Ginger Rogers purportedly passed over the script for To Each His Own because, at first glance, it’s hardly a glamorous role; but for the right person, it could be something unquestionably special. That actor was Olivia de Havilland.
Certainly, the production is bolstered by Mitchell Leisen, a mostly forgotten director who made a string of highly memorable comedies and romantic pictures during the 30s and 40s. It’s no different here. And then you have Charles Brackett, formerly half of the lucrative writing partnership with Billy Wilder before alighting on his own as a producer. None of that can be discounted nor a handily-played dual debut by John Lund. But we must return to Olivia de Havilland.
In the opening interludes, she comes off as acerbic and curt, a forlorn type of person. No relationships or community or people to worry about or to worry about her. She’s joined by another middle-aged man named Desham (Roland Culver) and they make quite the pairing, taking on the night watch duty over the holidays so others might celebrate.
He coolly makes the observation that people like themselves are alone for one of two reasons — not caring enough for other people or caring far too much. Though Ms. Norris divulges little, we instantly gather she fits into the latter category. This is what starts us on the journey through her past, which led her to a man named Bart Cosgrove (John Lund).
But before their fateful meeting, the flashback sets up the world of Pierson Falls, familiar to anyone who has glimpsed It’s a Wonderful Life with its parochial atmosphere and local drugstore. Match that with the jingoism out of Hail the Conquering Hero and you have a slice of life in this little town during WWI.
John Lund is sour and far harsher than I recall in say The Mating Season and it serves him quite well. He and his co-pilot (the always reliable Frank Faylen) are the two jaded flyers who get the hardiest of welcomes from the townsfolk. However, this is their umpteenth stop on an endless bond tour. They’ve become overly familiar with people like Bernadock Clinton (Arthur Loft) the asinine town cryer making a continual bother of himself ushering the flyers around like prized sideshow attractions. And it would be more of the same if not for the meeting of the flyer with the town’s most eligible gal.
The heightened emotion of wartime uncertainty swirls around them and they share a rapturous, if whirlwind, romance that Captain Cosgrove was never expecting. All too soon, he’s off again leaving his newfound love behind and to use euphemistic vernacular, they’ve created a ticking time bomb.
Here To Each His Own enters its scandalous phase where Jody must confess to her father that she’s had a child out of wedlock. The old man (Griff Barnett), with the steady voice, sounds uncannily like Will Geer and spouts unassuming wisdom, “We don’t judge each other. We love each other.” But small towns are not usually as forgiving and so lest people talk, Jody decides to leave her child on a doorstep. Hoping to pick her child up later and “adopt him.”
Instead, a couple who’ve been tragically hit with a miscarriage are thankful for this second chance at cultivating life and they take the child. Of course, the couple is one of Jody’s old beaus and another peer. They got married because Jody rejected him. The dramatic situation is clear enough.
When the mechanizations of the plot become clear, it also becomes clear just how awful the circumstances are — just horrible. They’re apt to tear your guts out. After the passing of her father, Jody, who needs a job, proposes coming on as a nursemaid, but there is no compassion there. She gets pushed out of the scenario thanks to a jealous wife and a husband who still holds a boyhood crush.
She has no choice to move on and, being a go-getter, she takes charge of a bootlegging business and turns its front, Lady Windemere’s, into a legitimate international operation proving highly successful. Whenever she has a free moment, Jody does her best to manufacture chance encounters just so she can glimpse a few minutes with her son who is growing in knowledge and stature. But she knows deep down, with each passing year, little Gregory is less and less her son.
Melodramas or so-called “women’s pictures” can be hit or miss depending on how thick they lay it on and how much the music swells at the exact moments of deepest impact. But in full consideration, To Each His Own might be one of the finest such pictures to come out of the 1940s, and it’s no small coincidence that it shares that distinction with the thematically similar Stella Dallas.
When it’s all said in done, it’s about heartwrenching relationships between mothers and their children and when the mothers are portrayed by such stalwart titans as Barabra Stanwyck and, in this case, Olivia de Havilland; the drama enters territory that can easily pierce the heart to the core.
To Each His Own is also somehow akin to Random Harvest with dramatic irony being integral to the plot — one character knowing something that deeply affects how they live their life — except the person they care about knows nothing about it. This is by no means a criticism either but simply an acknowledgment that these stories can tug at the heartstrings with great fervor.
Again, it comes down to the players as much as the scenario. They must be people that we are capable of feeling great pathos for. Certainly Stanwyck, Greer Garson, and Ronald Colman and even Olivia de Havilland. Maybe she’s known for being difficult or a perfectionist or what have you, but that has nothing or maybe everything to do with her as an actress.
She makes us care about her as she moves from every stage of her life. And I say life because it feels less and less like a performance and more like real life. She, like Stanwyck before her, is able to carry the weight of youthful exuberance and maternal toil equally well.
Far from being unglamorous for winding up being mother to a grown son, I think a film like To Each His Own makes you appreciate the beauty of de Havilland even more. Because there’s a realness and a depth there that you would have never gotten in a career of roles opposite Errol Flynn. You just wouldn’t.
That’s part of what makes it special. And like the other previously mentioned titles, it goes out with a few tears but also espousing dreams. We can question the final moment — the rationality; the catering to the audience — or we can just enjoy it like a wedding feast with the ones we love.