Born to Be Bad (1950):  Love of the Grift

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott

By nearly every account—most especially her own—Joan Fontaine offscreen was miles apart from the naïve and adoring women she often played onscreen. 

Biographer Charles Higham (admittedly not the most reliable biographer, but that’s a story for another day) found her, “relaxed, super sophisticated, brittle, unromantic, and pagan,” as well as, “flippant, cool, tough, and somewhat offhand.”1

During the filming of Born to Be Bad, she was in the midst of her second divorce, the most acrimonious of her eventual four.  Though she was ultimately dismissive of all four of her husbands, William Dozier was the one who bit back the most in public.

“Joan would be smiling and charming and then there would be a barb,” Dozier said. “Finally, she lost one friend after another.  She’s the kind of woman who inevitably ends up alone.”2

As if proving his point, nearly twenty years later Fontaine would give the following quote to the London Daily Express while still married to Alfred Wright, eventual ex-husband number four:

“Obviously a wife has to do a lot of pretending to be successful; to make a difficult, selfish husband of hers feel that he is the greatest man alive even when she knows damn well that he isn’t.”3

Perhaps that’s why she was attracted to the role of Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad, a woman who pretends to be innocent and sweet to lure unsuspecting men into her web of deception and discards them once they’ve served their purpose.

Zachary Scott, Fontaine

Christabel Caine arrives in San Francisco to attend business school and take over for her uncle’s secretary Donna (Joan Leslie), who is about to marry.  (Remember, reader—this is 1950.  There’s no need for a plot device to explain why Donna couldn’t possibly continue working after becoming the wife of a wealthy man.)

Donna is efficient, good-natured, and in love with fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), who has come by his wealth through family money but is down-to-earth and kind.  She agrees to host Christabel while the final wedding preparations are made.

Christabel’s uncle has described her as a young woman looking for honest work and a place in the world after spending months taking care of an elderly aunt.

Her uncle is the first—but not the last—man she’s snowed.

Christabel has an entirely different agenda—she means to replace Donna as the rich wife of Curtis Carey, not as her uncle’s secretary.

The film—and the audience—delights in Christabel’s ruthless machinations as she expertly plants the seeds that will lead to mistrust and the ultimate destruction of Donna and Carey’s relationship.

There’s a slight fly in the ointment—while Christabel’s plan is unfolding, she falls in love with Curtis’ friend Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan).  She tries to have it both ways, luring Curtis into marriage while having an ongoing affair with Nick.

And ends up losing them both in the end.

Robert Ryan, Fontaine

But even then, it’s clear that Christabel’s true love is the grift itself, and we are left with no doubt that in losing a husband and gaining a fortune, the now rich divorcée has gotten exactly what she wanted.  And lover Nick, for whom she had genuine affection?

Well, every war has collateral damage. 

Born to Be Bad is entertaining, and has the advantage of being made in 1950, when the production code was breaking down and allowed Christabel’s moral crimes to go unpunished.  In fact, the film ends with a satisfying wink to the audience, letting us know that Christabel will have no trouble finding her next mark.

We’re only sorry that we won’t be able to watch her put the poor sap through the ringer.

Notes

  1. Higham, Charles.  Sisters:  The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Guest Posting with B&S About Movies

Lynn Bari and Vincent Price in Shock (1946)

Today I have the great pleasure of guest posting over at B&S Movies as part of their Mill Creek Drive-In Classics Box Set Review.

Head on over to see my review of Shock (1946), a film noir and the first starring role for Vincent Price. Please leave your comments over at B&S Movies, and if you’re new to their site, take a look around. They’re a great resource for all things horror films.

From This Day Forward (1946):  Off the Cutting Room Floor

We really don’t have time for this.

We’re on a tight schedule—I’ve got to wind down the careers of Joan and Olivia so we can say goodbye to the Dueling de Havillands in mid-December.  Then we’ve got some Christmas and New Year’s films to round out the year before kicking off 2022 with a brand new series.

I don’t have time to circle back to From This Day Forward (1946), one of the least-known films from Fontaine’s young blushing bride period.  It wasn’t nominated for any awards, and director John Berry’s name is mostly unknown today (his American career was put on hold for a decade when he was caught up in the communist blacklist of the 1950s.)

Fontaine herself gives it a mere two sentences in her autobiography. There’s not a single mention of it in any of my film history books—and believe me, I checked.

From This Day Forward left no lasting mark on the film world.

Like any good film writer, I tossed it on the cutting room floor and moved on to September Affair (1950).

And yet I just can’t leave it there.

I guess it left a mark on me.

So to hell with the schedule—let’s scoop it off the cutting room floor and take a closer look.

From This Day Forward tells the story of Susan (Fontaine) and Bill Cummings (Mark Stevens), a young married couple rebuilding their lives after his return from World War II.

