually fight for the things he truly believes in.
“This above all,” Prue reads to him from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the final scene, where he’s been wounded and his survival is uncertain, “to thine own self be true.”
An adult problem with an adult ending.
And a hidden gem from the “Forties on Forties.”
- TCM Film Page – https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/92947/this-above-all#notes
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