A Damsel in Distress (1937): Little Sister’s Early Missteps

Throughout her life, Joan Fontaine was fond of telling reporters that it irked her older sister Olivia de Havilland that Joan “did everything first.”  By this she meant that she’d gotten married first and won the Academy Award first.

But she certainly didn’t succeed in the movie business first.

After her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the blockbuster Captain Blood, Olivia de Havilland was Hollywood’s most promising rookie of 1935.

Meanwhile, Joan was hanging on for dear life at RKO.

After six small utterly forgettable roles in utterly forgettable films, Fontaine needed to prove she could act, or her career would be over before it began.

But the blame for her failure in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress can’t be laid solely at her feet.

After seven wildly successful films together, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire decided to go their separate ways.  Rogers saw herself as an actress first and wanted to explore more dramatic roles.

And Astaire?  Well, he didn’t want to be forever linked with a single partner.  He was the lead dancer and the choreographer, after all.  He’d taught Ginger most of what she knew about dancing.  How hard could it be to teach someone else?

Poor Joan Fontaine drew the short straw.

She had to dance with Fred Astaire and make the audience forget about Ginger Rogers.

A mission more impossible than anything the IMF ever assigned Ethan Hunt.

She should’ve chosen not to accept it.

It became apparent to everyone involved that novice Fontaine would not be able to carry half the dancing in the film.  Her role was restricted to that of Astaire’s love interest, with a single dance near the end of the film.

The dance is painful, as Fontaine is wooden and obviously ill at ease when her character should be giddy over falling in love.  It’s like watching the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, who are so glaringly outmatched by their professional partners.

Married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen got top billing with Astaire, and the script and choreography was rearranged so that Astaire did most of the dance numbers with them.

They also provided the laughs, as Fontaine was not a skilled comedienne.  In later films she would reveal her talents, but comedy was never among them.

Burns and Allen provided the comedy and dancing.  Fontaine provided the romantic love interest.

All in all, it took three actors to replace Ginger Rogers in an Astaire film.

Perhaps Ginger had something Fred hadn’t taught her after all.

The film is a pleasant enough musical, but not worth watching but for the most ardent Astaire fans.  Lady Caroline wants her niece Lady Alyce to marry her stepson, but Alyce is in love with a mysterious American.  The servants in the house have taken bets on who Alyce will choose, and are prepared to meddle in the proceedings to ensure their win.

After Alyce has a chance encounter with dancer Jerry Halliday, the staff mistakes him for the mysterious American.  Soon Jerry is lured to Tottney Castle to “save” Lady Alyce, whom he believes is being held against her will in the family castle.  He takes along his press agent (Burns) and airhead secretary (Allen.)

Fontaine is completely absent from the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Astaire, Burns, and Allen dance their way through a fun house park, dancing through tunnels and in fun house mirrors.

By the end, Lady Alyce has forgotten all about the mysterious American and weds Jerry.

The film was not a success.  The public wasn’t interested in seeing Fred without Ginger, and Astaire went running back to Rogers and they made two more films together.  Astaire would go on to have other successful dancing partnerships—most notably with Rita Hayworth, but he was never able to mold a novice into a dancer the way he had with Rogers.

As for Fontaine, her string of unimpressive performances continued, and RKO eventually dropped her from their roster.

It’s here that I can’t help wondering—if it hadn’t been for the competitive spirit between Fontaine and de Havilland, would Fontaine have gone back to Saratoga, married, and left Hollywood behind?

But she didn’t give up, and by 1940 she’d found a role that suited her, and improbably became the second Mrs. de Winter in David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  (A role Vivien Leigh wanted desperately.)

It was a career defining role, and one of my favorite performances from the golden age of Hollywood.  Vivian Leigh, wonderful actress she is, would’ve been all wrong for the second Mrs. de Winter, a character so timid and weak we never learn her first name.

Nervous and insecure Fontaine was perfection.

An Oscar nomination for best actress followed, as did another for Suspicion in 1941.

Which leads us back to where we began, on the night when Fontaine upset big sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Suspicion.

Olivia had been first out of the gate, but Joan had just closed the gap.

Game on, girls.

Sources

  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  • Behlmer, Martin, ed.  Memo from David O. Selznick

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

Captain Blood (1935): Olivia Meets Errol

Jack Warner was a gambler.  You have to be to get into the movie business.  He was once nearly killed in a car accident after winning $4,000 playing baccarat.

But he’d never taken as big a risk as casting two unknowns in his 1935 adventure blockbuster Captain Blood.

The result was worth far more than a good night at the baccarat table:  an Academy Award nomination for best picture, the top grossing Warner Brother’s film of that year, and the launch of one of Hollywood’s great onscreen couples.