Bill is scared—there are lots of men looking for work, and he’s worried there won’t be enough to go around.  Bill isn’t looking for a fulfilling career or a dream job—he wants to put food on the table for his wife, and have enough left over to start a family.

He knows the strain of going without work—he was out of a job during the Depression, and though Susan’s work in a bookstore kept them afloat, he doesn’t want to go back there. 

As he fills out forms and waits in the employment office, the film flashes back through the first years of his marriage to Susan.

The plot is simple enough—Bill and Susan marry, and spend a brief period of bliss together before Bill loses his job in the Depression.  Money gets tighter and tighter, and just as desperation creeps in, he gets called up to fight in World War II. 

A boy and a girl in love—fighting the odds, sticking together for better or worse, building a bridge out of poverty brick by brick through determination, loyalty, and steadfastness.

This one’s for the romantics among us.

The film is almost like paging through a scrapbook of Bill and Susan’s lives, and is elevated by small details and scenes that give it a touching sweetness—as when Susan grabs Bill’s hand as she runs up the stairs to introduce him to her sister before they are married. 

Sometimes the film goes too far, as when Bill loses his job and his nephew offers to bring him a bone from the local butcher so that Susan can make broth and they won’t starve.  The scene comes across as a bit over the top in its attempt to manipulate the audience’s emotions.

But there are two scenes that I just love, and that Fontaine and Stevens play perfectly.

The first is the day after their marriage—they can’t afford a honeymoon, so it’s back to work for both of them.  At the end of the day, they race home to one another, embracing and laughing as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.

It struck so real and true to the heady early days of newlyweds.

And later, on the morning when Bill is set to leave for the army, they oversleep and wake up in a panic.  Bill races around shaving while Susan tries to make him a quick breakfast, but she breaks the eggs and forgets to heat the coffee.

It’s an almost comic scene, until Susan wraps her arms around Bill and says, “Darling, what am I going to do without you?”

After he leaves, Susan wanders around the apartment for a moment and then the clock rings.  Suddenly, she rushes to the window, throwing it open, uncaring of the rain that pours on her head.

Bill is too far down the street to hear, but she yells after him anyway, tears and rain streaming down her face.

“Bill.  Come back, Bill!  Listen, you gotta come back!  Don’t you remember?  We set the clock ahead last night on purpose.  We set the clock ahead.  We’ve got 15 minutes more, Bill.”

A moment that would melt a heart of stone. 

Though Fontaine plays a young bride in love with her man through thick and thin, the role of Susan Cummings was a departure from seemingly similar characters in Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre.  Susan is not afraid of Bill, subservient to him, or an innocent pupil learning from an older, more experienced man.

They have a marriage of equals, one entered with eyes wide open.

On the day he proposed, Bill talked about how nothing was certain, that he couldn’t guarantee Susan’s happiness, but that she would make a beautiful bride.  Susan counters that all brides are beautiful because they are young and innocent and life hasn’t kicked them around yet.  No one knew the future.

“What are we waiting for?” she finally asks.

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes, Bill.”

“So am I,” he says with a grin.

Life is full of ups and downs.

The worst marriages only make it harder.

But the best cut the pain, the loving and the knowing that you will have someone to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part.

As of the time of this writing, From This Day Forward is available on You Tube.  If you give it a chance, drop me a line and let me know if this forgotten film got under your skin the way it got under mine.

Hallmark has nothing on these two kids.

Notes

Time stamps from the YouTube video for clips mentioned:

  • Susan holds Bill’s hand to introduce him to her sister 8:59
  • Reuniting after their first married day 26:30
  • Bill oversleeps on his way to the army 1 hr 23 minutes

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

September Affair (1950):  The Perils of an Endless Vacation

And just what was little sister Joan Fontaine doing all this time?

Like every other actress in the late forties save Ingrid Bergman, she was falling behind Olivia de Havilland in the prestige department.

Though Joan had jumped ahead early—first to the Oscar, making prestige films at a leisurely pace under her contract with David O. Selznick while her sister toiled in the Warner Brothers salt mines, there was no doubt that by 1950 Olivia had opened up an insurmountable lead in their lifelong competition for the best film career.

Not that Joan was about to give up the fight.

Though she would receive no more Oscar nominations after 1943, Fontaine still had plenty of entertaining movies left to make.

In 1950, at age thirty-three, Fontaine shed the girlish persona that made her so successful in films like Rebecca, The Constant Nymph, and Letter From an Unknown Woman to play a mature woman in September Affair with Joseph Cotten.

The setup is simple—Manina Stuart (Fontaine) and David Lawrence (Cotten) meet when their plane to the United States has to make an unscheduled stop in Naples due to a mechanical issue.  Manina is an up and coming concert pianist who’d spent time in Italy practicing with her mentor for a concert that will make or break her career.  David is married with a grown son, a workaholic engineer reluctantly returning to his wife and company despite longing to leave it all behind.

