To Each His Own (1946): Olivia de Havilland Does Melodrama Well

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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.

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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.

4/5 Stars

No Man of Her Own (1950)

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Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is slighted by her slimy boyfriend who ditches her for a blonde and the only thing he offers her in return is a train ticket out of town. What can she do but take it dejectedly with barely any money, 8-months pregnant, without any future at all? She’s in a lowly state. That is until she is befriended by the perky Patrice Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter) and her genial husband (Richard Denning), who quickly lift her spirits through their continual ebullience.

The first sign of melodrama comes with a horrible train crash that leaving both Harknesses dead but Helen survives waking up in a hospital to find that her baby was saved. Except there’s a catch and, mind you, it’s the pivot point on which the weight of the whole story balances. In the commotion-filled aftermath of the crash, Helen is mistaken for Patrice, the young wife her purported in-laws have never met before. Now she is in their home to be taken care of.

Of course, at first, Helen is scared. She has nowhere to turn and so she goes along with it as her baby for the moment has a roof over his head. As time progresses, she comes to grow deeply affectionate of Mr. and Mrs. Harkness. The kindly matriarch (Jane Cowl) is so taken with her new daughter-in-law it all but consoles her in the loss of her son. Meanwhile, her other boy Bill (John Lund) takes a deep liking for his sister-in-law and does everything to make her feel welcome in the foreign environment. You can tell he genuinely cares about her. It’s no act.

However, the film also explores themes that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on The Train (1951) would traverse only a year later with strains of blackmail and the specters out of her past coming to ruin the life Helen has created for herself.

Her no-good ex is interested in what she has landed in and what he can get out of it. First, it’s money to keep her secret, then it’s marriage so that he can get in on her cut of the Harkness fortune if ever it comes her way. He’s a filthy parasite and she knows there’s only one conceivable way to be rid of him. You know if already: murder!

But far from getting tossed out by the Harknesses or being completely undone by Morley, Helen, Patrice, whatever you wish to call her, is able to salvage a life for herself because of compassionate folks who are willing to accept her no matter her background. They even get knee deep into her plight, even die for her. The extent of their kindness leaves her forever grateful and hopeful that some form of human love still remains possible for her. Even the prospects of a murder rap seem surmountable.

The ending has one of those final cherry-on-the-top-of-the-sundae resolutions allowing everything to tie together in a nice bow. Some people might find it silly but I rather liked it. It gives the storyline one ironic twist of fate perfectly suited for this turbulent strain of drama. The police are satisfied. Crime didn’t pay. Our romantic leads get to stay together. All is right with the world. After such bleak beginnings, it’s almost laughable.

Despite being an utterly preposterous conceit, Barbara Stanwyck rides it out with her usual measured commitment to her craft both sympathetic and to the degree possible, believable. In the latter half, she’s an absolutely pasty mess personifying a woman terrified about being found out in her lie and subsequently rejected by the ones she’s worked so hard to love.

Director Mitchell Leisen, though given his penchant for finely wrought romantic comedies and an eye for costumes and interiors, shows he is no less capable in this woman’s picture, keeping it afloat even as it cycles through all sorts of implausibilities. I was generally fond of John Lund in The Mating Season (1951) as well, though it’s true he’s all but overshadowed by his female costars in both movies. However, when the people in question are the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, and Thelma Ritter it’s quite understandable.

3/5 Stars

The Mating Season (1951)

b3d8e-the-mating-seasonThelma Ritter was always a scene-stealer, upstaging the stars, but perhaps it is no more evident than in this comedy starring Gene Tierney, John Lund, and Miriam Hopkins. She runs a hamburger stand in New Jersey, talks plain, and works hard. Her son Val McNulty is a college graduate and a kind, gentlemanly figure who also loves his mom for who she is.

In one of the fastest meet-cutes/courtships I have ever seen on film, Val marries the lovely socialite Maggie, a woman above him in status who falls for him, because he is nothing like the stuffy upper crust she is used to dealing with.
In a classic screwball type development of mistaken identity, Ellen McNulty arrives to live with her son after her stand was closed down. But when calling on the house she is mistaken for a cook, and she willingly plays along with the mistake in order not to embarrass her son. Imagine his surprise when he sees her and yet he does not explain who she is. She tells him to play along with the little deception and Val reluctantly goes along with it.
When Maggie’s own stuffy mother (Miriam Hopkins) comes into town, she disapproves of her daughter marrying below her and nothing will make her like Val. Just think what would happen if she knew who Ellen really was?
One evening the unlikely couple goes to a party held by the Kalinger Family who run Val’s firm. There Maggie is insulted and runs out of the party in a huff. The lady she has a spat with is a prestigious person, and Val forces her to apologize. Needless to say, the marital sparks fly. However, things heat up even more when Maggie finds out by accident who Ellen really is. Now Val has a lot of explaining to do and his wife feels lied to. She is furious that he would think her too proud to welcome in his humble mother. Maggie gets ready to leave for Mexico, a destination for attaining an easier divorce.
Interestingly enough, it is an unlikely outsider in Mr. Kalinger Sr. (Larry Keating) who gets the couple back together through a shameless ploy. However, they are not the only unlikely love story, he has a budding romance of his own.
Mitchell Leisen seems to be a little-known director, but after seeing this film I was quite impressed. This movie works because of the conflict in class and the complications and laughs that come out of it. It is this type of conflict that hearkens back to the scatterbrained screwball comedies of the 1930s. Perhaps it is a little hard to believe that Lund was Ritter’s son, but they had enough chemistry to make it seem plausible. It was also hilarious to see Gene Tierney struggling in the kitchen, and Miriam Hopkins was a decent inclusion playing Maggie’s opinionated and overblown mother. Call me plebian if you want, but I know which mom I would take…
4/5 Stars