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By Suprina Frazier

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More Than Just Another Pretty Face

March 1937 issue of Cine-Mundial featuring Olivia de Havilland coverCuban Premium Olivia de HavillandBorn Olivia Mary de Havilland on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan to a British patent attorney and his actress wife, Olivia was the first of two children to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Her one-year younger sister Joan (de Havilland) Fontaine became a renowned actress as well. In fact, Joan even beat Olivia out for a Best Actress Oscar one year, receiving the coveted award several years before her sister did. How’s that for sibling rivalry?

Although Olivia did eventually taste Oscar victory in 1946 and again in 1949, becoming one of the few actresses to win multiple Best Actress Academy Awards, it was her stand against Warner Brothers that made her a cut above the rest and ultimately broke the oppressive system that kept actors and actresses in virtual slavery to their studios.

Olivia first got bit by the acting bug while attending high school in California. That bite was obviously potent enough to produce a genuine love of performing in her, because Olivia continued to act while enrolled in college. Although Miss de Havilland’s initial goal was to earn a degree and start a teaching career, all of that changed once she was discovered after appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Soon Olivia was hired by director Max Reinhardt as a second understudy for the role of Hermia in his Hollywood Bowl production of that same work.|

Suddenly, it was as if fate had stepped in when both understudies dropped out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, leaving Olivia to assume that role. Although she was told about the change only six days before the opening, she turned out to be a resounding success. Then after being persuaded to tour in the Reinhardt production, Olivia put her college plans on hold.

Fortunately, that change in life plans paid off for Olivia as a very important studio head named Jack Warner caught one of her performances and became so impressed by what he saw that he convinced her to sign a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers (a company that he established with three of his brothers). This same contract and studio would further shape Olivia’s professional destiny and become a vessel through which Hollywood would forever be changed.

As soon as her contract was signed, Olivia began to do a number of films. Among them were The Irish in Us (1935), Captain Blood (1935), Alibi Ike (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), It’s Love I’m After (1937), The Great Garrick (1937), and Call It a Day (1937) among many others.

When Olivia was paired with another new Warner Brothers actor named Errol Flynn in the 1935 film Captain Blood, a true dynamic duo had been Colgate-Palmolive Cuban Premium Photo of Olivia de HavillandSilver Screen Magazine featuring Olivia de Havilland coverformed. Their studio and fans alike recognized the on-screen chemistry between the two actors. Soon that film would become the first of nine to feature Olivia and Errol. The most famous de Havilland and Flynn film is Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) where the actors starred as the heroic Robin Hood and the faithful Maid Marian. In fact, that Technicolor film was later nominated for Best Picture of the Year and took home three other Oscars for its art/set direction, editing, and musical scoring by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

In 1939, Olivia made another pivotal career move. She convinced David O. Selznick to give her the part of Melanie in Gone With The Wind. Once he agreed, she then convinced Warner Brothers to loan her out for that part. Following an Oscar nomination for that role, Olivia boldly asked her studio for better acting roles instead of the usual ‘sugary sweet’ parts that she’d been given up to that date. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers responded to her assertions and subsequent script refusals by placing Olivia on a six-month suspension. On top of that, the studio demanded that she make up for the lost suspension time when her contract was up. Keep in mind that at that time all studios were under the assumption that actors and actresses were nothing more than property to do with as they saw fit.

Proving that she was more than just another pretty face, Olivia sued Warner Brothers. During her long and tedious court battle, she didn’t appear in a single film. However, Olivia did use some of that free time she had to cultivate her personal life. In 1946 she married Marcus Goodrich. That seven-year marriage produced a son named Benjamin.

When the two-year court battle was finally over, Olivia emerged as the winner. But Miss de Havilland’s victory didn’t just signify a great win for her; it was deemed a significant victory for all performers. Not only did the courts declare that Olivia did not have to make up her suspension time, Still from The Dark Mirror featuring Olivia de Havilland in a dual role1936 Olivia De Havilland R95 8x10 Linen Premium Photothey also declared that all contracts with performers had to be limited to seven years which would include any suspensions issued by the studio. This soon became known as the ‘De Havilland Law’ and marked the end of studios treating their performers as mere chattel.

Returning to the silver screen as a free-lance actress, Olivia made The Well-groomed Bride and To Each His Own, both in 1946. The latter film earned Miss de Havilland her very first Oscar as Best Actress of the Year. Her second Best Actress award came a short time later in 1949 for The Heiress. These outstanding Oscar wins seemed to indicate that Olivia’s freewill in choosing scripts was enough to give her the added boost and inspiration she needed to really shine in her craft.

In the 1950’s Olivia shifted her attention to Broadway for a while before moving to France with her second husband, Pierre Galante, the then editor of Paris Match. During their twenty-four year marriage, Olivia had a daughter named Gisele.

Fortunate among her peers on so many other levels, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a length acting career as well. Her exceptional career spanned well into the 70’s and 80’s with her appearing in both films and television. She even won a Golden Globe for her performance in 1986’s Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Her last screen appearance was The Fifth Musketeer in 1979. Her last acting appearance anywhere was in the 1988 TV movie called The Woman He Loved. Fortunately, the end of Olivia’s career did not mark the end of her life. She is still very much alive as of this writing and living in Paris.

Although many fans will forever remember Miss de Havilland for her role as Melanie in Gone With The Wind, Olivia’s peers will undoubtedly remember her for the landmark court decision that changed all of their lives.
Suprina Frazier is a freelance writer from Augusta, Georgia.  This is her second submission to the Profiles and Premiums Newsletter, her previous piece covered Jean Arthur.

Other Olivia De Havilland Pages:

A Tribute to Olivia de Havilland Celebrating the career of a living legend, a well-liked leading lady who is best known for a supporting role and who successfully fought the studio system in 1943.
Denny Jackson's Olivia De Havilland Page -- The Immortal Actress!