Though strangers, they spend a lovely and magical afternoon in Naples, culminating in a romantic lunch in Capri, complete with wine and Walter Huston singing “September Song” on the victrola.  It’s a gauzy day, one out of time, the kind you can only have in a place you’ve never been and will never return to with a person you’ll only know in that moment.

Except the moment is extended when Manina and David return to find they’ve missed their plane.  Rather than immediately charter another one, they decide to spend a few days together before returning to their regularly scheduled lives.

The chemistry is palpable, and they teeter on the brink of an affair without quite going over, as Manina does not want to sleep with another woman’s husband, no matter the state of the marriage in question.

Fate intervenes and offers them a chance to start over when the plane they were supposed to be on crashes and they are presumed dead.

Realizing that each has soothed the other’s loneliness, they decide to give up their lives and stay dead to the world.  They start a life that seems like paradise—David is able to free up some of his money and they buy a beautiful Italian villa way outside of town.  They hire a maid and cook who doesn’t speak English, and they have nothing to do but enjoy Italy—the food, the sun, and each other.

Endless vacation.  Who wouldn’t dream of it?

And yet as real as the affection is between them, the outside world beckons.

Manina practices endlessly for a concert she swears will never perform.

David meets some local men and begins to draw up plans on how to redesign the water system so that the poor are better served.

And always, always David’s wife looms between them, haunting them as if she were the one pretending to be a ghost.

Can David truly be happy while letting his wife and son believe he is dead?

Can Manina?

I won’t spoil the ending, as the film is available (for now at least) on You Tube and is really a lovely story.  (It’s worth watching alone for a glimpse of the very young Jessica Tandy as David’s wife.)

But it is no spoiler to say that every vacation—no matter how lovely—must come to an end.

September Affair was one of the first American films shot in Italy after World War II, and was made in Naples, Milan, Capri, and Venice.  It is the first film Fontaine appeared in with short hair, and it gives Manina an air of sophistication that lends credence to the role.

Fontaine—who did not shy away from disparaging the films, co-stars, or directors she did not like in her autobiography—wrote fondly of September Affair, “Shooting the film was pleasant.  [Director] Dieterle and Cotten were civilized and amiable.  Hal Wallis was a producer of charm and concern.”

September Affair marked an important and critical turning point in Fontaine’s career, as she proved she could play a mature woman, and not just breathless girls who were mostly different takes on her character in Rebecca.

Little sister was turning out to have more than one note.

Sources

  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

September Affair (1950) Directed by William Dieterle Shown from left: Joseph Cotten, Joan Fontaine

The Heiress (1949):  Ascending to New Heights

And now we come to The Heiress

In a career that included Gone With the Wind, breaking the studio system’s seven-year contract practice, and five Academy Award nominations, The Heiress is undoubtedly Olivia de Havilland’s crowning achievement.

It is her best performance and my personal favorite of her films.

Based on a play adapted from Henry James’ novel Washington Square, directed by William Wyler and co-starring newcomer Montgomery Clift in one of his earliest roles, The Heiress is a masterclass in prestige filmmaking.

De Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, a plain and pathologically shy young woman living in mid-nineteenth century New York.  Catherine lives in the shadow of her dead mother, a woman her father has on such a high pedestal that even a woman more beautiful and accomplished than Catherine could not live up to her memory.

Catherine spends her days eschewing parties and the company of others in favor of needlepoint until she meets Morris Townsend (Clift), a handsome but penniless man with expensive taste.  He sweeps Catherine off her feet, but her father fears that Townsend is a fortune hunter with his eye on Catherine’s considerable inheritance.

Reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was unsure throughout the first half of the film of Townsend’s true intentions.  Surely he could not have fallen so quickly into love with Catherine, who is awkward and painfully naïve.  And yet, he convinced me as he convinced Catherine—perhaps he could see the woman beneath the veil of shyness to the woman within.

Catherine blooms under his attentions.  She has none of her father’s reservations, and is determined to marry Morris.  Her widowed Aunt Lavinia supports the match, though Catherine’s father (Lavinia’s brother) puts no stock in her opinion.  She is portrayed throughout the film as nothing more than a gossipy biddy who never shuts up.

But Miriam Hopkins (she’s really excellent supporting material here) infuses Lavinia with a subtle wisdom—so what if Morris Townsend is a fortune hunter?  Won’t that still be a happier life for Catherine, who has no other prospects and is shunned as a weirdo by every other man?

Her father outright rejects Morris’ request to marry his daughter, and Morris and Catherine plan an elopement.  When Catherine’s father finds out, he grows cruel, telling Catherine that Morris must be a fortune hunter, because she is such a bore and a waste that no one could love her.

The moment forever embitters Catherine, as she realizes her father has only ever had contempt for her, not love.  She puts all of her eggs in the basket with Morris, telling him she wants to elope that night.  He agrees, but before he leaves to get things in order, she tells him that her father has cut off her inheritance.

