Exacting standards: Director Mitchell Leisen's film
"To Each His Own" epitomizes the director's work
By Jack Shadoian
Film Comment September 1, 1998 No. 5, Vol. 34; Page 40
1. Mitchell Leisen. Not a household name. Which may explain why David
Chierichetti's useful 1973 book on him, Hollywood Director, remains out
of print while so many useless books litter the shelves and bins of the
big national chains, cornucopias of glittery trash created by the best
minds of the publishing industry. Book and subject thus share the similar
fate of being near-forgotten, neither having sufficient clout to rescue
the other from what is, apparently, a placid enough oblivion. Seeing Leisen's
films, though, kindles the urge to get up in arms, hoist a banner or two
in the hope of securing the director his rightful share of the limelight.
Segue to To Each His Own, a quintessential Leisen weepie -- what
one could unkindly call glittery trash created by the best minds of the
motion picture industry, but that just might be wonder-full enough to do
2. The story is a doozy. Two middle-aged curmudgeons, Desham (Roland
Culver) and Jody Norris (Olivia
de Havilland), find themselves on the same rooftop watch on New Year's
Eve during the London blitz Desham is solicitous and bossy; Jody pooh-poohs
his admonitions about safety. She's right. He slips, and she has to rescue
him. Dramatically thus "acquainted," they go for coffee and begin
to unfold each other's sad histories. He's "Lord" Desham, a bigshot,
but lonely and bitter; his wife and son died during a flu epidemic years
ago, and he's been in a deep funk ever since. They are interrupted by Bill
McNair (Dick Winslow), a resident of Piersen Falls now in the service,
who recognizes her. A certain "Griggsy" will be training in tonight,
an army pilot also from Piersen Falls. Jody leaves dinner plans with Desham
hanging and rushes to the station, where she sits and waits in cold fog,
and a long flashback commences.
How Jody got to where she is now, head of a munitions factory, is
more complicated. Seduced in her hometown of Piersen Falls by a handsome
pilot stopped off there for a cynical hustle (posing as a war hero) --
it's more accurate to say she seduces him (part of a general pattern of
postwar female assertiveness in film that To Each puts into motion
right from the start) -- she must cope with the stigma of her illegitimate
son, life-endangeringly birthed (the doctor has advised abortion) in a
New York City hospital. The pilot/father having been reported killed in
action, she decides to place the baby on the doorstep of a longtime friend
in Piersen Falls, then claim him as an abandoned child. With terrible timing
for Jody, the friend -- Corinne (Mary Anderson) -- has had a miscarriage,
and the baby is rushed to her instead as a godsentmiraclesubstitute. Jody
is anguished, but cannot fight such providential happenings, nor can she
burden her child with the curse of illegitimacy.
There is some compensation in her being allowed to care for the child,
an open invitation that she uses/abuses to become like a second mother,
always around, which eventually arouses Corinne's jealousy. After Jody's
father (Griff Barnett) dies, she sells the family drugstore and proposes
she move in with Corinne and Alex (Philip Terry as the Piersen son and
pianola factory heir who has always been in love with her) and of course
her child, called Griggsy. Corinne refuses. Jody plays her trump card:
Griggsy is hers! -- but Corinne has legally adopted him, having surmised
as much from observing Jody's fanatical love. Moreover, she accuses Jody
of being the mental object of husband Alex's affections, thus cheating
her out of a husband as well. Alex stumbles into this hell-hath-no-furry-like-a-mother-scorned
scenario and is forced to confess to a distraught and shrieking Corinne
that it's true, he's always loved Jody. Corinne retreats to her room, Jody
and Alex part tensely, and, access to Griggsy now a thing of the past,
Jody heads for NYC, holding a business card left by Mac (Bill Goodwin),
another former suitor who has recently visited the drugstore in a fancy
car and flashed a wad of bills to boast of his triumphs in the big city.
