Let’s rewind the tape a bit from that night in 1942 when sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine sparred for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Olivia Mary De Havilland was born in Tokyo to British parents in the middle of World War I. Sister Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland (she used Fontaine as a stage name to avoid confusion with Olivia in Hollywood) came along a year later, in 1917.
Spurred on by their mother to compete, the sisters were rivals as well as playmates. As an adult, Fontaine admits they were “at each other’s throats1,” even as children. Stories of their squabbling abound—Olivia cutting up her best clothes rather than handing them down to Joan, or nine-year-old Joan plotting to kill Olivia with a “plug between the eyes2,” but only after Olivia hit her first so she could claim self-defense.
By 1934, the de Havilland parents were divorced. Olivia was living with her mother in Saratoga, California, just outside Los Angeles. After spending most of her childhood with her mother and Olivia in Saratoga, Joan was back in Tokyo with her father.
Both girls had done their share of childhood acting in summer theater and plays, but neither had serious thoughts of becoming a professional actress. Director Max Reinhardt signed Olivia up to be the second understudy for Hermia in his theater production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The lavish production was the talk of Hollywood, staged at the Hollywood Bowl (which would go on to feature such acts as The Beatles, The Doors, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones, among countless other acts, and survives to this day.) Reinhardt enlarged the stage and brought in real trees and a pond. The players entered the theater via a suspension bridge and carried live torches. Electric lights represented fireflies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic played the score.
It was a spectacle of sound and light worthy of a modern Super Bowl and all of Hollywood royalty talked of it and came to see the show.
As the understudy to the understudy, de Havilland would need not one but two acts of god to get onstage.
God delivered the required miracles when both Jean Rouverol and Gloria Stewart (who many years later would play old Rose in 1997’s Titanic) dropped out of the play to take film roles.
Olivia was in the game.
When Warner Brothers came calling and wanted Reinhardt to direct a film adaptation of the play, he brought only Olivia de Havilland and fifteen-year-old Mickey Rooney from the original cast to star in the film.
Olivia de Havilland wavered. She’d only meant to spend the summer backstage before entering Mills College that fall and studying to become an English teacher. But in the end, she signed a long-term contract with Warner Brothers that she would come to see as a blessing and a curse.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, and the film is difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with it. Suffice it to say that it is a tale of magic, fairies, mischief, and love potions gone wrong.
Young noblemen Lysander (Dick Powell) and Demetrius (Ross Alexander) fight over the beautiful Hermia (de Havilland). Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but her father disapproves. Hermia’s best friend Helena (Jean Muir) is in love with Demetrius.
Oberon, King of the Fairies, comes across the lovers and dispatches his fairy Puck (Rooney) to apply a love potion that will make Demetrius fall in love with Helena and solve the problems of the four young lovers. Unfortunately, Puck gives the potion to Lysander by mistake, with the comedic effect of having both Lysander and Demetrius now in love with Helena instead of Hermia, much to the confusion and consternation of both women.
Meanwhile, Bottom (James Cagney) and a group of tradesmen are practicing a play they wish to put on for the king. To cause further mischief, Puck turns Bottom into a donkey, and Queen of the Fairies Titania (Anita Louise) falls in love with him in donkey form while under the influence of the love potion.
As Lysander tells Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Rest assured that Cagney loses his ass’s head, and all the lovers are restored to health but for Demetrius, who remains permanently in love with Helena.
Shakespeare film adaptations are always tricky.
Actors often have trouble with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and struggle to translate the bard to film. This is certainly not one of Cagney’s or Dick Powell’s best performances.
Audiences have never been all that interested in Shakespeare, and despite the all-star cast led by James Cagney, the film didn’t do well at the box office. Max Reinhardt wasn’t able to transfer the magic of his open air play to celluloid.
All anyone wanted to talk about were the performances of little Mickey Rooney as the shirtless and exuberant scene-stealing Puck, and that beautiful unknown actress with the long funny name who could recite Shakespeare better than any of the well-known stars.
Before long, everyone would know her name.
Olivia de Havilland had arrived.
1 Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses, page 304
2 Jensen, Oliver O. “Sister Act.” Life Magazine, May 4, 1942, page 89
Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
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