To Each His Own (1946):  Olivia Out of Exile

Olivia de Havilland at the Academy Awards with presenter Ray Milland
Spoiler alert…she crushed it. With presenter Ray Milland
To Each His Own (1946)

Last week, we left Olivia de Havilland on the precipice of thirty, about to emerge from exile.  She’d won her lawsuit against Warner Brothers, gaining her freedom and liberating all actors from endless studio-imposed contract extensions.

She’d paid for the suit with a three year blacklist that ended in 1946 when she made To Each His Own as part of a two picture deal with Paramount Pictures.  A bad performance could permanently sink her career and make the De Havilland Decision a hollow victory.

She’d staked everything on her bone-deep belief that she had acting potential beyond fawning over Errol Flynn.  She now had a complicated role where she’d play a woman who ages from a young girl in love to a middle-age spinster.  She’d be in nearly every scene, expressing a range of emotions.

Hers was the only name above the title.

It was time to put up or shut up.

Spoiler alert…she put up.

To Each His Own is a wonderfully sentimental melodrama.  De Havilland was paired again with Mitchell Leisen, who’d directed her to an Oscar nomination in 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn (when Warner Brothers loaned her to Paramount.)

She threw herself into the role, getting into character by wearing the popular perfumes of the different eras, including Chanel #5 during the World War II sections.  For her scenes as a middle-aged woman, she channeled her own mother’s mannerisms.

And how was the film received?

It did a respectable box office, and de Havilland was nominated for her third Academy Award, this one for Best Actress.  She was up against favorite Jane Wyman for The Yearling, and Golden Globe winner Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny.

But unlike for Gone With the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn, this time Olivia de Havilland didn’t go home empty handed.

She’d spun her law suit victory into Oscar gold.

As To Each His Own opens, we meet Jody Norris (de Havilland), a lonely middle-aged woman spending New Year’s Eve as a World War II fire warden. 

Through flashbacks, we see her as a young woman growing up in Piersen Falls, the smallest of small towns.  World War I pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove sweeps her off her feet and she soon finds herself unmarried and pregnant when Cosgrove is killed in action.

John Lund and Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (1946)

Still believing she can find a way to raise her baby and avoid a scandal, Jody is devastated when her friends Corinne and Alex Piersen adopt her baby, believing him to be a war orphan.

Jody moves to New York and finds she has a talent for business when she starts a cosmetics factory.  Within a few years she has enough money (and holds enough of the Piersen’s mounting business debts) to blackmail the Piersens into giving her the baby, who is now a young boy.

Jody finally has her heart’s desire, but young Gregory is homesick and desperate to return to the only mother and family he has ever known.

In the film’s most heart-tugging scene, Jody realizes that she’s waited too long, and what’s done can never be undone.  She will never be the mother that Gregory wants.  With a lump in her throat, she calls the grateful Piersens and returns Gregory to them.

Her friend and business partner asks what he can do to help.

“Let me go to London,” she says of the company’s upcoming expansion city, “and find me fourteen hours work a day.”

Bill Goodwin and Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (1946)

And so Jody buries herself in work, tracking her son from afar, until she meets up with him again as a grown man on leave from World War II.  A flier, just like his father.

Desperate for a glimpse of him, Jody reaches out one more time in the hopes she can kindle a relationship with the son who doesn’t remember her.

Olivia de Havilland at the Academy Awards with presenter Ray Milland

Few actors have fought so hard for an Oscar and all that it symbolizes—acting excellence and prestige.  At the ceremony, much was made of the fact that Olivia de Havilland turned away from sister Joan Fontaine when Fontaine tried to congratulate her.  Neither sister cites it as a reason for their feud, and the smile on de Havilland’s face clearly shows that annoyed by her sister or not, she was having the night of her life.

And the best was yet to come.

To Each His Own (1946) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Sister Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the Academy Awards
Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…
Hold Back the Dawn (1941) opening banner
Suspicion (1941) opening banner

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)
Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only
Suspicion (1941) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.