She arrives in time to see him arrested for peddling cut booze out of a
rundown "Lady Vyvyan Beauty Products" front. While he's cooling
off, she begins converting Lady Vyvyan from an illegal booze hideout to
a legit cold cream manufacturing shop (using her father's recipe and the
abandoned machines). She thus initiates, for herself, a regimen of tireless
industry. Big success. Her loneliness is relieved only by news and photos
of Griggsy mailed to her by Alex, which she assembles into a giant scrapbook.
Alex's visits to New York also allow for occasional "chance"
encounters with Griggsy.
Alex's business is about to fold; he needs a bank loan. The wealthy
Jody agrees to stake him, but demands Griggsy in return. It's blackmail,
but Corinne is stuck as the family is faced with ruin, and so relents.
Jody scoops Griggsy off, but despite lavish love and attention, he is unhappy
and longs for his old life and parents. Back he goes to Piersen Falls.
Jody turns to the London branch of her cosmetics empire, which she later
converts to a munitions plant.
The flashback ends and, twenty years later, Griggsy detrains. (The
actor is John Lund, who also played Jody's pilot one night-stand, Bart
Cosgrove.) He is surprised by this stranger's concern for his stay in London.
His also-enlisted girlfriend Liz (Virginia Welles) arrives, interfering
with Jody's fantasy of having Griggsy to herself to entertain, but she
does get to put him up at her house. Desham pops up again, in pursuit of
his broken date; mailing flowers and a dinner invitation, unaware of Jody's
giddy expectation of an evening out with her son. Griggsy, though, has
girlfriend on his mind -- they've been trying to get married. Jody hands
over theater tickets and Desham's table-for-two reservations to Griggsy,
who is dumbfounded by the windfall. Griggsy happens on the scrapbook, but
isn't fazed; of course he remembers now, it's old Aunt Jody in New York
that he visited years ago. Desham bumps into the rapidly departing Griggsy
on the stairs, and notices it's his flowers the lad's carrying off. He
complains to Jody about being stood up, but learns Griggsy is her son.
He arranges both Griggsy's wedding and his recognition of Jody as his mother.
The last shot shows mother and pilot son dancing publicly with other pairs
of dancers (echoing the earlier dance with pilot lover in Piersen Falls
-- to the same song, of course), a special kind of romantic couple.
3. A wondrous example of Paramount
team product, this film has plenty on its mind and meat on its bones. Studio
system at peak efficiency. Every shot lovingly apt, and then some. Bit
players sparked, maneuvered, directorially goosed to memorable contributions.
Paramount's Old World
sophistication takes on a special sheen with this American subject: ecstasy.
A reachable if short-lived goal (overriding subtexts of small-town smallmindedness,
gay sensibility, Freudian anxiety and despair, and capitalist free enterprise),
and ecstasy (in love and motherhood) is open only to women (men know' nothing
of this emotion). The year before, Joan
Crawford made an Academy Award comeback playing out the perils of over-the-edge
motherlove (Mildred Pierce); now it was Olivia
de Havilland's turn to add some glories to the perils and walk off
with another Oscar for long-suffering mothers. Motherhood (one might as
well call it "womanhood" as far as these films are concerned)
appears to be an intense postwar issue. How different are these two works,
characteristically angular, dry, edgy, clipped, verbally brittle, visually
stern even at its most dynamic, contemporary in feel (flashbacks and all),
with hardly a single character one could like (well, Eve
Arden's Ida); Paramount's
bathed in nostalgia, rounded, curved, misty, soft, sympathetic, with a
glow even to its clark scenes. Mildred's emotional errors earn contempt
and chastisement; Jody's provoke the viewer's generosity of heart.
4. The woman's picture has been variously defined, and is complicated
by its authorship (story, script, production, direction) largely by males.
