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.
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.
- 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.
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