That night, Lavinia finds Catherine packed and waiting for Morris, who has promised to pick her up at midnight.  She is dismayed when Catherine tells her that she has told Morris about her lost inheritance.

“Why couldn’t you have been just a little more clever?” Lavinia laments.

But of course, clever is the one thing Catherine isn’t.

She insists Morris isn’t marrying her for money, and even so, she still has her inheritance from her mother’s death.

“It is a great deal of money!” Catherine claims of her ten thousand a year.

“Not when one has expected thirty,” Aunt Lavinia says.

Catherine never doubts that Morris will arrive, but as midnight comes and goes, minute by minute Catherine comes to see the awful truth.

Morris has forsaken her.

He returns a few years later, after Catherine’s father has died, wanting to pick up where they left off, claiming he always loved her but didn’t want her to lose her inheritance.  She agrees to marry him and once again sends him off to get the coach.  But when he returns, she bolts the door and lets him bang on the door all night screaming for her as she ascends the stairs to a life of bitter loneliness.

It is not a film that could be made today.  Her moment of turning Morris away would today be celebrated as a feminist power move, not the bittersweet ending portrayed here—Catherine cuts off her nose to spite her face.  She has her revenge, but at the expense of any shred of happiness.

In fact, in 1993 Tom Cruise and director Mike Nichols discussed a remake, but ultimately decided that they could not improve upon the film that Wyler and de Havilland had made in 1949.1

On the night of her jilting, the depth of Catherine’s weariness is shown in a long shot where she drags her packed suitcase back up the stairs, thwarted of her escape and left imprisoned with the father she can no longer stand.

Director William Wyler, well known for his excessive takes made de Havilland drag the suitcase up the stairs again and again.  He knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what.  In a moment of exhausted frustration, de Havilland threw the suitcase down the stairs when Wyler demanded yet another take.

Wyler realized immediately what was wrong—the suitcase was empty.  He had it filled with heavy books and started the film rolling.  Now de Havilland was no longer pretending to lift a heavy suitcase, she actually was struggling with it.2

Details like this are what made Wyler one of Hollywood’s best directors, collecting twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (including for The Heiress) and winning three.  He also directed fourteen actors to Academy Awards, including none other than Bette Davis (Jezebel), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), and Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur).

And Olivia de Havilland.

That’s right, her performance in The Heiress earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress, inducting her into one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet.  At the time, de Havilland was only the third actress (and fifth actor overall) to win more than one Academy Award for a leading performance.  Even today, only thirteen other women and ten men can boast this feat.  It’s a club that includes Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, Spencer Tracy, Tom Hanks, Gary Cooper, Meryl Streep, and Marlon Brando.

Hollywood royalty, indeed.

The second Oscar cemented de Havilland’s place as a prestige actress, and validated her three year absence from the screen during her court battle with Jack Warner.

She also won the New York Film Critics Circle award for both The Snake Pit and The Heiress, becoming the first actress to win the award in consecutive years.3

“I want respect,” Olivia de Havilland had told Errol Flynn way back on the set of Captain Blood, her first major film.  “By that I meant serious work well done.”4

Olivia de Havilland arrived in Hollywood in 1935 at nineteen years old.  Now, after fourteen years, thirty-five films, and a bloody divorce with Warner Brothers, she’d finally gotten what she came for.

Notes

  1. Herman, Jan.  William Wyler:  A Talent for Trouble:  The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director.
  2. Ibid
  3. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  4. Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Snake Pit (1948):  Olivia’s Time to Shine

In 1948, director Anatole Litvak had a passion project.  He wanted to adapt Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit, a semi-autobiographical novel about a women in a state mental ward.

He wanted to realistically depict the mental institutions of the day, from the confusion and fear of its patients, to the overcrowded conditions, overworked doctors, exhausted nurses, and terrifying electro shock therapy treatments. 

Needless to say, this wasn’t an easy sell in Hollywood, whose instinct was to gild reality onscreen, not strip it down to the bones. 

But he convinced 20th Century Fox to finance his film, and took the scrip directly to Olivia de Havilland, one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood after her Academy Award-winning turn in To Each His Own (1946.)  She had rejected many recent offers, searching for another artistically fulfilling film.

The Snake Pit fit the bill.

Both Litvak and de Havilland poured their souls into the film.  They toured mental institutions, and Litvak hid microphones to capture the moans and sounds the patients made at night.1  De Havilland read psychiatry books, talked to patients, and practiced screaming so often the neighbors began to question just what was going on in her household.

Their work paid off.

Litvak and de Havilland on the set

De Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a newly married woman who has a nervous breakdown.  Left shaken and paranoid, her loving husband Robert has no choice but to commit her to the state mental institution.  In the film’s opening scene, Virginia is sitting on a bench, unsure of her whereabouts and hearing voices.  When she is finally ushered inside and realizes where she is, she convinces herself she’s there doing research to write a novel.