Clearly, Hollywood was more than willing to address the large female audience,
which had swelled considerably during the war years; it recognized, for
sound financial reasons, that it was important that women be gratified,
guided, rendered important, and satisfied emotionally by the entertainments
it could provide. Hence the notinfrequent appearance of films like To
Each His Own, with its dominant heroine and unmale-like themes. The
theme of To Each, boiled down, might be something like: creating
and maintaining close ties is the most important thing in life. Such a
theme, rising above various subsidiary ones, simply does not occur in films
with male heroes (task and job predominate) -- it's a view a woman would
want to see affirmed, but not what a man would lend a willing ear to, or
be persuaded of. Leisen was gay; this may lie behind the full seriousness
with which he tackled projects revolving around women and their emotions.
He identifies. Women occupy a central position in all his best films, and
he treats them with conspicuous empathy. I think he just plain likes them.
Mildred Pierce's Mike
Curtiz, in comparison, doesn't much like anybody. Where someone like
Curtiz occasionally wandered
over to the woman's film, Leisen made his happy home there. To Each's
writer-producer, Charles Brackett, was cynical Billy
Wilder's longtime collaborator, and one can feel his less sentimental
presence hovering over the picture, looking for any opening, any opportunity,
to represent itself. The film's rich sentiment, thereby, is prevented from
To Each His Own is Leisen's masterpiece. All his talents,
favored moves, strategies, and inclinations coalesce incandescently in
de Havilland's Oscar
performance, the painstakingly assembled and photographed period decor,
and an emotional generosity that strikes fabular/fantastic chords yet is
grounded in behavioral realism. This film's "aura" is an achievement
unique to Leisen, and a testament to the art of directing, which still
remains in relative obscurity. One might object to some of the messages
being sent (to women, especially), but one can't ignore the beauty of their
transmission. The film can only be desecrated by an ill will that would
whittle its content down to being politically antediluvian (Desham to the
rescue of the emotionally helpless Jody). And that would be a position
Allan Dwan called Leisen a man of "exacting standards"
whose talent and education made him feel above the average denizen of Tinseltown.
A man that talented can give himself some airs without creating a furor
or raising envious controversy. He liked people and people liked him, and
it shows in the flattering camera, work, ensemble high spirits, and the
ceaseless observance of behavior, both quirky and inseparable from a particular
psychology, or socially derived and coded,
5. Is this a brave new world of fresh perceptions or a pusillanimous
old one full of predictable platitudes and status quo sermonizing? I don't
think ecstasy of any kind can be regarded as going backwards, even if it
does involve donning one or another kind of hair-shirt. To Each His
Own embraces human progress out of its "stuck" stock situations,
even validating (after the requisite suffering) Jody's lawless night of
passion. It shows a world where the sexes become more like each other:
feminized men and masculinized women (during the war many had assumed male
duties and positions and, inevitably, the attitudes that go with them).
People without a proper blend -- emphatically male (Mac), emphatically
female (Corinne) -- are relative failures. Mac succeeds because of Jody,
Corinne only from the sheer strength of maternal instinct (which the film
claims is stronger than any other; even a weak, pathetic creature like
Corinne is allowed a kind of fundamental life-salvaging equipment). The
better, stronger people have male and female blended more equally. In the
interests of maintaining an unthreatening gender alignment, though, Desham
is shown to advance from passive to active and Jody to retreat from active
to passive. She has achieved power and authority by repressing sexuality
and warping motherhood by asking it to satisfy all urges of the body and
the spirit. Desham's grumbling is easily solved -- let him, as a male,
once again take purposeful action. Jody's unhappiness is of more tragic
dimensions, a sin against nature and self. The film commendably relegates
the out-of-wedlock aspect of her motherhood to small beans (despite the
chain of consequences); she is wife in spirit, she "pays" for
her wild behavior with eventual boundless happiness. Her love for son,
and for husband by way of son, earns its just rewards. She even saves Mac
by legitimizing his business. She reforms Bart Cosgrove through love and
saves Desham, who will return the favor.
