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Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.: Landmark Lawsuit

Olivia de Havilland The Heiress
Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress.

Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

(See previous post: “Olivia de Havilland Turns 99: Warner Bros. Legal Fight Changed U.S. Labor Law.”) In 1942, Olivia de Havilland reportedly turned down the colorless leading lady role in Raoul Walsh’s Gentleman Jim, which would have paired her with Errol Flynn for the ninth time. Alexis Smith was cast instead.

That same year, de Havilland also said no to the Jack Benny comedy George Washington Slept Here. Ann Sheridan had to step in.

And she chose to go on vacation instead of playing one of the title characters in Irving Rapper’s The Gay Sisters, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Nancy Coleman was de Havilland’s replacement.

These, however, were minor skirmishes and/or inconveniences compared to the big blow up that would take place the following year.

RKO comedy ‘Government Girl’ leads to rift

In 1943, Olivia de Havilland found herself cast in the title role of Norman Krasna’s romantic comedy Princess O’Rourke – a sort of Roman Holiday predecessor – co-starring Robert Cummings, and eventually the winner of that year’s Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. Additionally, she was seen singing and clowning around with Ida Lupino and George Tobias in a sketch in David Butler’s all-star World War II morale booster Thank Your Lucky Stars.

These were harmless endeavors and so was Curtis Bernhardt’s Devotion, in which de Havilland played Charlotte Brontë opposite Ida Lupino as Emily and Nancy Coleman as Anne. Filming, however, was not pleasant, as de Havilland did not get along with Bernhardt, who would later refer to her as “really obnoxious.”

Shortly after Devotion was completed, de Havilland felt the time had come for her to move on. Warners, however, thought otherwise, reportedly reminding their employee that due to previous suspensions, her contract had been extended several more months. They offered her the lead in the comedy-drama One More Tomorrow, but de Havilland turned them down, going on suspension for the fifth time in three years. (Ann Sheridan, once again, stepped into her place.)

Olivia de Havilland Government Girl
Olivia de Havilland in ‘Government Girl.’

The Olivia de Havilland-Warner Bros. relationship reached a nadir when, as part of a deal that had provided David O. Selznick contract player Ingrid Bergman with a key role in Warners’ Casablanca, the studio loaned out de Havilland to the independent producer – who, coincidentally, also had Joan Fontaine under contract.

Instead of putting de Havilland to use, Selznick, ever the sly talent negotiator (to his own financial advantage), passed the actress on to RKO, which wanted her for screenwriter-turned-director Dudley Nichols’ lame wartime comedy Government Girl. Co-starring minor leading man Sonny Tufts as her love interest, de Havilland did star the movie – which features one of her weakest performances.

Adding insult to injury, back at Warner Bros. Joan Fontaine had landed the plum role of the young girl enamored of composer Charles Boyer in Edmund Goulding’s The Constant Nymph, a prestige production that would earn Fontaine her third (and final) Best Actress Academy Award nomination.[1]

When de Havilland returned to Warners after Government Girl, she was told that she would next be loaned to Columbia Pictures (apparently for an unspecified project). She refused and in Aug. 1943 her attorneys filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros., claiming that California law prohibited contracts from being enforced beyond a seven-year period.

Olivia de Havilland Devotion Ida LupinoOlivia de Havilland in ‘Devotion’ with Ida Lupino.

Hollywood studios held the power

In those days, Hollywood studios and independent moguls such as David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn could suspend recalcitrant talent without pay. If they so wished, the studio heads and independents could then add the suspension time to the end of their employees’ contract.

Employers could also renegotiate contracts every six months or every year. The performer was unable to drop the studio or producer, but they could either be dropped or kept under contract while receiving a salary raise that didn’t necessarily match their 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.

Unemployed and unemployable

Considering how Warner Bros. treated Olivia 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 during the court hearings – the lawsuit went to trial in Nov. 1943 – 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.

De Havilland Law

Of course, Olivia de Havilland wasn’t the first movie star to take on a studio; in fact, actresses were seemingly the toughest negotiators. Greta Garbo walked out on MGM in the late 1920s and while Ann Dvorak made things difficult for Warner Bros. in the early 1930s, when they were buying out her contract with independent producer Howard Hughes. Constance Cummings, Bette Davis, and Myrna Loy fought, respectively, Columbia, Warners, and MGM in the mid-’30s.