The film chronicles the ups and downs of Virginia’s recovery—her confusion punctuated by increasing moments of lucidity, learning the sometimes nonsensical bureaucratic rules, and the horror of electro shock therapy.

She moves from ward to ward as she recovers, taking steps forward before regressing.

It is a film underlaid by compassion—there are no villains here, only an overworked staff doing its best.  The hero is Dr. Kik, the psychiatrist who takes a special interest in Virginia’s case and is convinced her mind can heal.  When she takes a turn in the right direction, the other doctors are eager to release her, but Dr. Kik knows she is not ready.  He is proven right when the intense questioning of the panel of doctors sends her spiraling into a violent relapse.

But even these doctors are not evil—their hospital is so overcrowded they are turning away patients worse off than Virigina—and after all, Virginia has a loving husband and home waiting for her.

Dr. Kik is loathe to send her home, knowing she will be forever living a half-life when she has the potential for a full recovery.

The film’s title comes from the old practice where insane people were thrown into a pit of snakes, under the logic that something that would turn a sane person mad might jolt a mad person into sanity.

Metaphorically, this is exactly what happens to Virginia.  After her relapse, she is placed in the ward with the most hopeless cases—people who cannot speak, aren’t coherent, and have no sense of reality.  Being thrown into this snake pit of humanity gives Virginia a ray of hope—she isn’t a sick as these people, and she knows it.

For the first time, she—and we—understand that she will get well.

De Havilland said she was, “so deeply engrossed in this character that I was afraid I might suddenly do the things off screen, I did on.  I was exhausted.  I have never had any role that took so much out of me.”2

When the film was finished, Litvak and de Havilland knew they had done good work. 

“This picture is going to do so much good,” de Havilland said before its release.  “When I visited the institutions for the mentally ill, I felt a great surge of compassion for the people.  We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been hardest pressed.”3

She was right—the film was hailed by psychiatrists as a realistic, accurate, and compassionate portrayal, and some showed it to their own patients to give them hope that they, like Virginia Cunningham, could recover from their mental illness.4

She also knew she’d scored a second plum role: “Thank God that was me in it.”5

It was her in the role, bringing her own talents to the role.

It’s interesting to ponder what the major actresses of the day would’ve brought to the role of Virginia Cunningham.  Barbara Stanwyck would’ve played her so tough you wouldn’t dare feel sorry for her no matter what befell her.  Joan Crawford would’ve made her so vulnerable you would’ve pitied but not respected her.  Bette Davis’ Virginia would’ve been so jittery and paranoid her recovery would’ve been unthinkable.

All interesting interpretations I’d like to see in a parallel universe.  But none would have brought the quiet dignity and poise that Olivia de Havilland gave to Virginia Cunningham.  That same steel magnolia temperament that made her so perfect for Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind is used to great effect in The Snake Pit.

Virginia is always a lady, unfailingly polite and kind.  She hides her confusion from the doctors as best she can, not wanting their pity.  She befriends and protects Hester, a violent and mute patient no one else will go near.

She empties out a candy box her husband brings her and uses it as a pocketbook, as a way to hang onto her humanity in a place where so many lose it.  De Havilland never lets Virginia become a generic crazy person—she never lets you forget that Virginia has hopes, dreams, fears, and a life outside the bars. 

While her illness sometimes overcomes her, she is never defeated by it.

She is a patient, not a victim.

After de Havilland lost the Academy Award to sister Joan Fontaine in 1942, Life Magazine rather snottily—if accurately—wrote that “Olivia pines for laurels.”6

She got her flowers for The Snake Pit.

Time Magazine put her on the cover of their December 20, 1948 issue and ran a long article promoting the film and her work in it.

She was the unanimous choice in the first poll for the New York Film Critics Award for best actress of the year.

She was nominated for yet another Academy Award—her third best actress nomination and fourth nomination overall.

Up against a historically tough crowd, she, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Irene Dunne all lost to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda.

But Oscar or not, Olivia de Havilland had only justified pride for her role in The Snake Pit, and the film is an absolute must-see for De Havilland fans.  There’s no doubt it would have been the uncontested best work of her career, if not for the film she made next.

Notes

  1. “Cinema.  Olivia de Havilland and The Snake Pit.”  Time Magazine, December 20, 1948. (Cover story)
  2. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  3. “Cinema.  Olivia de Havilland and The Snake Pit.”  Time Magazine, December 20, 1948. (Cover story)
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Jensen, Oliver O.  “Sister Act.”  Life Magazine, May 4, 1942.
  7. Opening Hitchcock quote from Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

To Each His Own (1946):  Olivia Out of Exile

Spoiler alert…she crushed it. With presenter Ray Milland

Last week, we left Olivia de Havilland on the precipice of thirty, about to emerge from exile.  She’d won her lawsuit against Warner Brothers, gaining her freedom and liberating all actors from endless studio-imposed contract extensions.

