When she did “To Each His Own”, Olivia de Havilland was just under 30. Yet, for the first 15 minutes of the film what we see is a woman that is supposed, at worst, to be in her late 40s. What is interesting is how that make-up resembled Olivia, not aged 50, but aged 60. She beat her make-up artists’ worst predictions.
Of course what was at stake was not realism, but a quick way to let the audience know that this practical, pragmatic woman that spent her New Year’s Eve in a church rooftop during the Blitz, has given up the emotional part of her life. Then we have the start of a long flashback where all is explained to us. This is the story of a mother who gives away her love child after the father’s death in WWI, first forced, then nobly and then goes to the background and suffers in silence.
This is high quality melodrama, with full production values and acting to match. Mitchell Leisen delivers one fine film and more and more I believe he is an underrated director of post-Lubitsch comedies (not in the same league as Wilder or Sturges, but close) and romantic films (both comedies and dramas).
There’s some subtlety in the “villainess”, as you can sympathise with her, moreover, you are left wondering what you would do in her place. There’s also some ambiguity in Olivia’s character, as she becomes desperate to recover the child. Finally, there’s some realistic attitude towards sex, with Olivia knowingly seducing John Lund because he only has three hours before his license ends. Later we are presented with a positive example of women in business. Plus, I loved the ending. Interestingly, the film is scripted and produced by Charles Brackett, in one of his few non-Wilder collaborations of the 1940s. Brackett and Wilder reportedly started producing and directing their own scripts because of Leisen's treatment of their material, so I find it curious that suddenly the two are collaborating again. Its main flaw (only serious flaw?) is the casting of John Lund, who has systematically left me cold.
De Havilland, an actress that I like very much, won the first of her two Oscars for this. Partly, I suspect, it was a reward for her courage to fight the studio system. Partly because she suffers so much on screen, and the Academy loves that. I mean, how can they resist? Except that among the losers was Celia Johnson for “Brief Encounter” and that makes it one of the great injustices of the Oscars.