Olivia de Havilland is best remembered for her iconic roles in Gone with the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood, along with a number of acclaimed performances throughout the 1940s. She also famously sued Warner Bros. to get out of a contract that restricted her as an actress, risking the future of her film career in the process. Fortunately, she won her case, and since the landmark De Havilland Decision, actors have had the freedom to choose the films they want to appear in. For the Classic Movie History Project, I’ll be looking at de Havilland’s career at Warner Bros. and how that led to her lawsuit with the studio.
Olivia de Havilland got her start in the movie business in 1934 when she was eighteen years old, making her screen debut as Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream after playing the part in his stage production at the Hollywood Bowl. When she signed on for the Shakespearean role, she also signed on to be a contract player at Warner Bros. Pictures, which would become her home studio for the next several years.
When they asked me to sign a long-term contract I thought ‘Shakespeare–what better way could one have an acting career than by doing Shakespeare?’
Despite receiving rave reviews for her performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Warner Bros. had her appear in a couple of minor comedies (which were released before her film debut in 1935): Alibi Ike with Joe E. Brown and The Irish in Us with James Cagney. A far cry from Shakespeare, de Havilland played the sweet love interest in both films, a role she would be frequently typecast to play in her films at Warner Bros.
Later that year, the studio cast her alongside an unknown Australian actor named Errol Flynn for the swashbuckler Captain Blood. Their on-screen chemistry was apparent from the start, and the two went on to make seven more films together. The following year, the two stars reunited with their frequent director Michael Curtiz for another period adventure film, The Charge of the Light Brigade. On April 14th, 1936, during this film’s production, de Havilland signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
In 1937, de Havilland received top billing for the first time in the comedy Call It a Day, though her role in it is much smaller than the credits will lead you to believe. The film didn’t do much to advance her career, and it didn’t do so well at the box office either. Just as she did since the start of her career, she continued to perform in period pieces and light comedies, a few of which she made with Errol Flynn. A couple of gems to come out of this early period include the comedy It’s Love I’m After with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, and a little swashbuckler called The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The latter film was a huge success and brought de Havilland to greater heights as a movie star. Her roles at Warner Bros., however, didn’t reflect her surging status in Hollywood, and her subsequent 1938 films Four’s a Crowd and Hard to Get saw her as just a giddy rich girl. While she was more than capable of playing these roles earnestly, de Havilland knew her talents were being wasted in these films and was beginning to have serious doubts about her future at Warner Bros.
The year 1939, what many people consider to be Hollywood’s Golden Year, was the busiest of de Havilland’s film career as five of her films were released. The first was Wings of the Navy, which de Havilland considers the lowest point of her career since she was stuck playing a mere love interest to two brothers. She was paired up again with Errol Flynn for the Technicolor western Dodge City, where she played a much more developed role, but still one of a love interest. Despite the acclaim the film received, it represented an emotional low point for the actress, as she was yet again playing a role that only served to support the film’s hero. She later said that she had trouble remembering her lines for the film because she was depressed over the current state of her career.
Back in late 1938, during pre-production for Gone with the Wind, producer David O. Selznick wrote the following to a colleague:
I would give anything if we had Olivia de Havilland under contract to us so that we could cast her as Melanie.
Soon after de Havilland received a phone call from the film’s first director, George Cukor, asking if she’d be interested in playing the role of Melanie. The actress jumped at the chance to play the character, as Melanie was a much more fully formed role than the ones she often played. Since she had a contract with Warner Bros., Cukor gave her instructions to come to the studio secretly and read some lines with him. They then held an audition at David O. Selznick’s home, and de Havilland was given the part. But first, she had to get permission from Jack Warner to do the film, who refused to lend her out for the project. Desperate to get her dream role, de Havilland appealed to his wife, and she, in turn, convinced her husband to let the actress do Gone with the Wind. Warner then made arrangements with Selznick to lend out de Havilland in return for James Stewart, who went on to make No Time for Comedy for Warner Bros.
After filming wrapped for Gone with the Wind, de Havilland was back at Warner Bros. and began work on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. She had hoped that after working on such a prestigious film, she’d be offered to play roles of higher stature at her home studio. Instead, her role was considerably minuscule to that of her two co-stars. She also received third billing below the title, and she didn’t share an on-screen romance with her frequent leading man. Soon after she was lent out to Samuel Goldwyn Productions for the caper film Raffles with David Niven, another film de Havilland wasn’t satisfied with. Fortunately for the actress, the year ended on a high note when Gone with the Wind was finally released on December 15th, 1939 in Atlanta. To say the least, Gone with the Wind was an enormous success, and de Havilland earned the first of her eventual five Oscar nominations for her performance in the film.