She’d paid for the suit with a three year blacklist that ended in 1946 when she made To Each His Own as part of a two picture deal with Paramount Pictures.  A bad performance could permanently sink her career and make the De Havilland Decision a hollow victory.

She’d staked everything on her bone-deep belief that she had acting potential beyond fawning over Errol Flynn.  She now had a complicated role where she’d play a woman who ages from a young girl in love to a middle-age spinster.  She’d be in nearly every scene, expressing a range of emotions.

Hers was the only name above the title.

It was time to put up or shut up.

Spoiler alert…she put up.

To Each His Own is a wonderfully sentimental melodrama.  De Havilland was paired again with Mitchell Leisen, who’d directed her to an Oscar nomination in 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn (when Warner Brothers loaned her to Paramount.)

She threw herself into the role, getting into character by wearing the popular perfumes of the different eras, including Chanel #5 during the World War II sections.  For her scenes as a middle-aged woman, she channeled her own mother’s mannerisms.

And how was the film received?

It did a respectable box office, and de Havilland was nominated for her third Academy Award, this one for Best Actress.  She was up against favorite Jane Wyman for The Yearling, and Golden Globe winner Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny.

But unlike for Gone With the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn, this time Olivia de Havilland didn’t go home empty handed.

She’d spun her law suit victory into Oscar gold.

As To Each His Own opens, we meet Jody Norris (de Havilland), a lonely middle-aged woman spending New Year’s Eve as a World War II fire warden. 

Through flashbacks, we see her as a young woman growing up in Piersen Falls, the smallest of small towns.  World War I pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove sweeps her off her feet and she soon finds herself unmarried and pregnant when Cosgrove is killed in action.

Still believing she can find a way to raise her baby and avoid a scandal, Jody is devastated when her friends Corinne and Alex Piersen adopt her baby, believing him to be a war orphan.

Jody moves to New York and finds she has a talent for business when she starts a cosmetics factory.  Within a few years she has enough money (and holds enough of the Piersen’s mounting business debts) to blackmail the Piersens into giving her the baby, who is now a young boy.

Jody finally has her heart’s desire, but young Gregory is homesick and desperate to return to the only mother and family he has ever known.

In the film’s most heart-tugging scene, Jody realizes that she’s waited too long, and what’s done can never be undone.  She will never be the mother that Gregory wants.  With a lump in her throat, she calls the grateful Piersens and returns Gregory to them.

Her friend and business partner asks what he can do to help.

“Let me go to London,” she says of the company’s upcoming expansion city, “and find me fourteen hours work a day.”

And so Jody buries herself in work, tracking her son from afar, until she meets up with him again as a grown man on leave from World War II.  A flier, just like his father.

Desperate for a glimpse of him, Jody reaches out one more time in the hopes she can kindle a relationship with the son who doesn’t remember her.

Few actors have fought so hard for an Oscar and all that it symbolizes—acting excellence and prestige.  At the ceremony, much was made of the fact that Olivia de Havilland turned away from sister Joan Fontaine when Fontaine tried to congratulate her.  Neither sister cites it as a reason for their feud, and the smile on de Havilland’s face clearly shows that annoyed by her sister or not, she was having the night of her life.

And the best was yet to come.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Princess O’Rourke (1943):  Escaping the Gilded Cage

Princess O’Rourke isn’t a terrible film.

It’s a popcorn film, one which goes down pleasant enough but doesn’t leave any lasting impression.

Olivia de Havilland plays Maria, a bored princess who longs for freedom from the strictures of royal life.  Her uncle wants her to settle down, marry, and get on with the business of producing the next heir, but Maria is looking for a little excitement in her life and a man who will stir her heart.

She flies to California under an assumed name and takes too many sleeping pills to calm her nerves.  When the flight is called off due to bad weather, pilot Eddie O’Rourke (Robert Cummings) cannot wake her.  An amusing series of scenes follow in which poor Eddie tries to wake a drugged Maria.  De Havilland rolls around limp and disoriented, playing out a gag that sister Joan Fontaine would repeat five years later in You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), when her character also takes too many sleeping pills and poor Jimmy Stewart has to deal with her.

As she’s using an assumed name with no contact information, Eddie can’t locate anyone to pick Maria up and ends up taking her back to his apartment.  Realizing she has a chance to experience life as a normal person, the princess pretends to be a poor maid and spends a few days with Eddie.

She never planned on falling in love with him. 

The storyline is well-covered ground, and would be perfected in 1953’s Roman Holiday.

It’s not a terrible film.

But it’s exactly the kind of role Olivia de Havilland was desperate to escape.

In May 1943, just after the filming of Princess O’Rourke, de Havilland’s contract with Warner Brothers was up.  However, Warner Brothers added up the time of her many suspensions and declared she owed them six more months of work.  This was standard industry practice at the time—when an actor refused a role, they would be put on suspension for the length of the filming.  A seven-year contract meant seven years of work, and time on suspension didn’t count.    

