My Cousin Rachel (1952):  Third Oscar Be Damned!

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)
My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Olivia de Havilland’s biographers are unanimous in their verdict that after her Oscar-winning turn in The Heiress (1949), Olivia de Havilland made the inexplicable error of turning down the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Ellis Amburn dedicates an entire chapter in his biography questioning her Streetcar decision, noting:

“[Hedda] Hopper asked her [de Havilland] to explain why she refused to play…the best role of the century in the best play of the century.”1

But to say turning down Streetcar was a mistake is to completely miss the point.

For A Streetcar Named Desire was to be made at Warner Brothers.

Warner Brothers—still run by Jack Warner, who had bedeviled her since she was nineteen years old, forcing her to beg his wife for the opportunity to play in Gone with the Wind, then punishing her post-Wind by trying to work her to death.  Warner, who had hired lawyers to attack her as a spoiled actress during her lawsuit.  Warner, who had done everything in his power to permanently blackball her from Hollywood.

Though she was too classy to come right out and say it, hell would freeze over before Olivia de Havilland worked for Jack Warner again, third Oscar be damned.2

“I thought Vivien [Leigh] absolutely marvelous in the part,” she told biographer Victoria Amador in 2012.  “I have never regretted that I did not play Blanche.”3

I take her at her word.

So instead of taking the “part of the century” she made the gothic mystery My Cousin Rachel (1952.)

It’s 1838, and twenty-four year old Philip Ashley (Richard Burton in his first Hollywood film) is mourning the death of his cousin Ambrose, the man who raised him after his parents died when he was only a few months old.

Two years before his death, Ambrose left his home with Philip on the Cornish coast of England to seek better weather for his health.  While away, Ambrose marries Rachel, a woman Philip has never met.  Shortly before his death, Ambrose sent Philip a nearly incoherent letter that makes damning accusations against Rachel.  Though most of Philip’s confidantes believe the letter’s contents are the delusions of a man going mad, Philip wants revenge for Rachel’s part in his cherished cousin’s death.

He’s thrown for a loop when Rachel (de Havilland) arrives much younger—though ten years his senior—and far more beautiful than he expected.  His passion turns to lust and then a violent need to possess her.

The film is a game of cat and mouse—is Rachel guilty or not?  She certainly capitalizes on Philip’s desire for her, but is she a desperate woman with nowhere to go or a murderess looking for her next victim?

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

And Philip certainly gives Rachel reason to fear him.

The film is told from Philip’s point of view, and as he is forever tormented by the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence, so are we.

It’s a good but not great psychological thriller that will have you wondering about Rachel’s motivations long after you’ve finished it.  (And don’t go looking for answers in the 2017 Rachel Weisz-Sam Claflin remake—you won’t find them there, either.)

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

And here, dear reader, is where we will pull the curtain on the story of the De Havilland sisters. 

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine continued to work in film throughout the fifties and sixties, before turning mostly to television.  Both were still appearing onscreen in the 1980s.

Joan Fontaine is a legend of old Hollywood, the only actor in a Hitchcock film to win a best acting Oscar, and gave the world the forever gift of her perfect portrayal of the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940).

Olivia De Havilland leaves behind her legacy of Melanie Wilkes, two Oscars for Best Actress, and the DeHavilland Decision, a law still cited today.  Jared Leto’s rock band used the law in 2009 to gain more money for their music, and Leto met De Havilland in 2010 to thank her for her courageous fight against the studios.

And as for the their lifelong feud?

They stopped speaking to one another for good in 1975 after their mother’s death.

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland with their mother
In happier times: Mother Lilian, Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland

But there’s one final plot twist.

In 2017, the FX series Feud told the story of the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland calls Joan Fontaine a “bitch.”

De Havilland so strongly objected to word “bitch” being used about her sister that at the age of 101 she sued the creators of the show, but this time she lost her legal fight.

The line between love and hate is never thinner than between sisters who don’t get along.