Now with an Oscar nomination under her belt, de Havilland was more aware of her worth as an actress. In early 1940, she began turning down many of the films Warner Bros. was offering her, initiating the first of her studio suspensions. She finally agreed to star in the comedy My Love Came Back alongside Jeffrey Lynn, Eddie Albert, and Jane Wyman. That same year she made her seventh film with Errol Flynn, the historical western Santa Fe Trail, which was released in December of that year. On the morning of the film’s premiere in Santa Fe, which de Havilland had planned on attending, she was diagnosed with appendicitis and was swiftly taken to surgery.
Following her surgery, de Havilland spent an extended period of time recovering, during which she rejected several scripts from Warner Bros., leading to another suspension from the studio. Three of her films were released in 1941 (two of which were made at Warner Bros.), including her final film collaboration with Errol Flynn, They Died With Their Boots On. Though she had intended on not working alongside Flynn again because she was often regulated to playing his love interest, she accepted the role after learning that the actor had told Jack Warner that he needed de Havilland in the film.
Flynn later acknowledged de Havilland’s disdain for the roles Warner Bros. was handing her:
She was sick to death of playing ‘the girl’ and badly wanted a few good roles to show herself and the world that she was a fine actress.
The other film she made in 1941 was Hold Back the Dawn for Paramount Pictures, a studio that later proved to be fruitful for her career. In the film, she played a teacher whose life and sexuality are awakened by a European gigolo played by Charles Boyer. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, de Havilland found she enjoyed working with him because he was much more patient in his approach than the directors she worked with at Warner Bros. The following year she earned her first Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category for her role in the film.
Between 1942 and 1943, de Havilland made a few more films for Warner Bros., knowing that she’d soon be out of her contract with them. Though she was continually dissatisfied with the roles she was given at her home studio, one she found some pleasure in playing was the title role in the 1943 film Princess O’Rourke. But despite her enjoyment with the role, the production saw several problems, such as Robert Cummings’ constant unavailability (which led to de Havilland delivering lines to a stand-in) and Charles Coburn’s failure to remember his lines (which led to numerous retakes and therefore frustrated de Havilland). Because filming became so straining for her, she began arriving late for work and leaving the set abruptly when her anxiety became too much for her to handle. Princess O’Rourke was ultimately de Havilland’s penultimate film for Warner Bros.
Due to the difficulties the studio ran into during production of Princess O’Rourke, Jack Warner decided to assign de Havilland to RKO Radio Pictures for a rather dull comedy called Government Girl. The actress was loaned to David O. Selznick for the film, and in return, Warner Bros. acquired Ingrid Bergman, who was subsequently cast in Casablanca. While Government Girl was made at a different studio, de Havilland didn’t enjoy her experience making the film and was fully aware that it was only assigned to her as a form of punishment for not complying with Warner Bros.
The last film de Havilland ended up making for Warner Bros. was Devotion, a highly fictionalized biography of the Brontë family. In the film, she played famous author Charlotte Brontë opposite Ida Lupino as her equally famous sister Emily Brontë. Despite being a story about the authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the film doesn’t feature any scenes in which Charlotte writes her acclaimed novel, merely brushing it over to focus on the blossoming romance between her and Paul Henreid’s Reverend Arthur Nicholls. The actress was again displeased with her role in the film and often had to shoot retakes because she’d mess up her lines. Though de Havilland played the biggest part in the film, she received third billing below Lupino and Henreid. And while filming wrapped in 1943, Devotion wasn’t released until 1946 because of de Havilland’s lawsuit with Warner Bros.
By 1943, Olivia de Havilland had fulfilled her seven-year contract with Warner Bros. and was free from the roles that confined her… or so she thought. Just when she thought she was out, she was informed that six months had been added to her contract to account for the times she wasn’t filming movies for the studio because she was on suspension. She soon met with her agents Phil Berg and Bert Allenberg, who brought along a lawyer named Martin Gang to discuss her situation. Gang believed de Havilland could get out of her Warner Bros. contract by citing a California labor law, which limited the right of an employer to enforce a contract against an employee for more than seven calendar years. While there were a few actors who tried to change the system, including Bette Davis in the 1930s, none of them had tried to take advantage of this labor law in their efforts.
According to de Havilland, Gang explained this likely scenario of what to expect when she’d take Warner Bros. to court:
You go into the Superior Court, and there we will probably lose. There will be a single judge, and he will be influenced by Warners’ lawyer and will see you as just a temperamental film actress. He will see it in emotional terms, not legal terms. Then we will appeal — having lost the case in Superior Court — to the appellate court, three judges, and they will judge the matters purely from the point of view of law. If we lose there, there is always the Supreme Court of the State of California to which we can appeal.
On her lawyer’s advice, de Havilland took Warner Bros. to court on August 23rd, 1943, expecting the case would have to go to the Supreme Court as Martin Gang described. In November 1943, the case went to the California Superior Court, where the Warner Bros. lawyer tried his best to portray de Havilland as a spoiled movie actress. She was brought to the witness stand, where she was asked if she had failed to report to the set of a film, in an attempt to anger the actress. Gang had warned her about the tactics the other lawyers would use to get under her skin but advised her to stay composed. In response to the Warner Bros. lawyer’s question, de Havilland simply stated: “I didn’t refuse. I declined.” She noticed her calm response got the judge’s attention, and de Havilland believed that she had a chance of winning her case after all.
