Nonetheless, the troubled couple have four predictably adorable children. From oldest to youngest, we have adolescent Isabelle (June Lockhart), tweener Louise (Virginia Weidler), school-aged Berthe (Ann Todd), and post-toddler Reynald (Richard Nichols). All bond closely to the governess.
The Duc clearly favors her as well, and even takes her to the theater, which causes a minor Paris scandal. The father of the Duchesse, celebrated French patriot Marechal Sebastiani, gets wind of the rumors and meddles in the marriage.
At this point, Deluzy-Desportes should heed the warnings of the Duc's elderly and eccentric servant Pierre (Harry Davenport). He implores the governess to head for the hills. But like the next victim in a horror movie, she brushes him off.
Inevitably, the crazy wife fires the governess. She refuses to give her a letter of recommendation, requisite for the governess to secure a position. The Duc confronts his shrewish wife, and violently murders her. He is charged, and the former governess is imprisoned as an accessory. Luckily for her, American clergyman Henry Martyn Field (Jeffrey Lynn) comes to her rescue, both legally and romantically.
The plot is framed by scenes set later in America, where our heroine Deluzy-Desportes has taken a position as a boarding school teacher. She is victimized by evil teenaged girls who have learned of her scandalous past. But her tale of woe, unmerited by her Job-like stoicism and virtue, wins them all over.
How others will see it. This costly Warner Bros prestige film drew generally favorable reviews but moderately underperformed at the box office. It managed three Oscar nominations, including the coveted category of Best Picture. Barbara O'Neil, not unsurprisingly, was given a nod for her intense and villainous performance. The final nominated category was Best Black-and-White Cinematography, which meant that the costly costumes and sets were passed over completely by the Academy Awards.
Today at imdb.com, the movie has a respectable 2729 user votes and a high user rating of 7.7. Men aged 30-44 grade it lowest, at 7.3, while the independent-minded group of women over 45 grade it 8.2. This latter group undoubtedly appreciates Davis' virtue and ultimate redemption, and likely feels more sorry for the Duc than his equally ill-fated wife.
How I felt about it. If the plot favors the Duc and governess at the expense of his shrewish wife, it is at least partly due to the family tree of the author. Rachel Field, who wrote the source novel, was a relative of Henry Martin Field, the magnanimous hero of the movie. The latter Field married Deluzy-Desportes.
Thus, those two characters are relentlessly virtuous and brave, while the mad Duchesse practically asks for what befalls her. The bias toward these characters, and the Duc, make the story less than plausible, despite its True Crime origins.
The first two-thirds of the movie, before the governess is sacked, is more watchable than what follows. But even when the movie has the appearance of great cinema, it remains uncompelling, despite the sterling quality of the cast and production. Davis noticed this and blamed Anatole Litvak, whom she considered rigid in his direction.
It may be, though, that Davis merely disliked her goody-goody character. One wonders whether she would have rather played the Cruella Da Ville wife, which had Academy Award written all over it. Although Davis already had earned her two Best Actress Oscars by 1940, her mantlepiece undoubtedly had room for a Best Supporting trophy.