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

Spoiler alert…she crushed it. With presenter Ray Milland

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

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

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

Hers was the only name above the title.

It was time to put up or shut up.

Spoiler alert…she put up.

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

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

And how was the film received?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the best was yet to come.

Sources

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

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

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

Princess O’Rourke isn’t a terrible film.

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

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

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

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

She never planned on falling in love with him. 

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

It’s not a terrible film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d won.

Retaliation was swift and severe.

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

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

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

But she’d made her point.

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

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

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

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

Everything was riding on her next role.

Sources

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

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

The Affairs of Susan (1945): Split Personalities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just who is Susan Darell?

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

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

Sweet.  Naïve.  Innocent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no dramatic betrayal.

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

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

The stars are just like you and me after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

So what really was the relationship between the sisters?

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

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

And who was the real Joan Fontaine?

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

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

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

Notes

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

Full Sources

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

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

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

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

The Male Animal (1942):  Brains vs. Brawn

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sources

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

The Constant Nymph (1943):  Three In Four Years

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.)

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)

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 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.

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

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.

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.