The Strawberry Blonde (1941): Olivia On Ice

Olivia de Havilland thought Gone with the Wind (1939) would change things.

After the success of Captain Blood (1935), Jack Warner paired Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland again and again.  The films made money hand over fist and catapulted Flynn and de Havilland to stardom, but they weren’t considered important or prestigious by the Hollywood establishment.

De Havilland’s roles in these films weren’t fleshed out, three dimensional characters.  Flynn’s characters were the focus and he had triple the screen time.

Flynn’s films made more money when paired with Olivia de Havilland than any other starlet on the Warner’s lot.

But Olivia de Havilland was still just the girl, passively waiting to be loved or rescued.

De Havilland was bored and regretted the standard seven-year contract she’d signed with Warners so that she could play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).  She began to lament all she was missing to play these vapid heroines—a chance at complex roles, going back to the theater.

That languishing scholarship to Mills College where she could’ve used her brain.

She couldn’t convince the brass—especially Jack Warner—that she was more than just the latest pretty face, to be used and discarded when the first line showed on her face.

She got her chance when David O. Selznick wanted her to play Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in his upcoming epic Gone with the Wind

But Jack Warner wouldn’t loan her out to Selznick.  He thought Gone With the Wind was going to be the most expensive flop of all time (he wasn’t alone), and felt Olivia de Havilland would become even more difficult after working with Selznick on his big, important film.

Of all the early studios, Warner Brothers was the least concerned with prestige and awards.  Jack Warner cared about making money and cranked out one film after another as cheaply as possible.

Olivia de Havilland had already surprised him by bringing in an agent to renegotiate her contract for more money after just her third film.  She’d figured out how underpaid she was and demanded more.

Warner gave it to her because he needed her in the Flynn films.

De Havilland did a secret screen test with Selznick and original Gone with the Wind director George Cukor.  If Jack Warner had found out about it, he could’ve sued both Selznick International Pictures and de Havilland for breach of contract.

Desperate now, de Havilland went to Jack Warner’s wife—a move that decades later de Havilland admitted was highly improper—and asked Ann Warner to intercede on her behalf.

As Warner writes in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:

“Olivia, who had a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawnlike brown eyes…simply went to my wife, Ann, and they joined forces in a plot to change my mind.” 

“’I hear that Selznick wants Livvie in Gone with the Wind,’ Ann said.  ‘Can you possibly imagine anyone else in that role?  And think of the prestige for Warners.  After all, you discovered her, and made her into a star.’” 

De Havilland got the role, of course, and an Academy Award nomination.  She was following the path of Bette Davis, who also fought with Jack Warner over roles and didn’t get recognition as a great actress until she strong-armed him into letting her make Of Human Bondage with RKO in 1934.

De Havilland had proved herself and thought she would continue following in Davis’ footsteps with first-rate roles at Warner Brothers.

She thought Gone with the Wind would change things.

It didn’t.

Because Jack Warner—who was a first-rate bastard in a town full of them—held a grudge.  He didn’t like that de Havilland had negotiated for that raise so young, or complained about the quality of his studio’s pictures, or did an end run around him with his wife to get her role in Wind

He made her, he could unmake her.

She had five years left on her contract, and Jack Warner vowed to make them hell.

So after the heaven that was playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland returned to Warner Brothers and grinded out one film after another.  With and without Flynn, but she was always just the girl.

Even if Warner Brothers didn’t appreciate her, her work in Wind attracted the attention of other studios, who requested her services as a loan out.  She made 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn for Paramount.

Again, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work outside Warners, this time Best Actress, which she of course lost to sister Joan Fontaine.

And it was back to the Warner Brothers grind.

It didn’t help that her sister—her younger sister—had already made it to the altar with Brian Aherne, an actor and one of de Havilland’s former boyfriends.  Or that Fontaine had won the Oscar over her, and was now working for Selznick at the leisurely pace of roughly a film a year while de Havilland ground out three pictures a year and had been working non-stop since 1935.

De Havilland was exhausted and frustrated.  She began throwing tantrums on the set, fighting with Flynn, and refusing roles she felt were beneath her.

She had several of what were then called nervous breakdowns, but what would today be called burnout.

But she had five more years, so she looked for good scripts at home.  She found the script for The Strawberry Blonde in head of makeup department’s Perc Westmore’s office.  She liked the part of Amy, James Cagney’s wife, and fought for it despite producers initially thinking she wasn’t right for the role.

The film was based on 1933’s broadway play One Sunday Afternoon, and a remake of the original film starring Gary Cooper.  It would be remade again in 1948, also titled One Sunday Afternoon.

Warner Brothers retitled it The Strawberry Blonde, which refers not to the part played by de Havilland, but by newcomer Rita Hayworth, on loan from Columbia.

James Cagney stars as Biff Grimes, a dentist struggling to make ends meet.  He spends a Sunday afternoon reminiscing about how he met his wife, Amy (de Havilland) eight years prior.

Biff and his friend Hugo Barnstead (a delightfully oily Jack Carson) and every other man in town have a crush on Virginia Brush, the beautiful young woman they call the Strawberry Blonde.  Shallow Virginia loves the attention and makes sure to walk past the barbershop to soak up the cat calls.

Hugo arranges a double date with Biff, Virginia, and Virginia’s friend Amy, and promises that Biff can “have Virginia.”  When they arrive, Hugo double-crosses Biff and runs off with Virginia, leaving him with Amy.

Amy isn’t like anyone Biff has ever met—she’s beautiful, but she works as a nurse and has modern ideas.  It’s the 1890s, and she shocks him by insinuating that she doesn’t believe in marriage and that her mother wore “bloomers.”

But Biff soon finds out that most of this is a tough outer shell, and he falls in love with and marries Amy.  Hugo marries Virginia, though the union is an unhappy one, beset by their mutual selfishness, greed, and ambitions.

Virginia stands by Biff through thick and thin, and though Biff once pined for Virginia, by the end of the film he knows he got the better end of the deal by a mile.

The Strawberry Blonde is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  Cagney mugs around as Biff, and the film is full of laughs and classic songs such as, “The Band Played On,” and “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie.”

De Havilland was mostly happy during the film, as she enjoyed working with Cagney and director Raoul Walsh.  It was a pleasant experience, and her role had more meat on the bone than those she played with Flynn.

But only a bit more meat.  This is Cagney’s film, and beneath de Havilland’s talents.  (Her role is played by Frances Fuller in the 1933 version, and Dorothy Malone in the 1948 version.  Never heard of them?  As Amy often quips in the film, “Exactly.”)

She was young, beautiful, rich, and independent.  But as she told Errol Flynn on the set of Captain Blood, she wanted respect.

And that was something she would never get from Jack Warner.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Matzen, Robert. Errrol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  • Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

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.

Beer and Blood and Grapefruit

#9 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.

From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.  

Welcome to Prohibition.

For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.

Dry on paper, that is.

For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.

On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.

The twenties were a complete contradiction.  That sounds more like the America I know.

Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained.  Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.

Enter the bootlegger.

Al Capone

As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”

Hollywood did the same.

Because gangsters were another American contradiction.  At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.

Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.

MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.

Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)  

Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime.  As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.

Little Caesar…Robinson even looks like Capone

Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love.  He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.

Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger.  It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry.  He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.

Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.  

But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete.  The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.

Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.

To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.

Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime.  Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.

While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.

The Public Enemy is even better.

The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy.  We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.

He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.

James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer.  For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.

His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin.  Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.

Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun.  Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.

Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner.  Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”

With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean.  You kill and like it.  You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.

And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face.  The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.

(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face)

More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.

He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.

Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.

There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.

As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.

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