She fought the Law - and she won!

by Susie Hodgson

She’s definitely not what she seems.

She seems so sweet, so mild, so calm and compassionate. She has the kindest eyes, the softest smile, the most unconditional loving disposition… But like I said, she ain’t what she seems.

Her name is Olivia de Havilland and she was the one who took on one of Hollywood’s (and Burbank's) meanest bosses ever, Jack Warner, and won.

Born into privilege in 1916, Olivia and her also-famous little sister Joan Fontaine started life out in Tokyo where their father worked both as a professor and attorney. Eventually their mother wanted to go back home to England to raise her daughters, but the ship stopped at San Francisco where both little girls got sick. Mom decided then to raise her daughters in California. Always a philanderer, Dad took the opportunity to fly back to Tokyo and run off with his Japanese maid.

In school, Olivia excelled in the arts. Little sister Joan – who was only 15 months younger than “Livvie” - did, too, and you’d think they would be best friends, thick as thieves. They had so much in common. Once again, you’d be wrong. Things aren’t always what they seem. Olivia and Joan hated each other always. Both would later become actresses. Both would later become Oscar winners. And both would despise the other 'till her dying day.

Meanwhile, back to young Olivia. She discovered acting as a teen and liked it – a lot. When her stepfather found out she was offered a lead role in the school play of a Jane Austen novel, he lost it. We’re talking Pride and Prejudice here, not Debbie Does Dallas! Still, he issued her an ultimatum. You either act and leave home or you can stay here. Guess what the doe-eyed, creamy-complected, warm honey-voiced Olivia did? You got it – she walked, never to return.

Soon she got an understudy part in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream which was to play at the enchanting Hollywood Bowl. Hollywood! Just like in the movies (think 42nd Street) the lead actress dropped out (that would be Gloria Stuart who decades later played the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic) and guess who made the big time! The understudy! Soft-spoken Olivia, of course. That’s when Warner Brothers stepped in and wanted to make the play into a film. Olivia was one of the stars. (Mickey Rooney played Puck!) The film was not a hit, but Olivia was and her career took off.

In 1935 she made Captain Blood, a Warner Brothers film co-starring a bit player who had some… charisma, shall we say? It was Errol Flynn and the chemistry between them was palpable. Now THAT was a pairing. Olivia went on to make the highly acclaimed Anthony Adverse, and then reunited with Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade. It was then that Warner Brothers offered her a 7-year contract at $500 a week. Big money! The quiet, big-eyed, seemingly bashful 20-year-old girl accepted. And in 1937 she made more screen magic with her hot, handsome co-star Errol Flynn in Robin Hood. Robin Hood was nominated for several Oscars and the public went crazy over the obvious lust between sweet Olivia and bad boy Errol.

And it really was lust. Both have since admitted it, although whether that lust was ever consummated or not is unclear. Errol said sure it was. Olivia said she couldn’t do it – he was married. Again, Olivia played the good girl. But was she? During the filming of one of their love stories while Errol’s wife Lili Damita was on-set, Olivia “messed up” several takes in her and Errol’s love scene. They had to kiss and re-kiss at least eight times. Mmmm.

1939 is considered by most Hollywood experts as the finest year in movie-making ever. For Olivia, that meant playing the infamous part of Melanie in Gone With the Wind – a part the adorable little Olivia fought like a bobcat to get. In December of 1939, the epic film made its premiere in Atlanta, GA. The Governor declared the day a holiday. Lines circled the city blocks of people trying to get in. But one person who later won the Academy Award for her role in the movie was not allowed to attend – Hattie McDaniel -- because she was African-American. Clark Gable declared if she can’t go, he won’t go. But Hattie made Clark go. Empathetic, open-minded-seeming Olivia didn’t seem to have any problem with it.

After Gone with the Wind, Olivia assumed that many a meaty part would come her way. But they didn’t. Olivia complained that Jack only saw her as an ingénue, not a gifted dramatic artist. So she rejected the light, goo-goo eyed roles. Many times. And Jack suspended her. Many times. This would become the crux of Olivia’s legal action against the untouchable (seeming) Jack Warner.

In 1943, Olivia’s 7-year contract with Warners was up. But Jack Warner tacked on an additional six months to her contract, which infuriated her – and you do NOT want to infuriate the soft, loving-seeming Olivia. She sued. And won. This landmark decision was hailed as if slavery were abolished. It was a huge case and to this day, it is still called the deHavilland Law.

Hollywood didn’t come calling after that (what a surprise) but the war started and Olivia put in an enormous amount of work helping on USO tours, chipping in at the Hollywood canteen, selling war bonds and more. She also married a man named Marcus Goodrich who had published one novel (Delilah) and she had a son. Sadly that son would contract Hodgkins lymphoma at age 19 and die of complications at 42. The marriage to Goodrich also died years earlier and Olivia moved to Paris. There she married the Editor of Paris March and had a daughter. But that marriage also fizzled. Meanwhile, Olivia wrote a bestselling book about life in Paris (Every Frenchman has One).

At some point, Olivia returned to the silver screen and even won two Oscars for The Snake Pit and The Heiress. In 1964, she had a smash hit with the movie Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Eventually she made some appearances on television, including a part on Roots.

Olivia de Havilland definitely seems sweet and timid. Yet she had a torrid affair with John Huston (funny thing, he was married…), lusted after Errol Flynn and dated Howard Hughes and Jimmy Stewart. She beat the Hollywood “indentured servant” system and she lives on today – literally. Every actor in Hollywood knows it – and so do her neighbors in France.

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
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