Today is a monumental day for classic film fans. Olivia de Havilland, one of our most cherished stars, is celebrating her 100th birthday! In her honor, this blog post celebrates her Oscar-winning performance in To Each His Own (1946) for the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Thanks, Ladies, for the opportunity to participate!
On most occasions, the first movie that may come to mind when asked of Olivia de Havilland could be GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) where she received her first Oscar nomination for her role as Melanie Wilkes. Others may recall her performance as Maid Marian to Errol Flynn’s delightful Robin Hood or one of her other roles with the debonair Mr. Flynn. In her fifty-plus years in the business, we’re fortunate there are quite a few movies to get lost in with her and it’s been amazing to watch her range of characters intensify throughout her career. In her movies with Flynn, her characters had spunk, but they were extra sweet, borderline cloying. Her Melanie Wilkes was also sweet, yet cool as a sharpshooter with a crafty edge. Mrs. Wilkes didn’t give us anger; she gave us stoicism, that’s for sure. It was that extra depth that made viewers and the Academy take notice. The first time I remember seeing one of Miss de Havilland’s characters revealing a dark. even deeper nature came through the form of the horribly deceived and ultimately deceitful Catherine Sloper in THE HEIRESS (1949) and again years later when I watched her murderous Miriam grow weary of Bette Davis’s Charlotte in HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964). Those were scary times… when she’s dark, she’s intense, annoyed, and her voice is even much deeper! It’s awesome and beautiful acting! They were the types of roles she wanted to play and she had to fight hard to get them.
I love a good tearjerker and her role of Jody Norris in TO EACH HIS OWN (1946), directed by Mitchell Liesen, gives me a darned good cry. There she also presents her remarkable range. Set during World War II, we meet Miss Norris during her stint as a fire warden in blacked-out London. She’s paired up on New Year’s Eve for the second year in the row with a gentleman who initially comes across as the Grinch. During a tiny row about the battle of the sexes as they patrol a rooftop, he nearly meets his maker with a potentially fatal step. It’s a discussion that comes to an immediate halt and is never to return when she saves him from falling.
Indebted to her and frightened by his having his life pass him by as he waited for her aid, they went for a bite to eat where he shared a portion of his life story and she almost shared hers. They’d become really good friends. He then asked her out for dinner. When he left to secure a table at one of the most popular restaurants in town on New Year’s Day – he was also a Lord, so getting a table was of no question – Jody saw an old childhood friend who mentioned the upcoming arrival on the train of someone from their hometown in America. She dashed off to find her new friend, Lord Desham, and cancelled their plans. She had to wait for that train.
When she reached the terminal, a young woman looking for her pilot friend says to Jody, “You can’t imagine what it’s like being in love with a flyer.” She then dashes off. Jody became upset and quietly sat down to remember just indeed what it was like being in love with a flyer, during World War I.
Through a haze with Jody, we’re transported to her father’s drug store in upstate New York with rows of bottles filled with lotions and potions, a huge counter with ice cream glasses, and thick humongous jars of penny candies. The term “apothecary shop” really came to my mind. At the time, she was the girl next door, pursued by two of her childhood friends for her hand in marriage. She poo-pooed them both away, content with working in the store and enjoying her small-town life. This particular day, she’s mesmerized by the sound of the airplanes (they pronounced it “aeroplanes” actually) overhead. A dashing Captain Cosgrove (John Lund, a Broadway actor, in his film debut) is performing air shows in town. He’s later extremely exhausted and is given time for respite in the drug store. It’s the moment she’s smitten. He is too, but won’t say right away. She later takes a ride in the airplane with him among the stars and they kiss. Against the quaint and chaste movie standards of 1946, we learn that they did even more, which was really the premise of the movie… the outcome of that night.
Liesen’s direction in revealing the news of an unmarried Jody’s pregnancy still makes me gasp. It was so subtle and you’re simply captivated by that silent moment of such loud news. When Captain Cosgrove is killed in action, she faces the fact that he’s not coming back and she’s on her own at the risk of causing a scandal for her and her father. The fear of losing their business is not lost either. Those scenes with her father are extraordinarily tender. He loves her so much and lets her know he’s there even if no one else would be for the sake of appearances and mores in their tiny town (almost like Bedford Falls, but it’s called Piersen Falls). With her father’s blessing, she conjures up a scheme to have the baby and get it back to raise as a “war orphan”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite turn out that way.
TVGuide.com offered a great critique about the movie: “What might have been a trite soap opera is elevated to the status of superior emotional drama by a wise script, sensitive direction, and an Oscar-winning performance by de Havilland.” It’s true, all eyes are glued on Jody when watching this film. Not simply because it’s her story; it’s by watching Miss de Havilland in action, carrying a 20-year old increasing weight of the world on her shoulders because of the child. When that little baby is born, he wounds up reaching across so many lives and eventually out of hers. In a matter of years with him as her motivation, she becomes a wealthy businesswoman after she began a successful cosmetics company which eventually turns into a munitions company for the war. She’d also become hardened by her life and chose to devote her time to her work as a means to forget the boy. Watching how the situation about the child affects her is gut-wrenching much of the time. It’s not sad the whole way through, thanks to Lord Dasham, Mac, and Daisy. They keep Jody grounded as best they can. They also make her laugh, especially Lord Dasham. They know she’s hurting and try to ease her pain as well as ours as the viewer going through our own emotions with her.
This was the first movie in two years that Miss de Havilland had made as a result of her suspension by Warner Bros., for trying to get out of her contract. She had been suspended before for turning down roles that she didn’t want to play. She eventually sued the company and won. This allowed her to move over to Paramount, where she filmed TO EACH HIS OWN, her second with Liesen. Their first film together was HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941), for which she received her second Oscar nomination. Being away from Warner Bros. allowed her to play the meatier roles she craved, which obviously showcased her strength. The court’s ruling in her favor also led to what’s known as “The de Havilland Law”, which stipulates that studios cannot bind an actor to a contract for more than seven years. Her stance against the system proved to be beneficial for her fellow actors too. They aren’t stuck in one place for potentially all of their careers. They don’t have to answer to studio heads for a seemingly indefinite period of time. They also gained better control of their work.
The January 8, 1947 issue of Variety listed the movie among its “Top 60 Grossers of 1946”, at Number 23. Liesen was so enthralled by her performance as Jody Norris in TO EACH HIS OWN, he’d felt the Oscar was hers long before the awards were presented. On the last day of filming, he presented her with a bracelet that included a charm of the golden statuette. On the night of the Academy Awards presentation, after Ray Milland read the list of Best Actress nominees: Olivia de Havilland for TO EACH HIS OWN, Celia Johnson for BRIEF ENCOUNTER, Jane Wyman in THE YEARLING, Rosalind Russell in SISTER KENNY, and Jennifer Jones in DUAL IN THE SUN, he presented the award to Miss de Havilland. It was her first Best Actress Oscar.
In her illustrious career, she received five Oscar nominations and two Best Actress awards.
Miss de Havilland, thank you for Jody Norris and your other dynamic characters. Thank you for your humanitarian efforts in this world. Happy Birthday, Miss Olivia de Havilland!