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)

Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly on the set of Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954) opening banner

Much ink has been spilled over Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated relationships with his leading ladies.  But it’s a topic of endless fascination, so let’s spill a little more, shall we?

There is speculation about the exact nature of the sex in Hitch’s long marriage to his wife Alma, but we can only say with certainty that theirs was not a passionate love.  Hitch was a lonely man, isolated by his intense desire for requited love and his inability to find someone to provide it.  (It’s doubtful he could have accepted it if anyone had ever offered it; alas, it seems no one ever did.)  

He loved Ingrid Bergman first, and through deft skill and an uncommon tenderness, she managed to reject his amorous overtures and shaped his schoolboy crush into a lifelong friendship.  In the case of Tippi Hedren, he developed a dangerous obsession that crossed a red line and marred his legacy.

Sandwiched between Ingrid and Tippi was Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that allowed Hitchcock to mold her into his image of the perfect woman.

Twenty-four year old Grace Kelly had made only three films when fifty-four year old Hitchcock saw her in Mogambo, John Ford’s film set in Africa that featured a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Kelly.  She hadn’t yet made much of an impression on audiences or critics (though after she caught Hitch’s eye she was a surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Mogambo), but Hitch was convinced she could be the star he’d been searching for ever since Ingrid Bergman left him in 1949 to make films in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.

Hitch felt Grace Kelly had a mix of elegance and sexuality that he could exploit with his camera.  While Marilyn Monroe embodied the blonde bombshell who put her sexuality right out there for anyone to see, Hitch called Grace Kelly a “snow-covered volcano,” a woman who kept such tight reign on herself that men went mad imagining what was beneath the white gloves, prim hats, and perfect dresses.

Hitch nurtured this image of Kelly through the three films they made together.  Though she occupied a singular place in his heart, there were never any romantic interludes between them.  Hitch satisfied his desires by taking extreme interest in the clothing she wore in his films, dressing her like a doll, and being infinitely patient with her on set, which was not his usual way with his actors.

After seeing her in Mogamo, he convinced MGM to loan her to Warner Brothers to star in his picture Dial M For Murder, based on the stage play of the same name.

Grace Kelly looks over her newspaper in Dial M for Murder (1954)

The plot for the film starts off rather simply and then becomes increasingly complicated in the second half.  Grace Kelly plays Margo Wendice, a woman having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Unbeknownst to her, her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has discovered the affair.  Worried that she will leave him (and take the money that he lives the high life on), Tony blackmails an old schoolmate to murder her.

I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago in college, and I remembered nearly every moment of the grisly attempted murder scence, still shocking despite the lack of gory effects that would be employed today.  The rest of the film I had utterly forgotten.

After watching it again, I am convinced that in twenty more years I will still remember the attempted murder scene, while having again forgotten the rest.

Swann (the killer) has entered the apartment while Margo (Kelly) is sleeping in her bedroom.  He hides behind the thick curtains just behind the desk.  When the telephone rings (her husband calling to lure his wife to her death), Margo staggers into the room half asleep in nothing but her nightgown.  As her husband listens on the other end of the line, Swann wraps a scarf around Margo’s neck and attempts to strangle her.

Grace Kelly is about to be strangled in Dial M for Murder (1954)

But Margo (who is often quite passive in the rest of the film) puts up unexpected resistance and fights Swann.  In the struggle, Swann throws her over the desk and bends over her as she moans and he pulls the scarf tighter.

The scene is quite clearly choreographed to mimic a rape, and we see shots of Kelly’s bare legs as she struggles.

In a moment of inspiration, Margo reaches behind her head, remembering the scissors from her mending basket she’d left on the desk.  She finds them and plunges them into the killer’s back.  He falls, taking her with him as the scarf is still wrapped around her neck, and as he hits the floor the scissor blades imbed themselves fatally into his back.

I challenge you to watch the scene without flinching.

After realizing she has killed her attacker, the gasping Margo staggers onto the back patio, drawing in large breaths of air and pulling the scarf from her neck.

Dial M for Murder (1954) movie poster

The scene took over a week to shoot, and years later Grace Kelly spoke of the difficulties and awkwardness of doing take after take that left her exhausted and bruised at the end of each day.  But she wanted to please Hitchcock (and that desire alone pleased him immensely) and eventually the scene was shot to Hitchock’s satisfaction.

Watching the film today, it is noticeable how Kelly reaches behind her head for the scissors.  She lets her hand flail around for a long time, which strikes a bit of a wrong note as she should be rummaging on the surface of the desk for the scissors.  Before she takes the killing blow, she holds the scissors up for a moment so the audience can get a good look at them.

Grace Kelly wields scissors in Dial M for Murder (1954)

But Hitch, of course, had his reasons.  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, a new special effect the movie industry was testing out to compete with television.  To audiences in 3-D glasses, it would appear that Kelly was reaching out of the screen to them, and that the deadly scissors were inches from their face.

Hitch hated the idea of 3-D, which he correctly predicted would be a short-lived gimmick, but Warner Brothers insisted he use the technology.  The 3-D cameras were large, slowed down filming, and prevented Hitch from doing certain shots.

In fact, the release of Dial M for Murder was delayed for nearly a year until the run of the play completed, and by the time audiences saw it the 3-D craze had already passed.  Most people saw it the way we do today, in two dimensions.

After the attempted murder, the film gets a little bogged down in plot.  Since his wife has survived, the husband shifts his plan to convincing the police that she deliberately killed the man because he was blackmailing her over her affair.  It nearly works, until her lover and a clever detective save her from death row with sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes—and Columbo—proud.

For Hitch, who was never all that interested in the storyline of Dial M and who hated the 3-D filming process, the main joy of the film was working with Kelly.  Throughout the process he had his mind on his next film, one that would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece by film scholars and audiences alike.

It was the story of the ultimate voyeur who has a beautiful woman do his bidding.

It was the story of movie making itself, spiced up with murder.

Kelly would star in it, of course, no matter what he had to do to once again pry her away from MGM.

Now all he needed was the right leading man.

Dial M for Murder (1954) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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

Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly on the set of Dial M for Murder (1954)