My Cousin Rachel (1952) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Notes

  1. Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  2. Olivia de Havilland did not return to the Warner Brothers studio for 35 years. In 1975 she starred in The Swarm, after Jack Warner had retired.
  3. Amador, Victoria. Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant.

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

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

The Heiress (1949):  Ascending to New Heights

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
The Heiress (1949)

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.

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

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.

Miriam Hopkins and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)

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.

Olivia de Havilland poses with her Oscars from To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)

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.

The Heiress (1949) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)
The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Director Anatole Litvak and Olivia de Havilland on the set of The Snake Pit (1948)
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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Olivia de Havilland on the cover of Time Magazine, Dec 20, 1948 edition

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.

The Snake Pit (1948) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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

Olivia de Havilland at the Academy Awards with presenter Ray Milland
Spoiler alert…she crushed it. With presenter Ray Milland
To Each His Own (1946)

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.

John Lund and Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (1946)

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.”

Bill Goodwin and Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (1946)

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.

Olivia de Havilland at the Academy Awards with presenter Ray Milland

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.

To Each His Own (1946) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

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

Olivia de Havilland in Princess O'Rourke (1943)
Princess O'Rourke (1943)

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.

Olivia de Havilland, Julie Bishop, Robert Cummings, Jack Carson,  in Princess O'Rourke (1943)

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.

Robert Cummings and Olivia de Havilland in Princess O'Rourke (1943)

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.

Olivia de Havilland smoking a cigarette

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.

Princess O'Rourke (1943) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

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.

Olivia de Havilland in Princess O'Rourke (1943)

The Affairs of Susan (1945):  Split Personalities

Joan Fontaine surrounded by suitors in The Affairs of Susan (1945)
The Affairs of Susan (1945)

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.

Joan Fontaine and George Brent in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

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.

Don DeFore and Joan Fontaine in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

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

Joan Fontaine and Dennis O'Keefe in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

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.

Joan Fontaine

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

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

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.

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

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

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

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.

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine
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.

The Affairs of Susan (1945):  Give It A Shot

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.

Joan Fontaine surrounded by suitors in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

In This Our Life (1942):  Olivia, Bette Davis, and John Huston

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life (1942)
This Our Life (1942)

In 1942, Bette Davis was well into her reign as Queen of the Warner Brother’s lot.  Olivia de Havilland respected Davis as the best actress this side of Greta Garbo.  They’d worked together twice before—on It’s Love I’m After (1937) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).  In both those films, de Havilland had minor roles where she was just another ingenue and no threat to Bette Davis.

So they got along just fine.

That all changed in 1942, when director John Huston cast them as sisters in In This Our Life, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow.  At that time, he had only one film under his belt—The Maltese Falcon, a surprise success.

Davis was the star, but even as a green director he could see that Olivia de Havilland had untapped potential.  He started cutting Davis out of scenes and giving more attention to de Havilland.

He also fell head over heels in love.

John Huston and Olivia de Havilland on the set of In This Our Life (1942)
Huston and de Havilland

Though de Havilland had refused to consummate her relationship with Errol Flynn because he was married, when she met the married John Huston she set such scruples aside.  The two began a hot and heavy affair that was the talk of Hollywood.  By the end of filming, they were openly living together.

When Jack Warner saw the early film footage he said to himself, “Oh-oh, Bette has the lines, but Livvy is getting the best camera shots.”1

Warner warned Huston, “Bette Davis gets top billing in this picture, but you’re writing her out of the big scenes and giving them to De Havilland.  Let’s get back on the track.”2

When Davis realized what was going on, Warner writes, “She came close to tearing out every seat in Projection Room No. 5, and she would have given everyone a punch in the nose if I hadn’t interfered.  The next day Huston reshot many scenes he had taken from Bette Davis, and it turned into quite an important film.”3

It is certainly an entertaining one.

Bette Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, a spoiled Southern woman who jilts her fiancé on the eve of their wedding by running off with her sister Roy’s (de Havilland) husband. 

On learning what Stanley has done, their father tells Roy, “Stanley’s weak but you’re strong.  Now the weak always have the strong to protect them.  But the strong must protect themselves or they’ll go under.”

