RIP, Olivia de Havilland.
If there’s one person whom I regarded as the last of the great stars of the glory days of Hollywood, it’s the beautiful and very talented Olivia de Havilland. I’ve watched several of de Havilland’s films, and have invariably found her very watchable—she brought a dignity and grace to her roles that made her stand out. Plus, she was a very good (and very versatile) actress, seemingly effortlessly playing standard ‘damsel in distress’ roles (especially in the eight films she did with Errol Flynn), as well as much more nuanced characters, like the immortal Melanie of Gone With the Wind, the mentally tormented Virginia Cunningham of The Snake Pit, and the naïve, gullible Catherine Sloper, the eponymous heiress of The Heiress.
Over a career spanning five decades, Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars (for The Heiress and To Each His Own), and was nominated for many other awards, including various national medals and awards by France, the US and the UK.
Although she had her share of controversy (especially regarding her supposedly strained relationship with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine), de Havilland was in some ways a pioneer too. It was because of her refusal to go on playing ‘sweet young thing’ roles that she ended up suing Warner Bros. —and winning, a landmark decision which led to the law now known by her name. She also went on to be the first female president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Olivia de Havilland died on July 25th, 2020 in Paris (where she had been living for the past several decades), at the age of 104. To do justice to a career and a personality so formidable would take some doing, and it took me a lot of thinking to figure out which of Olivia de Havilland’s films to review by way of tribute. This one, for which she won an Oscar, seemed appropriate.
To Each His Own begins in London. In the midst of the Second World War, Jody Norris (Olivia de Havilland) is on a fire watch at a church. It is New Year’s Eve, and she and the person sharing the watch with her, Lord Desham (Ronald Culver) are a little wary of each other. Desham (though Jody doesn’t know who he is yet) is inclined to be dry and cynical, and Jody bristles at his assumption that she, like him, has no-one to be with one New Year’s Eve.
In the course of their patrolling of the church roof, Desham nearly falls off the building and is saved by Jody. Shaken, they go to a café for a cup of tea, and Desham invites her out to dinner.
Jody refuses at first, but finally agrees. Desham goes to the telephone to book a table, and while he’s gone, Jody runs into an old friend from back home in the US. The man tells her that Gregory Piersen is arriving in London today, on leave from the Front.
Jody, excited and in a flap, quickly cancels her date with Lord Desham and goes rushing off to the railway station. There, while she waits for the train (which is delayed), the film goes into flashback…
… to the previous war, where a young and radiant Jody works at her father’s drug store in the town of Piersen Falls. Jody is wooed by two men: the travelling salesman Mac Tilton (Bill Goodwin) and local heir to a pianola factory, Alec Piersen (Phillip Terry). Alec admits that he has a backup, a girl named Corinne (Mary Anderson) whom he’ll propose to if Jody turns him down—which Jody promptly does. Jody also turns down Mac, and when he asks why, admits that she’s waiting for real love. The once in a lifetime type, the sort of love that will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Little does Jody know that love is just round the corner. With the war on, a famous pilot is scheduled to come to Piersen Falls to promote war bonds. Captain Cosgrove (John Lund, in his debut role) arrives flying a plane along with his co-pilot, and is being driven to town by a local resident when he suffers in a minor injury in a freak accident. Cosgrove is immediately taken to the Norris drugstore, where Jody’s father attends to him.
Cosgrove, by now, is feeling really sleepy and fatigued (he’s been doing a round of the towns, promoting war bonds everywhere, that’s he barely had any sleep). Mr Norris gives him a blanket and puts him on the couch to have a nap before the night’s event, and in the evening Jody comes by to light a lamp, bringing with her coffee and sandwiches for Cosgrove.
One thing leads to another; Cosgrove tells Jody how uncertain life is for a pilot. She attends the event where he is the star. He takes her up in his plane and tries to hoodwink her into letting him make love to her—but when he realizes that Jody is really in love with him, Cosgrove changes his mind and brings her safely down. But by now Cosgrove too has had to admit his love for Jody…
Jody and Cosgrove have only this one night to themselves, and then he’s gone. He writes to her, and Jody lives on in Piersen Falls, treasuring each letter.
Jody soon discovers that she’s pregnant, and given how small and conservative Piersen Falls is (and anyway, this is before 1920: America is not forgiving of unwed mothers), she goes to New York City to consult a doctor. There Jody is told that there are complications: she is in danger of getting peritonitis, so they need to operate. She will lose the baby.
Jody returns to Piersen Falls to prepare for the surgery, and here she receives devastating news: Cosgrove has been killed. The only reminder Jody could have of their love is their baby; she cannot afford to lose that now, not even if it means risking her life. Fortunately, Mr Norris is understanding and supportive, and it is with his sympathy and affection that Jody goes ahead and, registered as Mrs Norris, has her baby in a New York Hospital.
And, with the help of her father and a sympathetic nurse named Daisy (Victoria Horne) Jody figures out a way to ensure that her baby comes to her without anybody suspecting that he is her baby. Daisy takes the baby to her home for a few days, and then, one day, when Jody is back in Piersen Falls, the baby is (according to plan) left in a basket on the doorstep of a neighbour who has a brood of children…
Too many children, actually, for them to be able to afford yet another. Jody, whom they borrow some milk from, immediately offers to take care of the baby, and the family agrees.