Davis was forced to return to Warners and abide by the studio’s terms. Cummings succeeded in terminating her Columbia contract; Garbo, Dvorak, and Loy got the pay raise they wanted, but their victories didn’t lead to the creation or “affirmation” of any laws.[2]

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.[3]

“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 Twins The Dark MirrorOlivia de Havilland ‘twin movie’ ‘The Dark Mirror.’

Ida Lupino gets top billing, Olivia de Havilland gets an Oscar

Following Olivia de Havilland’s legal victory, Warner Bros. made sure its remaining contract player Ida Lupino received top billing when Devotion was finally released in 1946.

But de Havilland probably couldn’t have cared less about her Devotion billing, as that same year she enjoyed two personal successes: 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 would win 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.

‘Miss’ Olivia de Havilland to-do

Unfortunately, Olivia 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.

Her 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 balked.

“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.”

Comeback and divorce

After her professional split from Kurt Frings, Olivia de Havilland wouldn’t make another movie until Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel, released in 1952. Co-starring Richard Burton, the Gothic period drama was not a box office hit.

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.[4]

Second marriage and sporadic movie appearances

Olivia de Havilland’s second marriage was to journalist Pierre Galante in 1955. De Havilland moved to Paris, from then on making only sporadic movie appearances – e.g., The Ambassador’s Daughter (1956), The Proud Rebel (1958), Libel (1959), Light in the Piazza (1962).

None of these 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. Effectively cast against type, de Havilland later said she took on the role as a favor to fellow Warner Bros. contract player Bette Davis.

Also in 1964, Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage gave de Havilland a good chance to display her acting chops as an invalid matron stuck in an elevator while terrorized by hoodlum James Caan and pals.

Golden Globe win, Emmy nomination

In the ’70s, Olivia de Havilland was seen in supporting roles in only a handful of films – Pope Joan, Airport ’77, The Swarm, The Fifth Musketeer; none that could be called a “prestige” production. In the last three, she was one of many old-timers (Rex Harrison, James Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Helmut Dantine, Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten, etc.) cast in what amounted to cameos.

During that time and in the ensuing decade, de Havilland also made sporadic television appearances – e.g., the so-so thriller The Screaming Woman (1972), with Ed Nelson and fellow veterans Joseph Cotten and Walter Pidgeon; the Agatha Christie mystery drama Murder Is Easy (1982), with Bill Bixby, Lesley-Anne Down, and fellow veteran Helen Hayes.

In early 1987, she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television and later in the year received an Emmy nod for Marvin J. Chomsky’s miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986).

De Havilland’s last role in front of the camera was in Charles Jarrott’s 1988 TV movie The Woman He Loved, which starred Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews as Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales. De Havilland portrayed Wallis’ aunt Bessie Merryman.

Olivia de Havilland The SwarmOlivia de Havilland in ‘The Swarm.’

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 will be turning 100 years old on July 1, ’16.

More on Olivia de Havilland

Here are a few other Olivia de Havilland articles at Alt Film Guide:

Note: This Olivia de Havilland article is currently being revised. Please check back later.

‘Olivia de Havilland vs. Warner Bros.’ notes: Joan Fontaine at Warners

[1] Joan Fontaine lost to the 1943 Best Actress Oscar to fellow David O. Selznick contract player Jennifer Jones in the 20th Century Fox release The Song of Bernadette.

Curiously, no less than three Selznick actresses were in the running for the Best Actress Oscar that year. Ingrid Bergman, who had starred opposite Gary Cooper in Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls at Paramount, was also vying for the award.

Actresses vs. the studios

[2] Myrna Loy’s year-long absence from MGM didn’t lead to any new law, but it was a definite boost to the careers of Luise Rainer (Escapade) and Rosalind Russell (Rendezvous).

Joan Leslie (Sergeant York, The Hard Way) was another actress who would take the Warner brothers to court in the 1940s. She also won her case and her contract with the studio was terminated.

Record companies’ reprieve

[3] As a result of pressure from record companies, Code Section 2855 was diluted in 1987 by way of an amendment exempting “the production of phonorecords.” A 2002 attempt to rescind the amendment was defeated by the music industry.

On the other hand, a Republican initiative that would have added a similar exemption to the field of professional sports failed in 2007.

De Havilland’s son dead at age 41

[4] 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 and Pierre Galante were divorced in 1979. He died at age 88 in 1998.

Sheila Graham quote via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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