Roy refuses to go under.  She throws herself into her work and eventually falls in love with Craig, Stanley’s jilted fiancé. 

Stanley can find no true happiness with Peter, who feels such guilt over deserting his devoted wife that he ultimately commits suicide.  Out of duty and decency, Roy comforts her distraught sister and brings her home.

Stanley is rotten and spoiled.  Her uncle—who swindled their father out of his fortune—bails Stanley out of every jam.  She never has to pay for what she’s done—not for stealing her sister’s husband, or spending every last dime of his money, not for speeding in the car her uncle gave her, or for driving Peter to suicide.

And so when Stanley hits and kills a young girl with her car, she runs from the scene and blames the accident on Parry Clay, the black son of their housekeeper.  Parry has worked for the family for years and is studying to become a lawyer.  Parry does odd jobs for the Timberlakes, including washing Stanley’s car.

George Brent, Ernest Anderson, and Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942)
Happy to let an innocent man take the fall…

At first Roy (who suspects—correctly—that Stanley is once again trying to steal her man) supports Stanley and vouches for her to the police.  But after talking with Parry’s mother, she is convinced of his innocence.

Despite all her protestations, Stanley will finally have to pay for something she has done.

Davis gets to play one of her most vile villains, a woman who steals her sister’s husband, blames her hit and run on a young black man, and has no sympathy when the uncle who has always bailed her out of jams tells her he’s dying.

“All right, so you’re going to die!” she shouts when he refuses to help her with the hit and run.  “But you’re an old man!  You’ve lived your life.  You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others!  You’d let me go to prison!  All you’re thinking about is your own miserable life!  Well you can die for all I care!  Die!”

As Davis’ biographer Ed Sikov writes, “Scenes like this make life worth living.”4

Charles Coburn and Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942)
Charles Coburn and Davis

De Havilland plays Roy in quiet contrast to Davis’ over-the-top Stanley.  It was certainly de Havilland’s best work since Gone with the Wind.  Though Stanley is the one who seemingly goes after what she wants, her life is a roller coaster of unhappiness, careening from one disaster to the next.  Roy has been sobered by losing her husband, but she internalizes the hurt and uses it to become stronger and wiser, if more reserved.

She is the one who will thrive.

But she is no doormat, and when Stanley crosses the line of trying to send an innocent man to prison, Roy intervenes and throws her sister to the wolves.

Not for revenge, but justice.

George Brent, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Craven, and Billie Burke in In This Our Life (1942)

For the rest of her life, Bette Davis called In This Our Life, “one of the worst films made in the history of the world.”5  This was primarily because people accused her of overacting to overcompensate for Huston favoring de Havilland.  But Davis put the blame squarely on Huston, and she and de Havilland ultimately became friends—though their friendship likely survived solely because they made no more films together until de Havilland stepped in for Joan Crawford in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, over twenty years later.

John Huston would go onto to a legendary career, receiving fifteen Oscar nominations for writing and directing, and winning Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).  He directed such classics as The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rogue (1953), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958).  He directed his father Walter to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and his daughter Angelica to Best Supporting Actress in Prizzi’s Honor (1985).

He would gather five wives and divorce them all, though to her great disappointment, Olivia de Havilland was not one of them.

They carried their affair on and off for years, and de Havilland desperately wanted to marry him.  But his drinking and womanizing—as well as his existing wife—eroded their relationship to dust.

By all accounts, John Huston—not Errol Flynn—was the one that got away.

“I must say I felt hatred for John for a long time,” she later recalled.  “Maybe he was the great love of my life.  Yes, he probably was.”6

Though it wasn’t meant to be, Huston also carried a torch for de Havilland for many years.  In 1945, David O.  Selznick threw a party at his home.  When Errol Flynn met John Huston there, he made a crude remark about Olivia de Havilland that neither man (to his credit) would ever repeat.  But the comment so infuriated Huston that soon he and Flynn—both experienced boxers—were throwing punches.  It erupted into a full-on brawl that lasted over an hour and left both men hospitalized—Flynn for two broken ribs and Huston for a broken nose, shattered elbow, and a concussion.7

Oliva de Havilland wasn’t at the party. 

