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Movie Reviews

To Each His Own  

I had always been under the impression that many topics were taboo in the movies before the dismantling of the Production Code in 1967, and that is true. I assure you as well that I believed such a topic as single motherhood would most definitely be a no-no. How could a woman who has had sex before marriage and had a child on top of that be the heroine of the story????? As usual, however, truth dealt me a blow when I discovered 1946`s To Each His Own, with an Oscar-winning performance by Olivia De Havilland as a woman who goes through just such a problem. The movie does a good job of dealing with this subject, although I suspect it was able to because it is a fairly conservative, if sympathetic, treatment.

De Havilland`s character is first seen in middle-age, in London during WWII. On New Year`s Eve, while everyone else parties, she is doing towerwatch duties with an older, widowed gentleman. He seems very mannered - or melancholy? He convinces her after awhile to join him for a drink, and in their conversation, he describes the loss of his wife, explaining it as a reason for his melancholy and drab life. He then attempts to explain what could be the reason for what he sees as her melancholy. She tries to deny it, but he`s not convinced. He says: Either you don`t care at all, or you cared much too deeply. The man says they are freaks of the world, for they both are lonely and separated from what they feel innately bonded to. For him, it`s a wife, a companion, and for her, it`s........ what is it?

That is explained in the story proper, which takes place during the previous war. She is a young girl in small town America. One day a hometown fighter pilot/hero visits the town, and everyone is anxious to catch a glimpse or have a meeting with him. One of the woman`s friends, a square type of individual, wants to be enlisted as a pilot, and the woman has a chance to ask when the pilot suffers a foolish injury at the hands of an old man`s driving, and stays at their house for the night. When she asks the pilot about his friend, he goes into a long speech which might work in convincing right-minded people to think twice before joining the army, unless of course you`re exactly the type mentioned in his speech. He says that a good, upstanding young man like his friend shouldn`t mess around with such a cold, dreadful occupation. Only a reckless individual like himself would dare do such a thing. He describes himself as bad-tempered, someone who often has one-night stands, one who lives dangerously, and so on. He is of course, your standard wild man......which drives the woman mad, in a lusty sort of way. The two end up talking, flying his plane, and apparently having sex. I say apparently because this movie is so damned subtle that a careless viewer won`t even realize any bundle of joy is about to arrive, much less any sex happened, until five minutes later in a scene with her doctor. Since I already knew what was to happen, I was just curious how they would spring us with the news in a subtle way; let`s just say it involves a scene with milk.

The child is born, and in an awkward scene, the woman and father create a plan where it appears as if the child was abandoned at their doorstep as a war orphan. Circumstances creep up which take the child away from her, to be given to a real couple. She is forced to become merely a sitter for the child. Years later, she has become a successful businesswoman, yet she is still pained by what she has lost, and would do anything to get her kid back.

The movie seems to make a potentially offensive case that a "real" mother cannot be both a single mother and a successful career woman at the same time. This case is made in an admittingly effective sequence when she is finally able, through blackmail, to take the kid back to her home permanently. For a number of months, the kid is quite depressed and homesick, and eventually cries for mom before he can be told the truth. The message is that the woman, in trying to retrieve what is organically hers, is actually hurting the child, torn from the family he has grown up in. There are discussions during the film by her friends who try to convince her that the kid will not naturally see her as a "mother" even if she is. The message is that a mother is more than someone who has given birth to a child, but someone who is there for that child throughout its most important years. Quite right, but the movie fails to appreciate the fact de Havilland`s character was forced to give up that child at birth, and also that during her years as sitter, she probably acknowledged the child`s needs a great deal more than the vain woman the child actually lived with. If society had not made a woman appear as such a pariah, there would be no question that she could actually raise the child as she wished, and not have to behave in such an awkward manner during the first half of the film. The movie seems to want to have it both ways, however. It states clearly that single motherhood is problematic, and that a person who falls into that situation is not fit for motherhood, which to me seems out of principle rather than character. Yet the ending is satisfactory in that she finally achieves the closure she has so desperately wanted for many decades.

This is still quite a daring film for its time, and should be taken that way when viewed. While it is conservative in nature, the acting is good, and the melodramatics work in that grand tradition of Hollywood`s Golden Age. It is a film which at least attempts something bold and works well for it.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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