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Film Friday: "This Above All" (1942)

In honor of Joan Fontaine's 98th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first film I ever saw her in, which also stands as my favorite film of hers so far.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Anatole Litvak, This Above All (1942) opens in England in the early days of World War II, when the spirited Prudence "Prue" Cathaway (Joan Fontaine) joins the ranks of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, much to the surprise and chagrin of her aristocratic family, especially her aunt Iris (Gladys Cooper). Through one of her fellow WAAF's, Violet Worthing (Queenie Leonard), Prue meets and starts a romance with Clive Briggs (Tyrone Power), a handsome soldier who is oddly not in uniform and seems to be harbouring a deep dark secret. Taking advantage of Prue's seven-day leave, the couple decides to go on vacation together to a seaside resort in Dover, where Clive begins to act strangely, calling out military orders in his sleep and becoming generally distracted.

When Clive's Army friend Monty (Thomas Mitchell) arrives in Dover a few days later, the mystery is finally resolved. Although Clive enlisted in the first day of the war, the debacle at Dunkirk has made him question whether Britain is worth fighting for. He blames the country's "stupid, complacent and out-of-date" leaders for being inept in the fight against Germany and has decided to desert because he doesn't want to keep defending Britain's rulling class. Hearing this, Prue delivers an emotional speech on the meaning and importance of England, which only drives Clive away. Finding spiritual inspiration with the council of a clergyman (Arthur Shields), Clive eventually decides to turn himself in and calls Prue to meet him London so that they can be married. They agree to meet at Charing Cross Station, though Clive is arrested by military police and taken to headquarters before he can get there. After pleading with his commander, he manages to secure a two-hour leave to meet Prue one last time, but his second attempt to get to her is stymied when he's wounded in an air raid. Helped by her father, Dr. Roger Cathaway (Philip Merivale), Prue later finds Clive in a hospital and proceeds to arrange an impromptu wedding. With his life hanging in the balance, Clive realizes that he must fight Prue's war before he can fight his.

Clive Briggs: You know, I was thinking, Prue... It's going to be a different world when all of this is over. Someday, we're going to fight for what I believe in. But first, we've got to fight for what you believe in. You were right. We've got to win this war. We've got to! "This above all: to thine own self be true."

More than 150 films made in Hollywood between 1930 and 1945 were 'British' films; that is, American films that were set in Britain or in a territory of the British Empire, based on British literature or history and featured the work of British producers, directors, writers, stars and character actors. Designed to celebrate the most famous aspects of Britain's culture and history, these films included some of the most expensive and high-profile productions of the era and many were both popular and critically acclaimed. For instance, no fewer than five 'British' films  Cavalcade (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Rebecca (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) won the industry's most coveted prize, the Academy Award for Best Picture, during those fifteen years.

Despite being made by different studios and adapted from distinct sources, the majority of Hollywood's 'British' films were focused on Britain's "upper-class milieu": the main characters lived in luxurious houses, attended elaborate balls given by titled hosts and visited London's elite clubs and restaurants. When (and if) working-class characters were shown, they were relegated to minor roles either as faithful and contended servants or comical shopkeepers and pub landlords. In the early war years, however, these films became more self-conscious in their depiction of British class relations, stressing "the shared sacrifice of all classes during wartime and the levelling effect that this had on class barriers." This Above All was perhaps the first 'British' film to explore Britain's changing class system in a fairly thorough manner, offering views on the country that were previously unheard in this type of picture.

Joan Fontaine as Prudence Cathaway
This Above All was based on the novel of the same name by Eric Knight, a Yorkshire-born journalist who spent most of his adult life in the United States. Its title is derived from a line spoken by the character of Polonius in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet: "This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man." Marketed as "a stirring and courageous novel of Britain's most desperate hour," This Above All was published in April 1941, eight months prior to the United States' entry into World War II, and it offers a full range of arguments for and against Britain. 

On the one hand, we find Clive Briggs, a working-class deserter from the British Army who provides an outpouring of anti-British arguments that echo the distaste Americans of the era had for class-ridden Britain in contrast with the supposed 'classlessness' of their own country. Disillusioned by his leaders after his experiences at Dunkirk, Clive attributes most of England's failings, both at home and abroad, to "the machinations and ineptitude of the 'rulling class.'" Prudence Cathaway, on the other hand, has led a sheltered life in a wealthy family and therefore presents a more sentimental view of England. In his arguments with Prue, Clive claims that the England he is asked to fight for was responsible for his impoverished childhood and has made life a misery for him and the working class. Defending Britain by citing its historical and literary achievements and the beauty of its countryside, Prudence assures Clive that a new and more egalitarian England will emerge "from the rubble of the Blitz," but insists that the first priority must be to defeat Germany.

Joan Fontaine and Tyrone Power in
a publicity still
Following a bidding war with two other major studios, including Paramount Pictures, Darryl F. Zanuck managed to secure to the rights to This Above All on behalf of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck was somewhat of a veteran at 'British' filmmaking. During his reign as head of production at Fox, the studio produced British historical dramas such as Lloyds of London (1936) and Stanley and Livingstone (1939); adaptations of British literature such as Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and Charlote Brontë's Jane Eyre (1943); and wartime films like A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941) and Confirm or Deny (1941).

Zanuck didn't want the screen version of This Above All to focus on either anti-British or pro-British arguments; he was more interested in the story's romantic and sexual dimension. Consequently, Zanuck repeatedly told screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, whose previous credits included the 'British' films Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and That Hamilton Woman (1941), to tone down the propaganda and the novel's more acerbic elements and to focus on the love story and the physical attraction between Clive and Prudence. After Sheriff's first script was rejected by the Hollywood censors for not presenting the "correct standards of life" regarding the depiction of two ummarried people "going away for a week, for immoral purposes," Zanuck agreed make the illicit love affair less torrid than in Knight's novel and eliminate from the story reference to Prudence's illegitimate pregnancy. In addition, Sheriff was instructed to write in a scene that would clearly indicate that "Prue's action in going off for a weekend with Clive was not the acceptable thing to do," as well as a sequence that would show that the couple was occupying different rooms at their hotel in Dover.

Filming the final scene in This Above All
In October 1941, Joan Fontaine was approached by independent producer David O. Selznick, to whom she was then under contract, about taking the role of Prudence Cathaway in This Above All. Fontaine, now a star after appearing in the Alfred Hitchcock hits Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, was very reluctant to accept it. When Selznick threatened to put her on suspension, however, Fontaine finally agreed to be loaned to Fox to make This Above All. To play Clive Briggs, Zanuck initially considered hiring Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier and Richard Greene, but the part was ultimately given to the "King of the Fox Lot," Tyrone Power. Known primarily as a swashbuckling hero of striking good looks, Power welcomed the oportunity "to be more than a pretty guy in tights" and later considered the character one of his favorites of his career.

Fox originally planned to shoot This Above All at Shepherd's Bush in London, but this idea had to be abandoned in mid-September 1941 when all the pictures scheduled to be filmed in England were cancelled, presumably because of the war. This change in location caused a delay in the start of production, which was postponed again in mid-November to allow Power, who had just completed John Cromwell's historical adventure Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942), a few days to rest. Director Anatole Litvak delayed This Above All once more later that month in order to give Power and Fontaine more time to rehearse their love scenes together.

Tyrone Power and Joan Fontaine
According to Fontaine, Power was "circumspect, fairly distant" on the set of This Above All and their relationship was never anything other than professional during the making of the film. They would, however, often play gin rummy in her dressing room when not required in front of the cameras. "[Power] was a very sensitive, gentle person but he wasn't English, so the balance was thrown a bit, and Eric Knight's marvelous book had to be changed in concept quite a lot," Fontaine later said. In contrast, Power was good friends with Litvak, who had directed the actor's then wife, Annabella, in the French drama L'Équipage (1935), and particularly enjoyed working with him.

I had to think hard to reach an understanding of the character and I had to work harder to make sure he would be understandable to the audience [...] Director Anatole Litvak was an inspiring help. Some directors, seeing the mechanical setup of a picture clearly and being interested in putting the jigsaw puzzle together, overlook the human element. Litvak knows the mechanics but he also works closely with you as an individual. I like his severity — it keeps you on your toes.
(Tyrone Power)

This Above All was filmed entirely on the Fox soundstages, where a $26,000 replica of the exterior of a WAAF encampment that included seventeen buildings and dirt roads was constructed with the help of technical advisors Kathleen Hunt and Iris Houston, who were both officers of the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force. On December 14, 1941, two weeks after production began, Litvak broke his foot in a fall over a camera dolly, but a few days later he was able to resume his work from a wheelchair. In spite of all the difficulties encountered, This Above All was completed in eight weeks, with a few retakes shot a month later. To increase realism, newsreel footage of the London Blitz was then skillfully intercut throughout the film, along with background footage shot in England by producer Robert Kane. 

Advert in Women's Home Companion
Eric Knight had little hope that Hollywood would render a faithful adaptation of This Above All, hailed by American critics upon its release as "the first important novel of the Second World War." In his private correspondence with the critic and filmmaker Paul Rotha, Knight wrote: "If you think I'm going to try to make Hollywood do anything sensible with This Above All you're batty [...] I expect it to come out as a Don Ameche special with Tyrone Power backing, and a musical comedy translation with Horace Heidt's orchestra and a Busby Berkeley chorus."

This Above All had its world premiere at the now defunct Astor Theatre in New York City on May 12, 1942, two weeks before being chosen as the first picture to be shown at the newly constructed Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, California. Although Knight was highly dismissive of the film, feeling that it presented only a small sample of the characters and settings he had created in his novel, professional reviews for This Above All were almost all favorable. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, called it "a taut and poignant war film" and gave much praise to Joan Fontaine, whom he deemed "surpassingly lovely and tender and believable as Prue. She thoroughly combines gentle breeding with generosity of soul, and her speech on the meaning of England is one of the high points of the film." Tyrone Power's performance, however, failed to convince some critics who considered him miscast since he didn't make any effort to pretend to be English, as his character required. At the 15th Academy Awards in March 1943, This Above All won the Oscar for Best Art Direction (Black and White) and received nominations for Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording.

This Above All is not quite what it might very well have been. But the tension and pathos of love reaching hopefully for some fulfillment amid deep woe is expressively captured in it. It is tremendously appealing — much better than a smack in the lug, as Monty would say.
(Bosley Crowther) 

Anatole Litvak: The Life and Films by Michelangelo Capua (2015) | The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (2009) | When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945 by H. Mark Glancy (1999) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times contemporary review by Bosley Crowther


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