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This Above All

This Above All(1942)

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teaser This Above All (1942)

Behind the opening credits of This Above All (1942) you see the sky, full of ominous clouds yet illuminated by a distant, vaguely mysterious light. Combined with Alfred Newman's dramatic music and the film's literary-sounding title, you get the impression that high-minded entertainment is in store. And you're right. There's romance and action in the picture, but the title comes from William Shakespeare's immortal Hamlet, where the old chatterbox Polonius gives advice to his son Laertes, saying, "This above all: to thine own self be true...."

Set in not-so-merry England after World War II has broken out, This Above All begins in a posh estate where - war or no war - life for the wealthy Cathaway clan goes on as cozily and comfortably as ever. The privileged class is enjoying its privileges, to paraphrase Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940), and international upheavals seem distant and irrelevant. Only one member of the household - young, spirited Prudence Cathaway, energetically played by Joan Fontaine - has an emotional stake in the conflict, as we discover when she makes a fiery dinner-table argument about the need for England to persevere and win at any cost. Then she takes action, signing up for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force over her family's objections, which sound to her like "words oozing from the holes of a moth-eaten sofa."

Prudence promptly heads off to the WAAF for basic training, where she fits right in despite her high-toned background. In fact, everyone fits right in - no Full Metal Jacket (1987) here - and at night they all relax and have fun. Helping a friend who needs privacy so her boyfriend can propose, Prue accepts a blind date with the boyfriend's buddy: a soldier named Clive Briggs, played by Tyrone Power with a quiet, elusive sort of charm. Like all cinematic first dates, this one gets off to a shaky start. Clive is a small-d democrat with a lot of animosity toward aristocracies, and he lets rip with a rant before finding out where Prue hails from. Taking this in stride, she agrees to a tentative rendezvous the next day. The rendezvous takes place and everything goes wrong, from the weather to the bus schedule. So naturally the two fall crazily in love.

The future looks bright, especially when Prue and Clive go on vacation together, thanks to Prue's week-long military leave. But there's darkness at the end of the tunnel, and careful viewers will already suspect something is askew in this romance. Clive seems strangely eager for Prue to switch from uniform to civilian clothes, and he never has any orders or restrictions to bother with. The truth comes out when his old friend Monty, beautifully played by Thomas Mitchell, pays a visit to the old hotel where Clive and Prue have made a contented niche for themselves.

There we learn the shocking fact that Clive is a deserter. Although his reasons for deserting are a tad murky, he evidently fought courageously - indeed, he's up for a medal - until he was overwhelmed by the horrific death and destruction he witnessed at the front. In any case, the consequences will be disastrous if he doesn't turn himself in pronto. But he doesn't. Instead he leaves Prudence and hikes into the countryside, where he encounters a soldier who thinks he's a spy, a farmer who thinks he's a trespasser, a nurse who heals his injured hand, and finally a vicar who advises him to look at the spiritual side of things. It remains to be seen whether the latter's counsel will make a difference in his pessimistic, fatalistic outlook.

Directed by Anatole Litvak, whose next six films were government-sponsored war documentaries, This Above All lives up nicely to its high-minded opening titles, especially after Clive has his little chat with the vicar. This was what the filmmakers intended, since 1942 was the year when Twentieth Century Fox decided that with America and its allies at war, thought-provoking pictures about weighty topics would be both profitable and patriotic. The trend continued when the war was over, producing such memorable social-problem films as Edmund Goulding's The Razor's Edge (1946), about the clash between faith and materialism; Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement (1947), about anti-Semitism; Litvak's own The Snake Pit (1948), about abuses in a mental hospital; and Kazan's Pinky (1949), about racism. The studio invested a good deal of talent in This Above All, assigning the reliable screenwriter R.C. Sherriff to adapt the eponymous novel by Eric Knight, whose best-known legacy isn't this war novel but the creation of Lassie, everyone's favorite collie. The gifted cinematographer Arthur Miller shot the picture, which was scheduled for filming in England until fears of war-related disruption prompted a last-minute switch to Hollywood.

The cast is the movie's best asset, and the cast's best asset is Fontaine, who came to This Above All fresh from top-flight performances in two Alfred Hitchcock classics: Rebecca (1940), which brought her an Academy Award nomination, and Suspicion (1941), which brought her the Academy Award itself. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther exaggerated only a bit when he called her "lovely and tender and believable," and her speech about the importance of England is indeed "one of the high points of the film." Power is sturdy if not inspired as Clive, and Mitchell is excellent as always. Nigel Bruce, another veteran of Rebecca and Suspicion, also stands out as Ramsbottom, a Dickensian innkeeper. Trusty supporting players like Sara Allgood, Melville Cooper, Jill Esmond, and Miles Mander make the most of various small roles.

Its lofty ambitions notwithstanding, This Above All had a fair amount of trouble with Hollywood censors, who were especially miffed at the idea of unmarried Prudence and Clive going off together for a week and even staying in the same hotel. After corresponding with the Production Code office, producer Darryl F. Zanuck agreed to make the affair less torrid than in Knight's novel, and the revised version of the script makes it clear that the lovers are sleeping in separate rooms. Watch closely, though, and you'll see a perfectly good doorway between those rooms, suggesting that the lovers can do all the loving they want as long as they tiptoe back and forth. Good for them.

Director: Anatole Litvak
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff; based on Eric Knight's novel
Cinematographer: Arthur Miller
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Alfred Newman
With: Tyrone Power (Clive Briggs), Joan Fontaine (Prudence Cathaway), Thomas Mitchell (Monty), Henry Stephenson (General Cathaway), Nigel Bruce (Ramsbottom), Gladys Cooper (Iris Cathaway), Philip Merivale (Dr. Roger Cathaway), Sara Allgood (Waitress), Alexander Knox (Rector), Queenie Leonard (Violet Worthing), Melville Cooper (Wilbur), Jill Esmond (Nurse Emily)

by David Sterritt

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