6. Yet she has a standard tragic affliction: blindness. When the
experiment with Griggsy falls apart she can't look at herself in the mirror,
but we see the doubled catatonic despair. And she lives twenty years in
error, in her final folly dressing up erotically for the son she has emotionally
got all tangled up with the memory of the dead lover she never had a life
with. (Griggsy proceeds to take off his shirt to shave, an echo of the
soon-to-be-lovers' first encounter in Piersen Falls -- thus underscoring
the extent of tragic error here: we're on the outskirts of incest.) Like
other, more famous tragic characters, Jody has taken the bold plunge into
the forbidden, committed a major moral/social violation, and is responsible
for her actions and the unhappiness that follows in their wake. Turning
the tables on the love-'em-and-leave-'em Cosgrove, she makes him serve
her fantasy. Taken by surprise, he falls under her control. This is the
"real thing" women long for, and she's not about to let it slip
by and away. She takes him, with our approval for the conjunction of instinct,
courage, and romance.
7. Unlike a despaironoir such as Siodmak's Criss-Cross, where
in a malevolent universe everything you think you're doing right turns
out wrong (making a gloomy comedy out of human aspiration), in To Each
His Own everything you do wrong turns out right -- a benevolent universe
indeed. But this can't happen without personal (and social?) change. It's
The Bronx (my own fair borough) over Piersen Falls, England over America.
Piersen Falls, an affectionately mounted slice of Americana, is nonetheless
a backward (pianola factory!), prejudiced, intolerant, "small"-in-many-ways
place, its gallery of American types characterized by their eccentricity.
The insularity of provincial life is gently satirized. A vibrant person
like Jody needs to get out of there, and when circumstances force her to
leave we know it's right and good for her. Alex Piersen, callow and incompetent,
is the last of the line, and signifies smalltown American attitudes must
succumb to a more national and international outlook. We see how it would
handle the problem of an unwed mother in Jody's father's chilling account
of what shame and ridicule the child would have to endure -- conditions
in The Bronx or England or practically anywhere else would presumably be
less trying. Jody ends up in England, escaping through work, but achieving
in a way not possible back home. Piersen Falls has produced a Jody Norris,
yes, but she must leave it behind. The film implies that the U.S. and England
(and by extension Europe) must merge; American emotion needs English reserve
and dryness, small-town simplicity benefits from contact with urban and/or
aristocratic complexity. (Consider the clash of attitudes provoked by Griggsy's
automatic recourse to the idiomatic/idiotic punctuation "holy Canarsie";
Griggsy has the last word, but utters Desham's tweaking emendation: "holy
8. The emotional upheavals are sandwiched between comedic endpieces.
The film begins with comic playing in darkness and works its way through
comic playing in light. In going from dark to light it also replaces a
pair of isolated middle-aged getups teetering on a dangerous wartime rooftop
in pitch black with a well-worn but still serviceable metaphor of celebration
and community: the dance, in a well-lit, fairy-tale restaurant full of
pleasurably circling participants. When Griggsy, in astonishment, says,
"We're just dreaming this," his equally astonished girl says,
"Let's try to remember it, though" -- a kind of allusion that
risks destroying illusion. But the film is confident enough to chance this
reference to itself, a recognition of its own fantasy, which at the same
time announces its importance and necessity (much as in Shakespearean comedy,
or, more pertinently, in a late Romance like Pericles). Ending in dance,
To Each can set loose a series of interconnected feelings and ideas:
transformation, awareness, spell, rejuvenation, perspective, non-taboo
physicality, unobtrusively fusing personal triumph (Jody rejoining life)
with the larger implications of social/ human cohesion. Eroticism loses
its perverse taint as mother and son dance together with the slate finally
clean. Disaster has been skirted.
