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Olivia de Havilland

by Susan King

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Here’s something you may not know about the legendary Olivia de Havilland. When she was attending Notre Dame Elementary School in Belmont, California in the 1920s, she was called a “brass monkey” by one of the nuns. The reason? She was always getting into trouble.

And she was always something of a brass monkey. After all, she took on Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner in court because he would extend a star’s seven-year contract every time an actor would go on suspension if they turned down a part. So, contracts would extend for years and years. In 1944, California’s Second District Court of Appeal ruled that film contracts were only enforceable for seven calendar years. The ruling is known as the De Havilland Law.

“I really had no choice to fight this,” she told Kevin Thomas in a 2006 Los Angeles Times interview. “Providing the judge was honest, the outcome in court seemed perfectly clear. I never really understand why Jack wanted to fight this…but he did everything to prevent me from doing so.”

Free from her contract, she won best actress Oscars for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress. (1949).

Even at 101, De Havilland once again summoned her inner brass monkey. She sued Ryan Murphy over how she was portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the FX miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan. According to the Hollywood Reporter, De Havilland “claimed the series put false words in her mouth. Specifically, her legal action asserted violation of her right of publicity and false light.” In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected her petition to examine the dismissal of the lawsuit.

Her death two years ago shortly after her 104th birthday, though not unexpected, was still something of a shock. Brass monkeys are not supposed to die.

Film Detective is celebrating her July 1 birthday with two westerns she made for director Michael Curtiz' Santa Fe Trail (1940) and The Proud Rebel. (1958)

Santa Fe Trail was one of seven films De Havilland made with Errol Flynn. She was 19 and he was 26 when they were paired together in the exciting 1935 swashbuckler, Captain Blood. Their chemistry was palpable. They were like two young colts on the screen-beautiful, energetic, and sexy. Over the next six years, they appeared in more swashbucklers, comedies, and Westerns, including the landmark 1938 Technicolor masterpiece, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

De Havilland doesn’t have much to do other than be sweet and look pretty in Santa Fe Trail. In fact, the New York Times review of the fictionalized historical Western doesn’t even mention De Havilland. The box office hit was their penultimate film and their last directed by Curtiz.

“I think of Errol all the time,” noted De Havilland in the 2006 interview. “In different ways, almost every day. On Captain Blood, Stanley Logan, the dialogue director, said to me ‘that man is troubled-look at the way he is always rubbing his thumb against the cuticle of his index finger. He seems to have a great deal of inner distress.’ He was really a mixed-up man, but of course, he was extraordinary-looking and had great charm.”

She added: “He did mean a great deal to me, but in that day a woman did not declare her feelings for a man. When his autobiography came out, I couldn’t resist checking the index and going to the page where he mentioned me. He said he thought he loved me. ‘Thought!’ That meant he didn’t. I didn’t read another word. Then several years ago….I was determined to read more. I began with his second sentence about me is which he said that he decided that he did love me. To think of all those years, I didn’t believe he did.”

Eighteen years after Santa Fe Trail, De Havilland reunited with Curtiz on The Proud Rebel, a compelling drama in which she plays a tough but tender farmer fighting a ruthless owner (Dean Jagger) of a sheep ranch trying to bully her out of her land. Enter a widowed Confederate vet (Alan Ladd) and his young mute son (Ladd’s son David) who comes to her aid.

This time she made the New York Times: “Olivia de Havilland, as the farm owner whose attachment to this family turns into love, is the picture of hardy womanhood. Although she is not a couturier’s dream, the warmth, affection and sturdiness needed in the role comes across to an observer with telling effect.”

Though her career spanned from 1935-1988, the actress is best remembered for her Academy Award-nominated role as the sweet compassionate Melanie in the controversial 1939 Oscar-winning Civil War blockbuster Gone with the Wind, opposite Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes.

When I interviewed De Havilland for the Los Angeles Times in 2004, she related how she got the role in the David O. Selznick production. It sounded like a plot from a John Le Carre spy novel replete which with secret phone calls, clandestine auditions, and meetings.

De Havilland initially received a phone call from George Cukor, the first director on “GWTW.” The actress knew if Warner learned Cukor had contacted her first, the studio chief could sue Cukor, Selznick and even De Havilland.

Cukor told her: ‘“Well, I’m going to suggest something to you which is entirely illegal. Would you come over to Selznick studios and read for the part?’ He said tell no one, absolutely no one. I went to a secret entrance, and they were waiting for me at the appointed time. They unlocked the door to the entrance and let me in to George’s office.”

After reading two scenes for Cukor, he suggested they meet with Selznick at the producer’s house that afternoon. During that audition, Cukor took the role of Scarlett. Selznick “studied us with great intensity and when he finished the scene, he said ‘“I think we found our Melanie.”;

Warner disagreed and refused to lend her out. De Havilland even made an appointment to see him, but Warner wouldn’t budge.

De Havilland, of course, refused to give up, calling Warner’s wife inviting her to have tea. “I told her how much the part meant to me. She had been an actress before she married Jack. She said, ‘I understand how you feel, I will try to help.’ She was the one who persuaded Jack to let me go.”

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Film Detective is celebrating Olivia de Havilland's July 1 birthday with Santa Fe Trail (1940) and The Proud Rebel (1958), both directed by Michael Curtiz.

Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.


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