Saturday 27 August 2016


I wrote this piece at the end of July, but it went unsold and unpublished through August. It probably should have been hooked to her birthday, but I confess to being slow on the uptake. I wanted to focus specifically on DeHavilland's court victory, and the direct artistic impact it had on her career, once removed from the studio system. 

In a more general piece, like this, I would have mentioned how adept she was at comedy, even as a real ingenue; you can see two films released in 1935 for the evidence. Alibi Ike, based on the Ring Lardner story, is still a good baseball movie, with the comedian Joe E Brown (who had played professional baseball). It was her first film released, but her first film role as Hermia in the much-underrated at the time Warner Bros A Midsummer's Night's Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, proved she was an actress of real talent. It was released after Alibi Ike. 

I would also have told the story of my friend Steve Springer and his wife Kara, who met on an Errol Flynn chatroom back in the early days of the internet and married very soon after. In London at dinner one night, he told the story and said the reason he'd fallen for her was she was the only person in the chatroom who could name the eight movies DeHavilland and Flynn had made together. I rattled off Captain Blood, Robin Hood, They Died With Their Boots On, Santa Fe Trail, Charge Of The Light Brigade, Elizabeth and Essex, and even Dodge City, but I couldn't recall the title of Four's A Crowd (a screwball-ish comedy that's another of her hidden gems). 'It's lucky,' I told Springer. 'If I'd got all eight you would have had to marry me.'

On July 1st, Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 100th birthday. DeHavilland is best remembered today for her early work at Warner Bros, particularly the best of her eight roles opposite Errol Flynn, as a radiant Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and for Gone With The Wind where her performance as Melanie is arguably the finest in the film. But there is more to the career of one of Hollywood's best actresses, because in 1943 DeHavilland won a landmark decision in court against Warners, a decision which launched her career on a second act of remarkable quality.

It is not an exaggeration to see DeHavilland vs Warner Bros Pictures as the first of three major blows that brought about the end of the studio system as it had functioned for some four decades. It was followed by the 1948 anti-trust ruling which stopped studios from owning and block booking the theatres which showed their movies, thus separating production and distribution. Then, with the rapid growth of television a few years later, actors and their agents increasingly assumed the producing role studios had kept as a virtual monopoly for themselves.

DeHavilland's case was simple: when her seven year contract with Warners expired, the studio attempted to keep her for another six months, citing accumulated days of suspension which they said she owed them. But California law prohibited personal services contracts of longer than seven calendar years, and the appeal court's confirmation of the verdict in her favour, which became known as the DeHavilland Law, meant DeHavilland herself became a free agent, and the de facto blacklisting by Warners which had stalled her career was finally lifted.

She had received some of those suspensions for her reluctance to accept the parts she was assigned, and her constant battle for better roles. The proffer of such roles was sometimes used as a tactic to draw a refusal and thus suspension, thereby extending the contract. But Jack Warner also saw her as an ingenue, and she was usually cast in roles for ingenues grown up: as the stalwart girlfriend, the loyal wife, or the virtuous foil for the more interesting bad girls of film scripts: not just Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, but the likes of Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde or Paulette Goddard in Hold Back The Dawn, just to name two from 1941. After Warners, DeHavilland had to fight to bring people on board to produce and direct her in roles she chose for herself. She worked far less often, but what is fascinating is the way the first four roles she picked all drew explicitly on the frustrations of the characters she had earlier played. She was consciously crossing the artificial boundaries Warners had set for her.

First, she persuaded Mitchell Leisen, who’d directed Hold Back The Dawn, to use his deft touch with actresses on To Each His Own (1946), where her noble character just happened to be an unwed mother, which gave DeHavilland the chance to stretch the boundaries of how audiences defined 'good' women by maintaining the character they were familiar with seeing throughout her moral travails. She won her first Oscar for the role. Hollywood’s appreciation of her fight against Warners may have played a part, but her performance was a complete vindication of her judgement of her own talents.

De Havilland followed up with The Dark Mirror (1946), directed with noirish style by Robert Siodmak, in which she played sisters, one the classic dreamy good girl, the other a deadly femme fatale, in effect her stereotype and its opposite, a lovely piece of commentary on her own career. It was received lukewarmly by the critics, particularly where it bogs down into Freudian murk, which was a hot topic in Hollywood at the time. But it holds up far better than Hitchcock’s Spellbound, released the previous year, in which Gregory Peck impersonates a psychiatrist, with attendant mumbo jumbo and of course an icy blonde shrink played by Ingrid Bergman at her most intelligent yet vulnerable.

After a spell on stage, during which she met her first husband (both her husbands were writers, an interesting coincidence), DeHavilland returned to the screen in The Snake Pit (1948) directed by Anatole Litvak, playing a woman committed by her husband to a state mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown. There are harrowing scenes of what amounts to torture, and DeHavilland is brilliant in marking her character’s transformation throughout the process. It's worth a comparison to Sam Fuller's more lurid Shock Corridor, some 15 years later. She was nominated for an Oscar, but won awards in Venice and from the New York Film Critics and National Film Board.

She finished the quartet of re-defining films with The Heiress (1949), maybe her finest, most subtle role. She convinced William Wyler to direct after she saw the play, and, drawing on all those nice girl roles, she wrung every possible ounce of emotion out of the plain Catharine Sloper, falling in love with Montgomery Clift, whom her wealthy father, played by Ralph Richardson in rehearsal for films like The Sound Barrier, distrusts. It won her a second Oscar, and remains a melodramatic classic.

From that point, DeHavilland put Hollywood in its place, working on stage (though turning down the role of Blanche DuBois in the Broadway debut of A Street Car Named Desire, for which she would have been perfect) and caring for her family. Her second marriage took her to France and her film career became more intermittent, but it is worth seeking out Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) directed by Robert Aldrich in his signature mix of Siodmak noir and Sam Fuller tabloid excitement. With Bette Davis and Agnes Moorehead dominating its gothic grand guignol, the formula that had worked so well in Baby Jane, DeHavilland channels every bit of her inner Melanie one more time to steal the film from them.

‘I wanted to play real human beings,’ DeHavilland once told an audience at the NFT in London. She had to win herself the freedom to do that, but what she really wanted was to play larger than life, bigger than real, parts. And she was every bit the actress to conquer such roles.

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