9. In a benign world things rhyme, match, go together; loneliness
is set to rout, continuities are asserted, exchange is likely. Liz and
Griggsy relive Jody and Bart, Liz wanting to make the most of her short
time in London like Jody before her with Bart in Piersen Falls -- except
here they make it legal. Jody and Desham, two aging mutterers, find each
other in an unlikely manner. Jody's early habit of talking to herself (admirable:
she's a girl who feels the need to think things out) has hardened into
a misanthropic tic, one she will have no need to prolong with the gallant
Desham at her side. Conversions and adaptive transformations abound: pianolas
fade, but the plant produces something else, saving Alex from bankruptcy,
Griggsy from poverty, and Piersen Falls from doing a vanishing act. Loyal
friends Mac and Daisy Gingras (Victoria Home as a sympathetic Bronx nurse
who bestfriends Jody and later joins the firm of Lady Vyvyan) have their
situations improve sufficiently to offset their failures in love. Bart
sings a French song in English translation (the "theme" -- Victor
Young in fine melodic form); it travels throughout the movie, and gets
to help wrap it up. American novelty songs are imported to England to be
met with Desham's grimacing ridicule, but it's a cultural invasion he can't
prevent. Jody brings her American entrepreneurial acumen to England and
can make a significant contribution to the war effort by converting her
cosmetics factory into a munitions plant. The death of Jody's father (unfortunate
-- but foreshadowed throughout) makes it possible for Jody to be liberated
from Piersen Falls (good in the long run, if painful at first). Capitalism,
career, romance, and motherhood are all reconciled and validated.
10. Jody may be strong and competent, but it requires Desham to release
her from the folly of hanging on to Griggsy as she does. He's in charge
of the conclusion, directing the floundering Jody towards a happiness she
is incapable of arranging for herself. Once Desham, an appropriate mate,
can link up with her, the burden on Griggsy to be everything to her can
be lifted. Like the Duke at the end of Measure for Measure, Desham
can be irritating, and paternalistically bossy, but he gets the job done.
Not unlike the priestly police captain in Mildred Pierce who receives
Mildred's confession, he expertly engineers a well-deserved climax of life-fulfillment
for Jody, as though he's had a lifetime of practice in such things. I guess
men like to see fiercely competent women brought back to a domestic fold
where their competence can have unthreatening reign, and a condition of
servitude and dependency be reinstated. Olivia
de Havilland's bravura performance makes such speculations recede somewhat,
however, and makes To Each His Own among the least disagreeable
films that operate, almost unthinkingly, on that assumption. Nonetheless,
such films sympathetically exposed a number of real problems women had
to deal with relating to career, motherhood, sex (fear of pregnancy), and
examined potentially destructive obsessions real women suffered from. Mac
has Jody sized up right; he anticipates that her reunion with Griggsy will
be "like a honeymoon, only twice as good," though he seems oblivious
of its implications. Who needs the ecstasy of a lover/husband if motherhood
provides twice the thrill and satisfaction? This requires the "Lord's"
(Desham's) intervention. That degree of fixation, sublimation, erotic denial,
and compensation via power amounts to transgression. The lady needs help.
11. The film's pace is congruent with its view of life. There are
basic truths that survive no matter what degree of aberrant fluctuations
threaten them. One just needs to wait -- twenty years if necessary. The
film takes its time. Leisen lets emotion build within each scene, often
playing off the character's emotion against the decor, or having it resonate
with an object, or clash with offscreen sound. His mastery is evident by
how each shot seems to be held exactly the right amount of time to permit
both action and reflection; his transitions are so smooth they hurt, and
his mise-en-scene impeccable. Both subject and treatment indicate how he
feels about things, what he thinks is important. Sarris called him "an
expert diamond-cutter working with lumpy coal," almost like issuing
a license to dismiss his films. But since just about everybody was working
with lumpy coal, it's the first part of the description that's important:
nobody cut the lumpy coal like Leisen. Sure he had perfect gay credentials
(a background in architecture, costume design, and art direction), he ran
a ritzy restaurant, he had "touch" the way a pianist is sometimes
reductively said to have one, he cultivated polish and tact, his triumphs
were those of style over substance, and he embroidered feelings and images
with a fastidiousness uncharacteristic of male directors. The bottom line
is he made more watchable movies from 1934 to 1951 than probably anybody,
and continues to be underappreciated.