Actors resented the clause, as they nearly always went on suspension to avoid roles that would damage their career.  Bette Davis lost a suit in 1937 to void her contract, and while James Cagney had used frequent walk-outs to renegotiate his contract on more favorable terms, no one had successfully overturned the rule around suspension time.

Jack Warner figured no one ever would.  He’d ruin anyone who dared to try.

De Havilland consulted with lawyer Martin Gang, who felt that they could win by citing a little-known California law that prevents an employer from enforcing a contract that lasted longer than seven years.  (An old law once written to protect slaves and indentured servants.)

She didn’t take Gang’s word for it.  She studied the law herself, again and again.

“Everyone in Hollywood knew that I would lose but I knew that I would win,” she said years later.  “I had read the law.”

Losing the case would likely destroy her career.  Even a win was no guarantee that another studio would be willing to work with such a troublemaker.

She got the same advice again and again—bite the bullet, do any movie Warners wanted her to do, and in twenty-five weeks she’d have her freedom. Forget about some crazy lawsuit.

Instead, on August 23, 1943, Olivia de Havilland (who had clocked in at five-foot-three and all of 100 pounds during the filming of 1939’s Dodge City) sued Warner Brothers and took on the whole studio system.

She had no illusions about the hornet’s nest she’d kicked, so she’d been squirreling money away.  “Let’s go ahead with it,” she’d told Gang.  “And we’re not going to get discouraged along the way.  We will go to the Supreme Court.”

Jack Warner and his lawyers tried, unsuccessfully, to make her out to be a spoiled, rich actress in court.  Lawyers hammered her, but she stayed cool under pressure while giving her testimony.

She won in Superior Court, and though Warner Brothers appealed again and again, in December 1944 she won in Appellate Court and Warner Brothers was out of options.

From now on, no studio could impose a contract longer than seven calendar years on an actor, regardless of the number or duration of suspensions.

She’d won.

Retaliation was swift and severe.

Jack Warner personally reached out to nearly eight studios, big and small, asking them to blacklist de Havilland.

She had her freedom, but no studio would hire her.  She couldn’t even do most radio shows.  And still she bided her time, entertaining the troops overseas, visiting military hospitals, reading, waiting.

In the end, those twenty-five weeks cost her three years off the screen and $13,000 (over $200,000 in today’s dollars) of her own money.  The de Havilland Decision, as it came to be known, cracked open the studio system, and benefitted her successors more than it ever did de Havilland herself.

But she’d made her point.

“She licked me,” Jack Warner admitted in his biography.

And in 1946, Paramount Pictures came calling, the first studio willing to defy the blacklist Jack Warner hoped would last forever, and offered de Havilland a two picture deal.

She’d earned the right to call her own shots.

But the public was fickle, and she’d been out of their sight for three years, an eternity in Hollywood. She was thirty, a precarious age for an actress known primarily as a glamour girl. If her career sputtered out now, Jack Warner would have the last laugh.

Everything was riding on her next role.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  • Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:  An Autobiography
  • Current Day Inflation # for $13,000: https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1800?amount=1

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Affairs of Susan (1945): Split Personalities

While John Huston and Errol Flynn were throwing punches over her sister, Joan Fontaine was making a mostly forgotten but clever comedy called The Affairs of Susan.  Richard Aiken (Walter Abel) impulsively proposes to Susan Darell (Fontaine), a woman he barely knows.  Though she has told him little about herself, he believes she is the woman he has been searching for, a “perfect lady” and “born aristocrat.”

After she accepts his proposal, Richard discovers photographs of three men in her apartment—an ex-husband, an ex-fiancé, and one to whom Susan answers “I was and I wasn’t” when Richard asks if she was married to him.

Alarmed, Richard belatedly decides to vet the woman he’s set to marry the next day.  He meets each of her previous suitors and hears the story of how they met and fell in love with Susan.  But their wildly conflicting stories only leave him more confused.

Roger Berton (George Brent) describes Susan as a young woman who is honest to a fault.  Berton, a play producer, convinced the young Susan to leave her rural home in Rhode Island, marry him and become a reluctant actress.

But Mike Ward describes falling head over heels in love with a cosmopolitan party girl, frivolous, happy, always dancing and always extravagantly dressed (by legendary costume designer Edith Head, no less).  Despite his fervent wish to marry her, Susan’s constant lying broke them up.

And finally, writer Bill Anthony insists Susan is a progressive intellectual, and an unconventional revolutionary.

Richard is baffled—is he marrying a naïve country girl, a lying socialite, or a communist?

Just who is Susan Darell?

We could ask the same question of the film’s leading lady, for there are few actresses with a wider gulf between their onscreen and offscreen personalities than Joan Fontaine.

