France, 1846. Mademoiselle Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Davis) is governess to the four children of a French noble, Theo, the Duc de Praslin (Boyer). The Duc is stuck in an unhappy marriage with an awful shrew of a wife, the Duchesse Francoise (Barbara O'Neil), but he stays in the marriage for the sake of the children.
However, the awful Duchesse is driven to rage by the presence of the kindly, gentle Henriette, who has earned the affection of the children and the love of the Duc. The Duchesse winds up firing Henriette. The poisonous relationship between husband and wife leads to a confrontation with tragic consequences.
Legendary composer Max Steiner did the score.
- Awful Wedded Life: Sweet Jebus. Things between Theo and Francoise have been bad for some time; he insinuates to Henriette that Raynaud was the result of one night of passion in what has otherwise been a Sexless Marriage for many years.
- Based on a True Story: There was a real Duc de Praslin, a real governess, and a real murder. The scandal that ensued contributed to the overthrow of Louis Phillipe, the last King of France, in 1848.
- Driven to Suicide: Theo kills himself, supposedly to avoid implicating Henriette in the murder, although one might imagine that not wanting to face justice was part of it.
- Establishing Character Moment: The very first time we hear Francoise talking, she is screeching at the top of her lungs about how Theo humiliated her over something.
- The Film of the Book: Adapted from Rachel Field's 1938 novel of the same name.
- Framing Device: A post-scandal Henriette, now teaching French at an English girls' school, telling her whole story to the students after they find out about her past.
- Gossipy Hens: The mean catty girls at the school, who gossip about their new French teacher Henriette.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Francoise hates the hell out of Henriette for Henriette's obvious closeness with Theo.
- Have a Gay Old Time: One of the daughters says Henriette has livened things up around the house, noting that "Even Papa was never so gay."
- It's All About Me: Francoise has an extreme case of narcissism. She tells Theo straight-up that she doesn't care about the children, she only wants him to pay attention to her. She makes little Raynaud ride in a carriage with her when he's sick, because she wants company; he nearly dies. She is less concerned about Raynaud's health when he's on his sickbed than the fact that she is being kept out of his room.
- Love Triangle: Theo, who lost interest in his wife years ago, falls for his lovely governess. His wife, for all her insane histrionics, is obviously in love with him and desperate to win him back.
- Protagonist-Centered Morality: It seems that we are supposed to root for Theo and Henriette and dislike Francoise—Francoise being the wife who desperately begs her husband to love her and commit to her. Theo does not help when he does things like completely ignore the emotional letter that Francoise slips under his door at night.
- Snow Means Love: Theo watches the first snow of the season and has an intimate moment with Henriette when he talks about how snow can make you feel all alone in the world. At the end of the movie, Henriette and Rev. Field hold hands and watch snow falling out the window.
- Sympathetic Murderer: Francoise is so awful that she basically has it coming.
- Time Passes Montage: A montage shows Theo and Francoise going to a succession of public outings, as they are trying to correct the public impression that Theo has thrown over his wife in favor of his governess.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: All that angst, and they never get farther than Theo kissing Henriette's hand once.