Nor should his part in the history of glamour and fashion be underestimated.
Women tend to run the show in his films. (Note how the men are split into
parts too diverse to prove competitive, and men usually aren't women's
enemies in these romantic melodramas; as males in action movies are, so
it's women who are women's enemies. In Mildred Pierce, Vida is more
dangerous to Mildred than any of the men -- though they slice her up right
royal economically.) What women look like is as attentively put forth as
what they think or feel. Everyone seems to agree on one thing: actresses
never looked more beautiful than in Leisen's films. But creating and then
peddling beauty is not, these days, regarded as a proper artistic calling.
The rendering of physical female beauty, in particular, can almost automatically
be seen as contributing to a diminution of the human, with centuries of
evidence at hand to be cited. Thus Leisen's pursuit of this kind of visual
bliss can be politically decried as contributing to woman's degradation.
How strong a woman is doesn't matter. What counts is that her ability to
subjugate males in the films is only a phanton independence granted by
a director who is culturally licensed to subjugate her erotically. (Hence
the need for actresses who could project autonomy strongly enough to dispel
the often clumsy indices of studio supervision and ultimate sayso.) Put
that way, it sounds pretty terrible, but Leisen's babes are a bright and
wonderful and lovely bunch, and lack the usual exploitative markings (see
Busby Berkeley's bevies of hot tickets and compare the two directors --
they worked some of the same territory). Admittedly, this personal force
would be a harder impression to make if they were homely.
12. Let's see Leisen cut some lumpy coal, about five glorious minutes'
worth of the film's 122, with Leisen's tact, restraint, and overall directorial
judgment very much in evidence, and impossible to surpass, though hardly
flashing in neon. We're in Piersen Falls, the drugstore. The Griggsy bubble
has yet to burst. Jody is living a frustrated but radiantly close existence
with her secret child (enshrined in a scrapbook). Her ill father rests
in the back room. Running the place has fallen on Jody. In roars Mac, now
relocated in New York City; who tries to jar Jody out of her dead-end life
in Piersen Falls. He'll marry her and they'll live it up in New York --
he's making big bucks. But he doesn't know about Griggsy, who is all she
cares about. Disappointed, Mac leaves his business card before taking off.
Jody remains in Piersen Falls, her life centered on Griggsy. It's a pivotal
scene, yet we're left with the impression that nothing of note has really
happened, so subtly are its considerations advanced, as in a series of
passing chords. This Macattack on Piersen Falls, in which his goodnatured
abrasiveness needs to blend with a number of contrary concerns and emotions
-- sorrow, energy, temptation -- is brought off in amazingly effortless
fashion, as though the shifting combinations formed themselves "naturally"
(unaided by "art") as part of life's complex, self-adjusting
Shot 1: CU of the Griggsy scrapbook, new pictures being reverently
added (de Havilland's
caressing fingers betraying deep emotion). Jody has just refused Alex's
dinner invitation, preferring solitary adoration of Griggsy. Her life-fulfilling
urge for being "with" Griggsy is shown to have an element of
excess, of compulsion.
Shot 2: The slickly outfitted Mac is seen in MS from inside the store,
about to open the door to enter from outside. The decor begins its insistent
hold on our attention, jars of penny candy looming large in the foreground,
about the size of Mac in the frame. Mac, a native defector, now represents
the world outside Piersen Falls, and is about to invade its most significant
icon: the drugstore (medicine, ice cream, booze, socializing, gossip, old-world
charm, home and business both).
Shot 3: Taken from behind Jody as she fiddles with the scrapbook,
it gives an expanded of the store's interior. The frame is with objects
-- Mac in the far distance, the jars of candy, but also a new clutter of
things that Jody, as proprietress, exists among and is surrounded by (the
store is part of her identity). We end up watching objects and their distribution
as much as characters and their actions. Emotions and attitudes will be
grazing off and among and around the decor throughout this scene.