A relieved and excited Jody goes rushing off to bug diapers, clothes, toys–and in the meantime, something momentous happens. Corinne, who married Alec and has been expecting her first child, loses her baby and is a nervous wreck when the news arrives that a baby has been left at a doorstep in the neighbourhood. Alec and Corinne’s doctor hit upon the idea of bringing the baby to Corinne.
… which is why, when Jody, busy doing shopping for her baby, hears of the newest development, she goes rushing off to the Piersens’. It’s no use, Corinne is with the baby, her love already given to this little scrap of humanity. It would be inhuman to separate them now. Jody, though she’s frustrated and miserable, finds she cannot get in the way.
As it turns out, this separation is not short-lived. By the time Corinne has recovered, she and Alec have also legally adopted little Gregory. Jody doesn’t have the nerve to tell them that she is his mother, so she contents herself with spending some time every week with the baby, visiting the Piersens on the weekend, looking after the chubby little baby…
… And, eventually, coming into conflict with Corinne, who begins to resent Jody’s closeness to her child. Her child, not Jody’s. Things reach such a stage that Corinne accuses Alec of only loving Jody, not Corrine, and—to Jody’s discomfiture—Alec admits it. If Jody had accepted his proposal, he would never have married Corinne. Corinne is so furious that Jody is banished from their house.
Alec, however, promises to keep sending Jody photos of Gregory’s progress. Jody has to be content with this, and she lovingly keeps pasting every photo in a scrapbook.
From that unhappy, lonely young mother separated from her child to the middle-aged woman waking on a railway platform for him, twenty-odd years later, is a long way.
What I liked about this film:
Olivia de Havilland’s acting. She won a well-deserved Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Jody Norris, and she is superb. The young Jody is naive, sweet, girlish, earnest; her older avatar is more self-assured, perhaps a little cynical, with the sort of dry wit that often comes as a result of age and experience.
Some of the believability of this transformation—a very little bit—owes itself to makeup, but the bulk of the credit goes to Olivia de Havilland. She was a young woman, not yet thirty, when she acted in To Each His Own, and that is obvious in the earlier part of the film, where that dewy freshness and innocence, mounting in times of stress into a helpless panic, comes through. This is a woman with little experience of life, going bumbling through the best she can, not always successfully. Even a somewhat older Jody, wealthy and successful and more worldly-wise, is still far from adept at understanding human emotions and relationships.
And there is the Jody at the railway station, anxious and excited, terrified of letting Gregory find out who she really is, and terrified of not being able to spend time with him. Vulnerable because of her love for him, all the self-confidence and acuity of the astute businesswoman gone out of the window.
This very nuanced character, with all her flaws and virtues and frailties, is so well portrayed by de Havilland that she seemed to be the same woman, only older and more mature. Young, old, naive, cynical: one woman, but believably different with age.
There was nothing in this film I didn’t like (barring a little niggle: why does the possible peritonitis get so easily brushed under the table?), so I’ll move straight on to another important part of this review: the comparison.
If you’re as much a fan of old Hindi cinema as I am, you would have noticed the obvious similarity of the plot of To Each His Own to a very popular film of yesteryears: the Shakti Samanta-directed, Sharmila Tagore-Rajesh Khanna starrer, Aradhana. Aradhana’s credits didn’t contain a mention of To Each His Own (instead, Sachin Bhowmick got the entire credit for the story), but up to the point where Jody/Vandana gets a chance to be with her infant son, the two stories are almost exactly the same: it’s only beyond that point that they diverge. Jody becomes a wealthy businesswoman and tries to use that wealth to get her child back; Vandana never does get to rise beyond being a nanny/governess/whatever. The crime angle that sends Vandana to jail is completely missing from To Each His Own, and the last bit, as also how mother and son are finally united, is different (though both films do include a love interest for the young man).
For me, it’s difficult to choose between To Each His Own and Aradhana. Both are, in their way, good films for their space and their time, as well as the ethos governing both respective space and time. That Sachin Bhowmick and Shakti Samanta chose to put in a crime angle and have their heroine go to jail to serve a life sentence (instead of becoming a businesswoman—how inappropriate that would be, for a self-sacrificing symbol of motherhood to be so materialistic!)… is a reflection of the ethos that governs Hindi cinema. The melodrama, the songs, the fact that this woman has sacrificed so much and borne so much and suffered so much: all of it fits in completely with the perception Hindi cinema has propagated of Mother India: indefatigable in love, longsuffering, gentle, good. (The very fact that Arun and Vandana get ‘married’ in secret at a small, remote shrine, helps makes create the illusion that Vandana wasn’t an unwed mother after all: so, she is still pure, because she was married to the father of her baby).
Plus, Aradhana ticks other boxes which work for a Hindi film of the late 60s: the very attractive leads, the gorgeous setting (Piersen Falls can’t hold a candle to Darjeeling and around), and of course the superb music. And, not one but two romances: the second romance, between Rajesh Khanna’s and Farida Jalal’s characters, is also a fairly important part of the narrative.
For me, the one point in which, all things considered, To Each His Own scores over Aradhana is in the protagonist. Make no mistake, I like (even love) Sharmila Tagore, and before I watched Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own, I thought Sharmila was superb as Vandana in Aradhana. Now, I realize she pales in comparison to Olivia de Havilland. It’s not just the rather inept makeup (and the assumption that such a young woman, in jail for less than twenty years, would emerge looking so old and frail); it is also the acting. Tagore is good, but de Havilland is superb.
Thank you for the cinema, Olivia. Rest in peace.