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Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.: Landmark Lawsuit

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Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland picture

Olivia de Havilland made Hollywood history in the 1940s. That "history" has nothing to do with de Havilland's films, her two Best Actress Oscars, or her much-publicized feud with sister Joan Fontaine. Instead, history was made as a result of a legal fight: in the mid-'40s, Olivia de Havilland radically altered labor practices between Hollywood studios and their contract players after she won a lawsuit against Warner Bros.

Born on July 1, 1916, to English parents living in Japan, Olivia de Havilland became a Warners leading lady in 1935. That year, in addition to run-of-the-mill fare such as Alibi Ike and The Irish in Us, de Havilland was cast in two Best Picture Oscar nominees: Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood, her first pairing with Errol Flynn.

In the ensuing years, de Havilland and Flynn would be paired up again in box office hits such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Dodge City (1939). On her own, de Havilland was cast in both comedies and dramas as a decorative leading lady to the likes of Leslie Howard (It's Love I'm After), George Brent (Gold Is Where You Find It, Wings of the Navy), Brian Aherne (The Great Garrick), Dick Powell (Hard to Get), and Fredric March (Best Picture Oscar nominee Anthony Adverse).

Olivia de Havilland: Academy Award nominations

In 1939, Olivia de Havilland finally proved herself to be considerably more than a pretty face with a warm smile: her performance as Melanie Wilkes in Victor Fleming's blockbuster Gone with the Wind earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Two years later, de Havilland was a Best Actress contender for Mitchell Leisen's romantic melodrama Hold Back the Dawn (1941), in which she plays a naive, small-town American who falls for émigré-wannabe Charles Boyer. (De Havilland's sister and nemesis, Joan Fontaine, was that year's winner for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.)

As a result of her mix of box office success, critical acclaim, and prestige, by the early '40s Olivia de Havilland had become one of Warner Bros.' most important contract players. Yet, perhaps with the exception of John Huston's unbridled melo In This Our Life, Jack Warner's studio continued to cast de Havilland in insipid, decorative roles.

Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.: RKO's Government Girl

In 1943, as part of a deal that had landed David O. Selznick contract player Ingrid Bergman a key role in Warners' Casablanca, the studio loaned out de Havilland to the independent producer, who, incidentally, also had Joan Fontaine under contract.

Selznick then passed de Havilland on to RKO, which wanted her to star in screenwriter-turned-director Dudley Nichols' lame wartime comedy Government Girl. Co-starring minor leading man Sonny Tufts as her love interest, de Havilland did make the film – which features one of her weakest performances. She then decided it was time to split from Warners.

Olivia de Havilland Gone with the Wind Melanie Wilkes
Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes, Gone with the Wind

At that time, studios could suspend without pay recalcitrant actors such as Olivia de Havilland. The moguls could then add the suspension time to the end of the initial contract. In addition, studios could renegotiate contracts every six months or, in some cases, every year. The performer couldn't drop the studio, but the studio could either drop the performer or give him/her a salary raise that didn't necessarily match the contract player's growing box office popularity. And finally, studios were free to loan out stars for a high fee of which only a portion, usually what was stipulated in the star's original contract, would go to the loaned-out player.

At Warner Bros., meatier female parts went to Bette Davis – between 1938-1944, Davis received five Oscar nominations, including one win, for her WB films. Else, the good roles were given to Warners' other female dramatic talent, Ida Lupino. Or perhaps to someone like Barbara Stanwyck, with whom the studio didn't have an exclusive, long-term contract.

Olivia de Havilland at Warners: No respect

Ironically, while Olivia de Havilland was becoming increasingly frustrated at Warners, Selznick loaned Joan Fontaine to the studio to star in Edmund Goulding's 1943 release The Constant Nymph. The romantic drama, co-starring de Havilland's Hold Back the Dawn leading man Charles Boyer, earned Fontaine her third Best Actress Academy Award nomination. [See Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine feud.]

Considering how Warner Bros. treated de Havilland, it's not surprising that her two Academy Award nominations during her tenure at the studio were the result of her work elsewhere: Gone with the Wind was a Selznick-MGM co-production, while Hold Back the Dawn was made at Paramount.

Unable to work elsewhere throughout the court hearings, de Havilland used her free time to tour U.S. hospitals filled with wounded World War II combatants. To make ends meet, she relied on her savings.

Admittedly, de Havilland wasn't the first movie star to take on a studio: Greta Garbo walked out on MGM in the late '20s, while Bette Davis and Myrna Loy fought, respectively, Warners and MGM in the mid-'30s. Davis was forced to return to Warners and abide by the studio's terms; Garbo and Loy got the pay raise they wanted, but their victories didn't lead to the creation or "affirmation" of any laws. (Though Loy's year-long absence from MGM was a definite boost to the careers of Luise Rainer and Rosalind Russell.)

De Havilland Law

In the case of Olivia de Havilland, however, her fight with Warners was to have a lasting impact. As a result of her December 1944 court victory, the stipulations found in California's 1937 Labor Code Section 2855 – since then popularly known as "De Havilland Law" – were deemed applicable to Hollywood studios and other entertainment entities, which could no longer unilaterally extend their employees' contracts beyond seven years from the start of their hiring. (As a result of pressure from record companies, Code Section 2855 was diluted in 1987 by way of a subdivision amendment applying to "the production of phonorecords." A Republican initiative to add a similar exemption in the field of professional sports failed in 2007.)