Shot 4: MS similar to shot 2, but now Mac has quietly opened the
door and snuck in. We can assume an offscreen Jody fixated on her scrapbook
as in the preceding shot.
Shot 5: shows Mac surprising Jody at her scrapbook worship, and is
framed more intimately, MCU. She slams the book shut and looks delighted
to see, of all people, Mac Tilton. The background is an ordered density
of prescription jars, signs, lettering, textures (wood, glass, metal, things
dull and shiny), all a "living presence" for the encounter they
are inert witnesses to.
Shot 6: reinforces the sense of Mac as an aggressor, someone making
an assault, however friendly, on Jody and her way of life. She lets the
counter act as a barrier between them. He will be offering escape to a
dubious and indifferent Jody. This is, one could say; Mac's scene, Mac's
big scene, where we can understand his nature and gauge his potency. He
gets to articulate his values, boast of his success, deliver a deliciously
cynical aria about money, and make the case for getting out of Piersen
Falls. He fails, though, or so it seems, going home empty-handed and rejected.
But his lively visit has opened the film up, amused us, and planted the
seed that eventually makes Jody try New York. He leans over the counter
confidently, with a prepared spiel he hopes will be appealing.
Shot 7: Previous shots have directed our gaze from deep inside the
store towards the outside door, through Which pedestrians are glimpsed
randomly strolling on a sunny afternoon. Shot 7 will begin a reversal,
closing' off inside from outside. Mac is now "in" and the shot
is a side MS from behind him that "corrals" his energy and formalizes
the friendly; unromantic terms Jody wishes to maintain by increasing the
space between them to a length precluding intimacy. Leisen picks exactly
the fight angle to subdue Mac's vitality without compromising its value.
Between the "remote" Jody, her father in a bad way in the back
room, bedridden, and the now-musty aura of the museum/mausoleum drugstore
holding sway, he can't stick to his fantasy agenda: being irresistible
so Jody would take off with him to New York. We will spend some time now
inside where Mac becomes more a spectator in the drama of Mr. Norris's
illness and Jody's melancholy, unable to assume the initiator role so congenial
to his personality. The camera's lens has turned inward in both senses
of the term, the bright world offscreen behind it waiting to be rediscovered.
Mac's brashness is neutralized by the setting and the situation, but this
is a young Jody, radiantly lit; Leisen makes her really shine (one can
well understand why Mac took the detour to make his pitch). Jody's father
calls from the back room and the camera travels the length of the store
as Jody and Mac walk to see him.
Shot 8: follows a seamless edit as the reverse shot shows them opening
the door, Mac in the foreground, dominating. He gets to make small talk
with Jody's father while she looks on, clearly feeling low over his poor
health. Leisen has his customary profusion of detail and varied lighting
of foreground and background to keep the held shot interesting and act
as a container of sorts tot the emotion being generated. He chooses, as
well, a discreet, middle-to-long distance for this solemn tableau of the
dying lather (a good man), and the old ways of life he stands for.
Shot 9: Mac walks back, in longshot, to the center of the store,
expressing a distressed state by fiddling with his hat. When Jody joins
him, he wonders what she'll do when her father dies. They occupy the foreground,
but the deep-focus longshot is in place, and the shelves and cabinets and
merchandise continue to exert a palpable presence. Sell the store, she
says, and get a job in the pianola factory. Mac sets her straight: "Pianolas
are dead, Jody baby," and guides her out the door to see his ostentatious
new car. She's wowed by it and now begins to be vulnerable outside her
familiar protective environment.
Shot 10: The longshot juxtaposes the competing forces of the old
and new -- the car looms in the foreground, shiny with promise, while the
drugstore sits in the background, now ignored, with its own insistent,
if stagnant, air.
Shot 11: via a straight cut, is a two-shot of Mac and Jody. Mac,
supported by his imposing set of wheels, is holding court for Jody's edification.
