Originally released 12 Mar 1946
Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Jacques Thery from a story by Charles Brackett
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Starring Olivia de Havilland, John Lund, and Mary Anderson
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Outstanding romantic drama of a woman’s struggles through two world wars.
On July 1 this year, Olivia de Havilland turned 100. Most articles about this momentous event mention her appearance in Gone with the Wind. Most mention that she won two Oscars. Some may even discuss her Oscar-winning performance in The Heiress. But very few will do more than mention the film for which she won her first Oscar: To Each His Own. Although this movie remains difficult to access—it’s available on VHS and there’s a version on YouTube in an improper aspect ratio—it’s beloved among those who have seen it. I remember recounting to a coworker how much I loved the film and being overheard by another coworker, who came up to us and said, “I saw that movie in 1946. Isn’t it beautiful?” and promptly got teary.
To Each His Own is a tearjerker, a very effective one, but that description doesn’t do the movie justice. It carries with it connotations of sentimentality and emotional manipulation. Even more, the term genders the movie. Tearjerkers are “women’s films,” and those movies are rarely regarded as important cinema. Films about emotional life are not valued by the critical community as much as films about external conflict or intellectual examination. Concepts like romantic love and maternal sacrifice just aren’t considered as serious as social upheaval or war.
But, in some ways, To Each His Own is a war film. It tracks the life of Jody Norris (De Havilland) from one world war to the next, from small town girl to munitions factory owner. Her life is profoundly affected by the wars even if the actual combat is a long way away. The movie is also a story about challenge to the social order. Jody pushes against the restrictions of society and pays for this opposition with disappointment and loneliness. De Havilland’s gentleness, however, disguises Jody’s strength and force of will, tempering it grace and restraint.
The film relies on the strength of its central performance, and De Havilland delivers. She earned her Oscar here. She believably ages from late-teens to mid-forties (although some credit has to be given to the make-up department for some of the best age make-up I’ve seen in a classic film). She’s particularly effective as the middle-aged Jody. It’s hard to believe that she was only 30 when making the movie because she captures the “what if?” disillusionment of age so well.
De Havilland has excellent support from Griff Barnett, as Jody’s father, and Bill Goodwin and Roland Culver, who play two of Jody’s suitors. Her leading man is John Lund, who, with his normal blond hair, plays Jody’s lover and, with his hair dyed dark, plays her son. He has an Jimmy Stewartesque “Oh, gosh” approach to the latter part while, in the former, he takes on a more cynical persona, similar to his role in A Foreign Affair—also penned by Charles Brackett (with Billy Wilder)—two years later.
Brackett is best known for his uber-cynical collaborations with Wilder, including the 1950 masterpiece of cynicism Sunset Blvd. So, it’s surprising to find him as writer (with Jacques Thery) and producer of such a romantic, sentimental film. However, the film has a subtle undercurrent of cynicism, presenting the world as a heartless place where people inflict small cruelties on each other in forwarding their own self-interest.
Like many women’s films, the main antagonist in the movie is another woman, played by Mary Anderson. Similar to Miriam Hopkins’s character in The Old Maid but more petulant, Anderson’s Corrine destroys Jody’s happiness without being an evil person. Corrine, too, suffers and struggles in the movie, and those travails bring her into conflict with Jody. As much as the viewers may resent Corrine for her actions, everything she does is motivated by her own suffering. She loses a child, her husband freely admits loving another woman, and her family goes bankrupt. The world is as unkind to Corrine as it is to Jody.
Director Mitchell Leisen remains horribly underappreciated in film history, with most of his films being romantic in nature and, thus, lacking gravitas in the eyes of the critical establishment. But he has a faculty with emotional content. His films make viewers feel. They inspire a visceral reaction.
I had once considered To Each His Own my favorite film. But I hadn’t seen it for a few years and had passed that title to Rear Window. Going to watch it celebrate De Havilland’s birthday, I thought, “It couldn’t possibly be as good as I remember it.” But it was. It had more depth than I remembered and still ensnared my emotions. To Each His Own may lack the cultural cachet of Hitchcock’s classic, but it dethroned it to regain its glory at the head of my movie pantheon.