Olivia de Havilland The Heiress
Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress

"From the age of 18 when I began my career as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream," Olivia de Havilland would tell entertainment journalist Robert Osborne, "I always wanted to play difficult roles in films with significant themes. With the exception of that first Shakespearean film, no equivalent opportunities were given me at Warner Bros." (Actually, In This Our Life, for one, does have "significant themes." It also features black characters, not caricatures, something uncommon at that time.)

De Havilland added that "absolutely no one in the industry thought I would win the case. When I at last succeeded, lots of flowers and telegrams began to arrive, which, of course, made me very happy." [Olivia de Havilland at 2008 Bette Davis tribute.]

Following de Havilland's legal victory, Warner Bros. made sure its remaining contract player Ida Lupino received top billing when the Curtis Bernhardt-directed 1943 drama Devotion, about the Brontë sisters (Lupino, de Havilland, and Nancy Coleman), was finally released in 1946.

De Havilland probably couldn't have cared less about her Devotion billing, as that same year she starred in two box office hits: she played twins – one good, one psycho – in Robert Siodmak's film noir The Dark Mirror at Universal, and suffered as an unwed mother who gives her son up for adoption in Mitchell Leisen's tearjerker To Each His Own at Paramount. For the latter, de Havilland won her first Best Actress Academy Award. Three years later, she won again for a much better performance in an infinitely better film: William Wyler's The Heiress, also at Paramount.

Additionally, de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for Anatole Litvak's 1948 drama The Snake Pit at 20th Century Fox. For her role as a woman committed to a mental institution, she won her first New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actress Award. The following year, she would win a second time, for The Heiress – thus becoming the first performer to win back-to-back NYFCC honors.

Olivia de Havilland: Film career halted after The Heiress win

Unfortunately, de Havilland's film career faltered after she won the Academy Award for The Heiress. In 1949, she had given birth to a son, Benjamin. That was to keep her away from movies for a while. Compounding matters, on the advice of her husband, novelist and screenwriter Marcus Goodrich, two days after her Oscar victory de Havilland left the Kurt Frings Agency.

De Havilland's abrupt departure was reportedly tied to a trade paper ad the agency wanted to run congratulating the actress on her Oscar victory. In Inside Oscar, Damien Bona and Mason Wiley explain that "Goodrich, who had written his wife's [Oscar] acceptance speech, insisted on approval of the ad's copy and demanded that it refer to the actress not as 'Olivia de Havilland,' but as 'Miss' de Havilland." The agency refused.

"There's a rumor that Olivia de Havilland will be addressed as 'Miss de Havilland' in the future by her few close associates," wrote gossip columnist Sheilah Graham at the time. "That's the humdinger of a battle, by the way, in which Olivia's agent, Kurt Frings, told off Olivia's possessive mate, Marcus Goodrich. Kurt, who dug up the prize-winning picture, The Heiress, for Olivia, is now her ex-agent."

After her professional split from Kurt Frings, de Havilland wouldn't make another movie until My Cousin Rachel, released in 1952. Co-starring Richard Burton, the Gothic period drama was not a success.

Perhaps not coincidentally, My Cousin Rachel was released the year before de Havilland and Goodrich were divorced. By that time, after having her affairs managed by Goodrich and then by powerhouse agent / producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Seven Year Itch), de Havilland had returned to Kurt Frings. (Diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease at age 17, Benjamin would die of complications from treatment for the illness in 1991. Goodrich passed away three weeks later at age 93.)

Olivia de Havilland The Swarm[Olivia de Havilland picture: Irwin Allen's The Swarm.]

Olivia de Havilland's second marriage was to journalist Pierre Galante in 1955. De Havilland moved to Paris, making only sporadic movie appearances (The Ambassador's Daughter, Libel, The Proud Rebel, Light in the Piazza). None of those made much of an impact, whether with critics or at the box office, though Robert Aldrich's over-the-top 1964 thriller Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was a box office hit. Co-starring de Havilland's fellow Warner Bros. contract player Bette Davis, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte had de Havilland playing against type. Also in 1964, Walter Grauman's Lady in a Cage gave de Havilland a good chance to display her acting skills as an invalid stuck in an elevator while terrorized by hoodlum James Caan and pals.

In the '70s, de Havilland made only a handful of films – Pope Joan, Airport '77, The Swarm, The Fifth Musketeer – all in supporting roles. In the last three, she was one of many old-timers (e.g., Rex Harrison, James Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Helmut Dantine, Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten) cast in what amounted to cameos. During that time and in the ensuing decade, de Havilland also made sporadic television appearances, winning a Golden Globe and receiving an Emmy nod for the 1986 miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. De Havilland and Pierre Galante were divorced in 1979.

De Havilland's last role was in Charles Jarrott's 1988 television movie The Woman He Loved, which starred Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews as Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales.

Olivia de Havilland back at Warner Bros.

Following her split from Warner Bros. in 1943, 35 years would pass before Olivia de Havilland was to appear in another Warners feature: the aforementioned The Swarm, an all-star disaster flick that makes the vast majority of de Havilland's output as a WB contract player look like a series of masterpieces. The Swarm was released in 1978, the same year Jack Warner died.

Olivia de Havilland, 96 next July 1, lives in Paris. Sister Joan Fontaine, 95 next October 22, lives in Carmel.

Note: A compact version of this Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros. article was first posted in March 2011, at the time of the Charlie Sheen vs. Warner Bros. lawsuit.

Olivia de Havilland pictures via Doctor Macro.

Sheila Graham quote via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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