He thinks he's sized her situation up right and holds good cards, not to
mention a huge wad of money, the enticing sight of which provokes a spontaneous
encomium on all that it can do for one. Jody is impressed, but Mac's speech
on the wonders of money falls on mostly deaf ears, as Jody is weighing
it against life in Piersen Falls with Griggsy, and there's no contest.
The car's steering wheel is thrust between them throughout this shot (the
longest of the sequence), as though to demarcate their separate sensibilities.
Mac accepts defeat graciously, and roars off in
Shot 12: MLS, leaving in his wake Jody, waving goodbye, suddenly
alone in what seems an immense amount of space -- a slight, hesitant figure
of somewhat wistful body language, making an unenthusiastic half-turn back
towards the store as the shot quickly fades. Leisen has hinted at her vulnerability;
there is perhaps a tinge of regret at this lost opportunity, Griggsy or
All in all, Leisen conducts an unassumingly brilliant clinic in the
use of mise-en-scene, in how to position characters in and guide them through
space to suggest meanings, in the timing of shots, the precarious shifting
of emotions tones, the remarkably smooth modulations and the take-turns
coexistence of Mac's comic self-promotion, Jody's ardor, friendliness,
worry, and delight, her father's moribund interlude, and the paradox of
Piersen Falls: the town Jody loves but cannot lead a legitimate life in,
a suffocating "whistle stop" of outmoded manufacture, both ethical
and intolerant, nurturing womb and enervating prison. He lets the often
warm clutter of his busy frames do his work for him, supply ideas and exert
commentative force. It's hard to imagine a director, outside the speed-crazed
early Thirties, who could have resisted holding that last shot, with Jody's
half-turn, several seconds longer, milking the pathos of her smallness
in longshot, indeed creating a pathos where something like an intelligent
thoughtfulness may actually be uppermost. Consider, too, that all previous
movements have been straight ahead or from left-to-right -- "action"
proceeding "normally." But the long take of Mac and Jody outside
by the car has him leaning towards her right-to-left as we watch her assume
a Griggsy "glow" to ward off whatever persuasiveness Mac may
be accruing (I don't think we respond to his money speech the way she does).
The turn towards the store in the final shot is from right to left as well,
and the angle relocates both the store and Jody in space; it is no longer
a reassuringly cozy environment, but one in which she feels more Mien and
more incomplete than before. Yet it's the ease with which Leisen negotiates
the integration of feelings, issues, motifs, and decor both iconic and
meaning-innocent that really impresses: sailing through the problem of
getting Mac first in then out of the store (mission both accomplished and
aborted), playing his shallow masculine freedom against the deep, sell-sacrificing
servitude of Jody's maternal rootedness, and containing the apparent force
of Mac by framing the sequence with shots of the rapt, adoring Jody, who
has, by the end, become more of a question mark, her body language enacting
a discreetly awkward, partially alienated movement. Mac has "lost,"
but Jody's move away from Piersen Falls is subtly anticipated by his unscheduled
and impulsive detour.
What is remarkable is that one can see the finesse, observe its execution,
without any dilution of emotion. Leisen cares and makes us care; the visibility
of his directorial presence merely sharpens our emotional response to plot
and character. One can only admire how much gets done so rapidly here,
while conveying a casual, leisurely air. What other American director of
Leisen's era (excepting the sardonic Hitchcock)
goes out of his way to insist that he is not only not behind the scenes,
but also majorly in front of them as a functioning director? Hence his
several on-screen appearances and the bold "I am here" flourish
of his signature. At the end of To Each His Own he inserts a slapstick
sequence with a wedding cake lifted from former collaborator Preston
Sturges's The Lady Eve, apparently unconcerned that the audience
might be jarred out of its urge to wallow undisrupted through melodramatic
incidents they have paid to savor fully. Of all the "women's"
directors, Leisen is the spryest, least ponderous, most moving.
Jack Shadoian is currently teaching at U-Mass, Amherst.
© 1998 Film Society of Lincoln Center