By 1945, she was done with Errol Flynn, done with Warner Brothers and (mostly) done with John Huston.

In This Our Life (1942) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  1. Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:  An Autobiography
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sikov Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  7. Ibid.

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

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life (1942)

The Male Animal (1942):  Brains vs. Brawn

The Male Animal (1942) opening banner

At first glance, The Male Animal (1942) seems like little more than an amusing brains versus brawn comedy, but the film’s rah-rah jokes about football, alpha men, and high-minded professors are wrapped around a surprisingly contemporary debate around free speech.

Just a year out from playing a similarly absent-minded professor in The Lady Eve (1941), Henry Fonda plays Tommy Turner, an intellectual English teacher at Midwestern University, where football reigns supreme.

Tommy is uninterested in football, preferring to spend his time reading and lecturing on great literature.  He believes he is about to receive a promotion to full professorship when a student publishes an editorial stating that Tommy intends to read a letter by convicted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his class.1

The university’s conservative brass don’t give a fig about great writing, and they don’t need one of their professors accused of being a communist on homecoming weekend! 

Tommy receives an ultimatum instead of a promotion—nix the letter or lose his job.

Tommy’s first instinct is to shy away from the fight—he isn’t advocating Vanzetti’s politics.  He sees the letter as a piece of literature only, and he has a lot to lose.  His wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland) agrees he should forget the letter and is much more interested in the homecoming game than Tommy’s inner turmoil over the letter.

So far, so serious.

The humor is injected into the film via the arrival of Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), Midwestern’s former football star and an old flame of Ellen’s.

Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson in The Male Animal (1942)

Jack Carson is one of those great underappreciated character actors whom you recognize in film after film but can’t remember their name.  Carson played minor roles to perfection across four decades in films including Bringing Up Baby (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), A Star is Born (1954), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) before moving into television in the 1960s.

He’s a scene stealer, a great supporting actor, and integral to the success of many films.

Not every name can be above the title.

Carson is perfect in Animal as Joe, the embodiment of the All-American jock, heavy on the charm and testosterone, light on the brains.  He laps up the adoration of the town, receiving a hero’s welcome for his battles won on the gridiron.  He’s loud and sometimes obnoxious, sucking up all the air in the room as he talks a million miles a minute and recreates football plays with pieces from the Turner’s dinner service set.

Tommy feels emasculated by Joe’s alpha male status, and wonders if perhaps Ellen wouldn’t be better off with Joe.

And thus, the screwball portion of the film begins—Tommy rejects Ellen, thinking that he will free her to be with Jack.  Ellen—who is still very much in love with her husband—lets her wounded pride lead the way by insisting she does want to be with Jack.

And Jack—well, he’s just gotten rid of wife number one.  Flirting and dancing with an old flame is one thing, but he’s not in the market for wife number two.

In the film’s best scene, a drunken Tommy opines to his protégé Michael about the difference between civilized men and animals.  Tommy decides that men are animals after all and he vows to fight Jack for his Ellen, the same as a sea lion would fight for his mate. 

His efforts are in vain, of course, and his drunken punches don’t land.  But Ellen’s love for him is rekindled by the effort.

Henry Fonda in The Male Animal (1942)

In the end, Tommy realizes he can never prove his manhood with athletic feats or beating up other men. 

But he can stand up for what he believes in.

And so he insists on reading the Vanzetti letter his class (that has swelled to a full auditorium of people waiting to see if he will go through with it) and let the chips fall where they may.

Just before reading the letter, Tommy’s boss defends him to Ed Keller, the head trustee, in a conversation I can easily imagine playing out in one of today’s big state universities:

Dean Frederick Damon:  “These men [Tommy and his supporters] are not malcontents.  Some of them are distinguished scholars who’ve made this university what it is.”

Ed Keller (Trustee):  “They made it what it is?  What about me?  Who’s getting this new stadium paid for?  Who brought Coach Bob here from Southern Methodist?”

Tommy:  “He means this thing is bigger than stadiums and coaches, Mr. Keller.”

Ed Keller:  “Nothing’s bigger than the new stadium!  Why, that’s idiotic!”

After an impassioned opening for free speech, Tommy reads the letter to a packed house. 

Joe doesn’t get it, and after the reading asks, “Is that all?  Well, that isn’t such a bad letter.”

But Ellen does get it.  Through tears, she realizes it isn’t about the specific contents of the letter, but about how her husband stood up for himself, how he refused to run away in the face of overwhelming adversity.  She has a new appreciation for him now as a husband and a man.

Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal (1942)

The final moments are surely out of any teacher’s fantasy, as the students carry Tommy off in a parade, celebrating him like a football hero for his feat of intellectual honesty.

Is The Male Animal a great work of cinema?

No, let’s not go that far.

But it walks the ever-difficult tightrope of being a genuine comedy with real laughs while at the same time having a sharp point of view, and that’s more than you can say for many of the films made in the 1940’s…or today.

Endnotes

1 – The backstory of why the Vanzetti letter is controversial is not covered in the film and is not necessary to understanding the plot.  But a brief discussion here:  Vanzetti and fellow Italian immigrant Nicola Sacco were convicted on first-degree murder based on very shaky evidence and were executed via electric chair in 1927 despite many public appeals for their innocence, including by Felix Frankfurter, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice.  The continued investigation into their executions lasted into the 1940s and audiences of The Male Animal would likely have understood the reference.  In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation the Vanzetti and Sacco had been wrongly convicted.

The Male Animal (1942) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

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

Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson in The Male Animal (1942)

The Constant Nymph (1943):  Three In Four Years

Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph (1943)
The Constant Nymph (1943)

It’s no surprise that The Constant Nymph (1943) didn’t do particularly well at the box office.  Though Margaret Kelly’s novel was the second best-selling novel in 1925, a film about a grown man torn between two women—one a fourteen-year-old girl—is unlikely to have broad screen appeal, especially with Joseph Breen and the Production Code studying every word in the script.

Director Edmund Goulding was distraught over who could play the part of Tessa, the fourteen-year-old girl in love with Lewis Dodd, played by forty-two-year-old Charles Boyer.  Who could make this love story believable, tender, and well, not creepy?

While dining with his friend Brian Aherne, Goulding complained, “Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen!”

“How about me?” Brian Aherne’s wife asked.1  As Edmund Goulding surveyed the “freckled, no-makeup face, the pigtails, the underweight body” of Aherne’s wife, he didn’t recognize her but thought she would be perfect.

And just like that, Brian Aherne’s wife Joan Fontaine nabbed her first role in a Warner Brothers film, on loan from David O. Selznick and working across the lot from big sister Olivia de Havilland.

After the initial film run, the rights reverted to author Margaret Kelly, who wanted the film shown only at universities and museums, so it fell out of the public eye and went unwatched for seventy years until Turner Classic Movies gained the rights to show it in 2011.  In the United States at least, you can now rent the film for a few dollars off Amazon Prime.

Let’s dust it off and take a look.

Tessa Sanger (Fontaine) is one of four daughters of Albert Sanger, a musical genius nearing the end of his life.  The daughters run wild but are happy in their home in the remote Swiss countryside.  At fourteen, Tessa is hopelessly in love with her father’s friend Lewis Dodd, a musician who can’t quite become a success.  The great Sanger feels that Lewis hasn’t lived enough—suffered enough—to yet have an emotional reservoir deep enough to produce truly great music.

Lewis is genuinely fond of Tessa as he is all her sisters, but sees her only as a child and harbors no romantic feelings.  Tessa, somehow both naïve and wise, believes that as long as Lewis waits for her to grow up, he will eventually see they are perfectly matched.