Up until 1945, Fontaine nearly always played roles where she was, as Maxim de Winter called her character in Rebecca, a “little fool.”  In Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre, she essentially played the same character—a young, insecure woman trapped in a big house and wringing her hands while wondering if the man she loves is going to kill her.  She played a silly girl who doesn’t want to divorce her husband in The Women, a fifteen-year-old girl in The Constant Nymph, and a literal Damsel in Distress

Sweet.  Naïve.  Innocent.

Words often used to describe her characters, but never to describe Joan Fontaine.

By all accounts, she was haughty, sophisticated, and cynical. 

Queen of the cutting remark, she would’ve been a master on Twitter, shelling out pithy barbs and endlessly needling her sister in public 280 characters at a time.

It’s well documented that she was disliked on the set of Rebecca, and that the gallant Cary Grant who had warm relations with nearly all his leading ladies called her a bitch.1

She left four husbands in her wake, casting them off like last year’s sweaters.  At her death in 2013, she was not on speaking terms with either of her daughters.

And then, of course, was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.

In digging through every scrap I could find about the sisters and the origins of their feud, it’s clear that despite being a couple of actresses, there was no cinematic inciting event to their rivalry.  No one slept with the other’s husband or stole a coveted role through underhanded means.

There was no dramatic betrayal.

What is extraordinary about their rivalry is just how ordinary it was.

They fought and reconciled throughout their lives, and only had an irrevocable break after their mother’s death.

The stars are just like you and me after all.

The press knew of the intensity of their feud, and yet had little concrete to print.  This is why they made mountains out of their head-to-head Oscar competition in 1941, and later when Olivia turned away from Joan’s congratulations when she finally won her own Oscar (more on that later.)  Both women convincingly denied that these two incidents fanned the flames, and when asked about their feud nearly always gave examples from their childhood.

As Olivia told Hedda Hopper, “Our house in Saratoga…was homey and cozy but quite small.  So that we had to share the same room whether we liked it or not.  And we didn’t like it at all.”2

Olivia went on to say that Joan was a sickly child, and that Olivia resented the pampering that Joan received, and Joan envied Olivia for being well.  “And so, you see the seeds which were to develop…were already planted and growing.”3

No one from the outside can truly portion out the blame for their constant quarrelling.  Olivia no doubt had her faults and provoked Joan.  But in public, Olivia adhered much more to the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” on the subject.

And if you want a lesson in the wisdom of this advice, look no further than Joan’s 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, a masterclass in how to unintentionally make yourself into the villain when you believe you are the hero.  This nasty tome is full of hubris, blame shifting, grievances, and untruths so obvious you barely need to fact check them.

Reader, it’s a delicious document and I praise Joan for leaving it to us in all its petty glory.

I present to you a few excerpts that cannot be left on the cutting room floor:

On learning to cook as children:  “Olivia was smarter.  She just wouldn’t learn.”

“Brown-eyed, olive-skinned Olivia, Mother told me, never toddled near the crib of her tow-haired, hazel-eyed baby sister.  Her horoscope suggests that Olivia would have fared better as an only child.”

Again, on Olivia:  “I regret that I remember not one ounce of kindness from her all through my childhood.”

On Olivia’s first husband, author Marcus Goodrich:  “All I know about him, is that he has had four wives and written one book.  Too bad it’s not the other way around.”  This remark, also made to the press at the time of Olivia’s wedding, was the catalyst for one of their longer estrangements.

On winning the Oscar over Olivia:  “Actually, Olivia took the situation very graciously.  I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the previous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind.”  (See what I mean?  Not nearly as big a deal to the Sisters de Havilland as having to share a crib.)

If I had three wishes from a genie, I would use one to wish into existence an Audible recording of Bed of Roses narrated by Joan herself, reading out all those zingers in her haughty, patrician voice. (Her “real” voice in interviews was much different than the breathless rambling she often used onscreen.)

And yet.

Despite how much I love the dueling de Havillands, below is my favorite picture of them.  For all their spitting and fighting, when Olivia had appendicitis while on the road promoting her film Santa Fe Trial and had to be flown back to Los Angeles for emergency surgery, Joan was waiting to meet her at the airport.4

And in 1974, when Joan had a nervous breakdown after a bad breakup, Olivia was at her side, and Joan writes in Roses that, “Olivia undressed me, put me to bed, held me in her arms as she sang a Japanese lullaby from our childhood.”

It seems that no matter how much you may hate your sister, it doesn’t mean you don’t love her.

So what really was the relationship between the sisters?

Like a marriage, only the two of them can know for sure.

Older, but perhaps no wiser, at least when it came to their feud

And who was the real Joan Fontaine?

A difficult woman, no doubt.  Vastly more complicated than most of the characters she played on screen.

And to get back to our main point, who, dear reader, was the real Susan in The Affairs of Susan?

You’ll have to find that one out for yourself.  And as this film is available for free on You Tube and is a delightful watch, you have absolutely no reason not to.

Notes

  1. Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  2. Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  • Fontaine, Joan.  Bed of Roses.
  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine
  • Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.