Turner Classic Movies: Star of the Month
Olivia de Havilland
A lot can happen in a century. Between 1916 and 2016, there have been two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the advent of the internet along with the rapid rise of globalization. Yes, the world has changed quite a bit in the last 100 years and TCM star of the Month, Olivia de Havilland has been around every step of the way.
Born on July 1st, 1916, Olivia de Havilland is considered by many to be the last living star of Hollywood’s most golden of ages. She entered the magical world of movie making at age 18, with her screen debut in the 1935 low budget comedy Alibi Ike. However, it would be her two subsequent films that would shoot de Havilland into the realm of stardom. First she appeared in the star-studded, big-screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the film she played Hermia (In Love with Lysander-obviously). The film not only demonstrated the young actress’ abilities to “play with the big boys,” as her co-stars were towering Hollywood figures like James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, and Dick Powell, but showed her acting chops as the endearing ingenue, a role she would become synonymous with. Yes, de Havilland certainly made an impressive splash onto the scene, but her next role would prove to be even greater – helping to create one of the most memorable on-screen partnerships of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
De Havilland’s final film of 1935 was as the leading lady in the Michael Curtiz action/adventure flick Captain Blood. To play the titular role of the enslaved medical doctor-turned-pirate captain, Warner Brothers decided on the then-unknown, Errol Flynn. The gamble of casting two relative newcomers as the leads in a large scale, million-dollar production proved to pay off, as the film went on to become one of the studio’s biggest money makers of the year. A large part of that success was, of course, the pairing of de Havilland and Flynn. Their natural chemistry and easy charm practically radiated off the silver screen, causing many in the public to assume they were a real-life item. They were not but, Warner Brothers knew they struck gold.
Their reign as the proverbial Prince and Princess of Hollywood would span eight films over the course of six years and include titles such The Charge of the Light Brigade, Dodge City, They Died with Their Boots On, and their most famous pairing, The Adventures of Robin Hood. But of course, de Havilland was much more than “Errol’s leading lady,” and wanted the world to know it. She would go on to prove her dramatic acting chops outside of the pair’s legendary union in her most famous of films, Gone with the Wind.
As the kindly and gentle Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, de Havilland played the cinematic foil to the fiery and fierce leading lady, Scarlett O’ Hara. Every time I watch the film (which is at least once a year), I am always blown away by her performance. Yes, she could be described as just another ingénue but in de Havilland’s care, Melanie becomes something more. De Havilland’s delicate balance of Melanie’s physical frailty and spiritual tenacity give the character a strength equally as strong, but quite different, from O’Hara’s. Sure, you want Scarlett on your side in a bar fight, but it’s Melanie you approach to heal your wounds and tell you everything is going to be alright, even if you’ve just been shot. It is de Havilland’s ability to project a wisdom and maturity far beyond her years that adds layers of complexity to a seemingly simple character such as Melanie. After each and every viewing I always think to myself. “Man, I wish Melanie was my BFF”. Scarlett just didn’t know what she had until it was gone.
De Havilland didn’t just play strong characters on the big screen, she was quite the force herself. In 1941, when her contract with Warner Brothers expired, the studio informed her that she still had six more months at the company due to her previous suspensions. At that time, studios had a contract clause that stated they were allowed to suspend any actor due to either refusal to take a certain role or for generally uncooperative behavior, and add that period of suspension onto the end of their contract period. While most actors accepted the terms, de Havilland decided she had enough of the big studios’ dictatorial control over their actors and went on to sue the studio for breach of contract.
Although an uphill battle that had been lost by many before her, including Bette Davis, de Havilland rallied the Screen Actors Guild behind her and won the case. The victory was one of the most important legal decisions in Hollywood history, taking away significant power from studios and giving their contract plays more control over the fate of their careers. To this day the ruling is still referred to as the “de Havilland Law.” To think that was over 70 years ago!
So, let us celebrate this lovely lady’s 100th birthday by tuning into TCM on Friday, July 1st at 9:15pm EST. We can all watch Gone with the Wind together, followed by The Adventures of Robin Hood (at 1:15am)! And, if that’s not enough Olivia for you, remember that, as TCM’s Star of the Month, you can watch her movies every Friday night in July on the channel.
–Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub