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Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.

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.

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Continue Reading: Olivia de Havilland: Warner Bros. Landmark Lawsuit

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