Before Bogart and Bacall, before Hepburn and Tracy, there was Olivia and Errol.

Warner gave the role of the gallant doctor-turned-slave-turned pirate to Errol Flynn, an unproven but handsome actor from Tasmania.

And fresh off her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but still unknown to those outside Hollywood, de Havilland snagged the prime role of Arabella Bishop, Blood’s love interest.

A more lighthearted adventure than MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, released the same year (and the ultimate Best Picture winner) Captain Blood is a tale of romance and adventure painted on a huge canvas.

Throw in some steamy sex scenes and you’d have the film equivalent of the bodice ripper romance novels published in the 1980s that I gobbled up as a teenager.

I’m here for it.

Peter Blood is a peaceful doctor who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for providing medical attention to a rebel fighting against James II in seventeenth century England.  Reprieved of death when the King decides to sell the prisoners for slaves instead and pocket the proceeds, Peter Blood is shipped off to Jamaica. 

On the auction block, the plantation owners examine the men like cattle, pulling back their lips to inspect their teeth and testing their muscles.  Watching the proceedings is Arabella Bishop, the beautiful young niece of Colonel Bishop, an influential plantation owner.  Seeing that Peter Blood is no lowlife, she buys him to protect him from the excesses of the cruel plantation owner known for working his slaves to death.

Blood shows defiance instead of gratitude, refusing to relent even when Arabella arranges for him to act as the personal physician to the governor, giving him an elevated status over the other slaves.

Yet for all his wounded pride, Blood is grateful for Arabella’s interference and very much aware of her beauty.

A born leader, the other slaves soon look to Peter Blood as their leader, and he is increasingly radicalized against King James II and the island’s governor as he witnesses the inhumane treatment and conditions of the slaves. 

Soon, Peter Blood and his band of rebels are planning their escape.

When Spanish pirates invade the village, Blood and the other slaves escape Jamaica by stealing their ship.

Like the mutineers on Mutiny on the Bounty, Peter and his followers have committed treason and can never go home again.

And thus, Captain Blood, the fiercest pirate to sail the seven seas, is born.

Yet our Captain is a gallant and fair pirate—the spoils are shared, women are not to be imprisoned or raped, and men who lose an arm or leg are compensated.  He leads the fights and takes the first blow.  He’s a swashbuckling hero for those opposed to King James II.

And like all stubborn, gallant heroes, his Achille’s heel is the woman he can’t forget, Arabella Bishop.

When they meet again three years later, she is no less beautiful but in the clutches of the second most successful (and far less scrupulous) pirate, Levasseur (Basil Rathbone.)  Captain Blood now purchases her as his slave, and duels Levasseur to the death to prevent her from falling into his lecherous clutches.

She is as outwardly outraged (and inwardly thrilled) by his purchase as he once was of hers.

Captain Blood, who has kept his crew alive by his wits, puts himself and his entire crew in danger when he insists on escorting Arabella safely to Jamaica himself, sailing right to the governor who has obsessively pursued Blood all these years.

But in a twist of fate, Captain Blood learns that William III has taken over the British throne and has not only revoked Blood’s status as a traitor but given him a commission in the Royal Navy.

Thus Captain Blood returns a hero and becomes the governor of Jamaica to boot.

And he gets the girl.

But I didn’t have to tell you that.

Captain Blood launched both Flynn and de Havilland into major stardom.  It was the first of the eight movies they would make together between 1935 and 1941.  The most well remembered is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which de Havilland played Maid Marian to Flynn’s Robin.

Sparks flew between de Havilland and Flynn onset and though he often played pranks on her in the manner of a love-struck schoolboy, de Havilland spoke warmly of him and even once said he was one of the loves of her life.

But whatever they may have wanted, Flynn was married and de Havilland was not the kind of woman to have an affair.  Later, when he was free, he once proposed marriage, but though charmed, de Havilland wore no rose-colored glasses when looking at Flynn.

Errol and Olivia on the set of Captain Blood

At ninety-two (long after Flynn’s death), she reflected, “The relationship was not consummated.  It was just as well that I said no [to marriage.]  He would have ruined my life.”1

She’s likely right, as Flynn was content to booze and womanize, and later devolved into an empty shell of a man who self-destructed on drugs, alcohol, and lust.

On the set of Captain Blood, Flynn told de Havilland that he wanted approval and money, which he counted as success.

Even then, with only two films under her belt, de Havilland had higher ambitions.

“I want respect,” she told Flynn.  “By that I meant serious work well done.”2

She would fight long and hard to earn it in Jack Warner’s kingdom.

Sources

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

2 Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

Ultimate Movie Rankings Website

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935): “The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth”

Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

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. 

Oliva 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—Oliva 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.

Sources

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.

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

The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

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