While she awaited the result of her case at the Superior Court, de Havilland joined a USO tour the following month. On the tour, she visited wounded soldiers in military hospitals throughout the United States, Alaska, and the South Pacific. In March 1944, while she was visiting soldiers in the Aleutians, she received a telegram from her lawyer stating that she had won in the Superior Court. Warner Bros. immediately appealed, and prohibited every Hollywood studio from employing the actress, stating she was still under their contract.
On September 10th, 1944, the case was taken to the appellate court. While de Havilland wouldn’t be called to the witness stand, Martin Gang advised her to appear in court anyway to show the judges how important the outcome of the case was to the actress. She went to the South Pacific again to visit wounded soldiers as she awaited the court’s ruling. While she was there, she contracted viral pneumonia and became a patient herself, staying in a barrack hospital for several days to recover. She earned the respect of the troops for visiting the isolated islands and battlefronts in the Pacific, often living in rough conditions.
Soon after coming back home in December, de Havilland received word from her lawyer that she had won a unanimous decision from the California Court of Appeals for the Second District. Still not satisfied with the court rulings, Warner Bros. appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the State of California. The Supreme Court passed on the case for review, and the previous decisions made in the Superior Court and the appellate court held. The actress was now free to choose the films she made.
California’s seven-year rule, officially referred to as Labor Code Section 2855 but much more commonly referred to as the De Havilland Decision (or De Havilland Law), had a great impact on the studio system. Along with actors gaining freedom, other professionals like screenwriters were no longer tied to assignments they didn’t want to participate in. Before the De Havilland Decision, literary greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were put under studio contracts and were often assigned to write scenes for which the writers had no natural inclination or had little knowledge on the subject.
A lawyer named Roger Mayer related to the actress how much the De Havilland Decision meant to writers:
Those men couldn’t bear to do a poor piece of work, and they knew that they would, and that they would risk their great international reputations in going ahead and trying to meet the requirement of the studio. Now, when you won your case, they were thrilled, because of course, they were perfectly willing to go without pay until they were assigned some kind of work for which they had a feel and knew that they could do a distinguished piece of work by it.
The De Havilland Decision was also of great importance to actors serving in World War II. As they naturally weren’t making movies while serving, under their studio contracts they were put on suspension. According to de Havilland, the situation the actors faced once they returned to Hollywood was as follows:
When they came back, they would have to serve that time all over again and at the salary which was by this time outmoded, because when they were lending people right and left, the producers were paying the actor the normal salary, which was the contracted salary, but they would collect from the producer they were lending the services of the actor to. They would collect a lot of money and keep it. It wouldn’t go to the actor. So certain actors really had quite high prices. They didn’t get the money, but the price for their services had risen during the war through this system. Now that meant that these actors would come back and have to serve. Their services would be infinitely more valuable, but they would still get the same salary that they had been receiving five years before.
Among the returning soldiers was James Stewart, who was also de Havilland’s old beau before he left to serve in WWII. Stewart wanted to take advantage of the De Havilland Decision, though he was advised not to risk anything with his contract. It was believed that declaratory reliefs couldn’t be applied to actors who had gone off to war, but thanks to the De Havilland Decision it did, as their contracts were limited to seven calendar years as opposed to seven years’ worth of work. Because of the De Havilland Decision, actors like Stewart were able to negotiate new contracts and earn salaries that matched their high value.
Her legal victory won her admiration from her peers, including from her own sister Joan Fontaine, who later commented, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal.” After a two-year absence from films, de Havilland returned to the screen in 1946 with To Each His Own, reuniting with Paramount Pictures and Mitchell Leisen, with whom she had worked with for Hold Back the Dawn. The actress was finally playing a role that allowed her to really exemplify her talent, and she was continually offered roles with more depth after the De Havilland Decision. For her work in To Each His Own, de Havilland won her first Academy Award for Best Actress, further vindicating her legal battle with Warner Bros. and confirming her acting abilities. She received two more Oscar nominations for Best Actress soon after, for the 1948 film The Snake Pit and the 1949 film The Heiress, the latter of which earned her another Academy Award.
It was a long road to success for Olivia de Havilland, but it was through her perseverance that she was able to garner the career she yearned for, thereby cementing her legacy as a respectable actress. While she’s not as well-known today as her famous peers like Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, she’s one of the most important actresses of her era for what she did to reform the studio system, and the De Havilland Decision continues to prevail today.
You can read the official document on the De Havilland Decision from the California Court of Appeals for the Second District here. And for more about Olivia de Havilland, I urge you to read this in-depth interview she did in 1978 for the Academy of Achievement, which also includes lots of video clips of her recounting her life and career.
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