Women in Film Feature #4 – To Each His Own (1946)

apv6i8xcTo Each His Own (1946)
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen
Written by: Charles Brackett, Jacques Thery, Dodie Smith
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mary Anderson, John Lund

The great Olivia de Havilland is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her time, as her name is very rarely thrown around with contemporaries like Hepburn, Bergman, Davis, Stanwyck, and Bacall.  She was not somebody I was overly familiar with before selecting one of her most acclaimed roles as a feature, but I sure am glad I chose her over many of my other options.  Olivia de Havilland is a two-time Oscar winner, and currently stands as the oldest living actor to have won a prestigious Academy Award.  The younger sister of fellow actress Joan Fontaine, Olivia got her start in industry working side-by-side with Errol Flynn, one of the biggest male stars in the early days of sound films.  From there, she featured prominently in a supporting role in Gone with the Wind, being nominated for her very first Academy Award.  Though she is known best for her roles in romantic melodramas of the era, her range as an actress led her to be nominated for a total of five Oscars, as well as a host of other awards and honors. This is most evident in Anatole Litvak’s 1948 drama The Snake Pit, where de Havilland plays a woman in an insane asylum who can’t remember why and how she got there.  Her tumultuous relationship with sister Joan Fontaine would have fans debating for decades over which was the best of the siblings.  Whatever the answer may be, the talented sisters remain the only siblings in history to have both won Academy Awards for leading roles.

By the time Olivia de Havilland would star in the acclaimed To Each His Own in 1946, she was already a bonafide star in the industry and would be at the top of her game for the next decade.  Director Mitchell Leisen had worked with the stunning actress just five years before, in Hold Back the Dawn; which saw multiple Oscar nominations and would give the young de Havilland her first nod for the Leading Actress award. The prolific director had nearly fifty directing credits to his name by the end of his career, and had worked with great actresses like sister Joan Fontaine, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert.  Despite working with some of the industry’s very best, his biggest successes seem to have come in early collaborations with Olivia de Havilland in the starring role.  Legendary screenwriter Charles Brackett (of Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard fame) both wrote and produced To Each His Own, adding his impressive reputation to melodrama.  As such, the picture was nominated for Best Writing at the Oscars, and Brackett’s screenplay helped Olivia de Havilland take home her first major acting award.  Today, To Each His Own is woefully ignored and overlooked among film enthusiasts, and is mostly relevant for being one of de Havilland’s greatest roles and performances.  The film’s highly melodramatic nature mixed with a very strong female lead character and a positive message at its core shows that the film is still highly relevant (if slightly dated and on the nose) today, and is ripe for potential of being rediscovered by a whole new generations of moviegoers.

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Olivia de Havilland as Judy Norris tending her father’s hometown shop in 1946’s To Each His Own.

To Each His Own begins with Judy Norris (Olivia de Havilland), an aging fire warden in World War II era London, recounting her life story to her colleague Lord Desham (Roland Culver) during a down period for the two.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see young Judy as she lives her life in her small hometown of Piersen Falls.  She is very popular among the locals because of her idealistic and kind-mannered nature, and has the eye of multiple bachelors in town.  Uninterested in any of the townspeople, Judy falls in love with a pilot named Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) who flies into Piersen Falls to promote the purchase of war bonds.  The two share a single night together, and Captain Cosgrove flies off to another town.  Soon, Judy finds out that she is pregnant with Cosgrove’s child, and that she may require a life-saving operation that would result in her losing the child.  After hearing of the untimely death of Captain Cosgrove, Judy changes her mind about the operation and decides to have the baby on her own, without the knowledge of the townspeople.  In order to keep her reputation as a stand up citizen in her hometown, Judy decides to leave her baby on the doorstep of a friend with multiple, who would “find” the baby and offer it to Judy because another child would just be too much. Unfortunately for Judy, the baby is given up for adoption after a series of unfortunate events to a couple who have just lost their own young child.  Judy pledges her entire life to reuniting with her young child, now known as Gregory or “Griggsy”.  She does this by aiding Griggsy’s adoptive mother with the young child, and constantly checking in on the family.  After some tension between the women, Judy is forbidden from seeing the young boy and moves out of Piersen Falls to start anew.  Will Judy Norris ever reunite with her son, or will the boy grow up and never recognize that he in fact has two loving mothers in his life? Find out in Mitchell Leisen’s Academy Award winning To Each His Own!

Being able to discover great new films is my absolute favourite part of doing these spotlights, especially since I always make a point of only seeking out unseen films. To Each His Own might be one of my favourite discoveries yet, especially since it’s something I went into with literally no expectations at all.  Olivia de Havilland was an absolute revelation, and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen her in a starring role until this film.  She brings so much power and grace to the character of Judy Norris, who is quite possibly one of the all-time great mothers in film. Her performance never feels cheap or too melodramatic, and instead oozes hope and idealism.  She never bows down to a male character who isn’t her own son, which is another thing I absolutely loved to see in a film from this time.  The direction by Mitchell Leisen isn’t anything to phone home about, but he obviously knew how to command one hell of a performance out of Olivia de Havilland and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom give good or at least passable performances.  The other shining light of To Each His Own is its Charles Brackett-penned screenplay, which packs tremendous emotional punches over and over again, but also isn’t afraid to insert some clever humor here and there. These comedic moments come mostly from small supporting players (often children) throughout, and helps to ease the tension the audience feels by watching a loving mother come so close to her own child, yet never manage to get the necessary words out to him.  The film moves at a great pace, not getting to Judy’s brief romance with Captain Cosgrove until more than twenty minutes in. We get a feeling for the town of Piersen Falls and the people who live within, and best of all get to spend some quality time really getting to know Judy Norris and her motivations as a character.  Things really speed up when Judy leaves her hometown for greener pastures, seeing her run her own small business empire with the help of a friend wonderfully played by Bill Goodwin.  To Each His Own never lingers for too long, yet always manages to remind you as a viewer what is really at stake with all of Judy’s successes.

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Olivia de Havilland accepting her Oscar for Best Actress from presenter Ray Milland at the 1947 Academy Awards.

It’s really too bad that To Each His Own has been so overlooked for such a long time now.  While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, there’s a lot about it to really admire and fall in love with.  Its melodrama feels realistic and mostly deserved, feeling more like the more subtle work of the great Douglas Sirk than your typical Oscar fare of the time.  It features a truly incredible performance by Olivia de Havilland, who plays a strong and loving mother who never lets anybody get in the way of her relationship with her son.  It’s incredibly progressive and despite aging quite a lot in some ways, still feels pretty relevant today.  It allowed de Havilland to really show off her skills as a leading lady, and led to her taking far more interesting and successful roles in the coming years. The film features a sharp screenplay with little to no wasted time, and the two hour run-time goes by almost too quickly.  To Each His Own had me in tears when the credits rolled, something I can’t say for many of the movies I’ve reviewed here on my blog.  While it’s certainly not perfect, it managed to easily worm its way into my heart.  To Each His Own is highly recommended.  

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