When Sanger dies, Tessa and her sister Paula are sent to live with their uncle and cousin in London.  Lewis becomes infatuated with Tessa’s adult cousin Florence, played by newcomer Alexis Smith.  They fall in love and wed, but it is immediately clear that their marriage is a mistake.  Florence is wealthy, obsessed with appearances, and though she means to be supportive, cannot understand Lewis’ music.

Tessa can.  Though the film shies away from any overt sexuality between them, Tessa is clearly Lewis’ muse, the one who understands him and his music.  Florence knows before Lewis himself that she has a genuine rival for his affection. 

When Lewis realizes his love for Tessa and declares it to her, she admonishes him for not waiting for her to grow up and marrying Florence instead.  She rejects him, determined not to steal him away from his wife.  When Florence confronts him over his love for a child, she too wonders why he married her.

By the end of the film, Lewis has made up his mind to run away with Tessa until tragedy strikes down his muse.  Yet through her untimely death, she has unintentionally given Lewis the key to unlock his music—he will now experience the suffering required to make him a truly great artist.

At the time of filming, Joan Fontaine was twenty-four years old.  There is no universe in which she should be convincing as either a fourteen-year-girl or a legitimate rival to twenty-year old Alexis Smith’s Florence.

And yet Fontaine is convincing enough to make the film work.

It isn’t just the freckles, and pigtails, and dresses that make her look younger.  Fontaine infuses Tessa with a youthful vigor—giggling, talking too quickly, fretting over the fact that her hair is wet when Lewis arrives for an unexpected visit.  She runs like a colt, full of frenetic energy and not sure what to do with it all. (There’s precious few good You Tube clips, but if you want to see Fontaine playing a teenager, there’s a great clip on the film’s TCM website.)

Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph (1943)

It is the first time that Fontaine plays a teenager, and she will do so again in Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), with similarly spectacular results.

The film is enhanced by the constraints of the production code.  Because their scenes are decidedly unsexual, the film (perhaps unintentionally, and unlike the salacious novel) becomes a meditation on what makes a soul mate, rather than a precursor to Lolita.  If anything, lust is what keeps Florence and Lewis together.  It is not sex that Tessa and Lewis share, but something more—a bone deep agreement on what it means to live a good life—music, nature, friends, romance.  Despite her mature sensuality, Florence cannot compete with that.

It’s undoubtedly worth watching.

Alexis Smith (20 years old), Joyce Reynolds (16), Charles Boyer (42), and Fontaine (24) in The Constant Nymph (1943)
Alexis Smith (20 years old), Joyce Reynolds (16), Charles Boyer (42), and Fontaine (24)

Throughout her life, Fontaine called The Constant Nymph “the happiest motion-picture assignment of my career” and declared Charles Boyer her favorite leading man.  She gushed over Edmund Goulding, and the relaxed working hours of his set—in at a leisurely eight o’clock in the morning, finished every day by four.

One can feel Olivia de Havilland seething across the Warner’s lot watching Fontaine work the movie stars’ equivalent of banker’s hours while she’d just finished up a year working on three different films—They Died With their Boots On (another costume drama with Flynn that Fontaine had turned down), The Male Animal, and In This Our Life.

Olivia de Havilland visits sister Joan Fontaine on the set of The Constant Nymph
Olivia visits Joan on the set of The Constant Nymph

When the Academy announced their nominations for Best Actress of 1943, Fontaine found herself on the list for the third time in four years for her work in Nymph.

Little Sister was no longer the girl who couldn’t dance with Fred Astaire, or the one cut from RKO’s roster for lackluster performances.

Joan had three best actress nominations, and one win. 

Oliva, who so desperately wanted the recognition of the Academy, had only one nomination for Best Supporting Actress and one for Best Actress.  No wins.  She’d gone head-to-head with Joan in 1942 and lost.

Though she still had her role in Gone with the Wind, Oliva had to face the facts:  in the lifelong competition that drove their lives and ambitions, Joan was surging ahead.

The Constant Nymph Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

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

The Strawberry Blonde (1941): Olivia On Ice

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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.

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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.”

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

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.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

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.

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)