We pause to remember a true icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age:
An elegantly pretty, doe-eyed brunette, Olivia de Havilland made a transformative impact upon Hollywood’s golden era for the range, skill and confidence of her performances as well as forever changing the landscape for performers’ rights. Born in Tokyo, where her British attorney father had a prosperous patent practice, in 1916, Olivia Mary de Havilland was just three when her actress mother obtained a divorce and moved the family to central California over concerns for the health of younger sister Joan (more about her to come, of course).
Olivia discovered her own love for the stage in high school, and her work there in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream so impressed theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt that he signed her to understudy for his Hollywood Bowl mounting of the Shakespeare comedy. It wasn’t long until she was slotted into the role of Hermia for the production, which brought about her casting in the 1935 Warner Brothers screen adaptation. A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured, along with a teenage de Havilland, studio A-listers James Cagney, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown and little Mickey Rooney as Puck.
The studio was sufficiently impressed with Olivia to place her under contract. In fact, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream was her first turn in front of the cameras, a pair of performances alongside two of that film’s leads made it to theaters first. Alibi Ike, based on a Ring Lardner story, starred one of the biggest comedy stars on the Warner lot, Joe E. Brown. Long before Major League, this hilarious baseball tale thrilled crowds with the antics of Chicago Cubs pitcher “Ike” Farrell who’s always making excuses which try the patience of his fiancée Dolly (de Havilland). She also played a girl who comes between Irish-American brothers James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in the rollicking comedy The Irish in Us.
The most notable of her first-year assignments at Warners would prove to be the swashbuckler Captain Blood, which cast her opposite a Tasmanian-born unknown named Errol Flynn. Flynn is the dashing English physician wrongly convicted of treason and sentenced to slavery, then rescued by Olivia to eventually begin a life of piracy on the high seas; their appealing chemistry would fuel their respective careers through seven subsequent screen teamings. Decades later de Havilland would admit to having a crush on Flynn in those early years, confiding it was hard to resist his charms. The next year, she was cast as Fredric March’s love interest in Anthony Adverse, followed by another with Flynn, The Charge of the Light Brigade, in which she’s torn between two brothers in an action-packed adventure story based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem.
In Call It a Day (1937) she gave her best to a humorous script in which she received her first top billing; and later that year in one of Warner Brothers’ most underrated comedies, It’s Love I’m After, Olivia discovers how difficult…and hilarious…love can be when Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are part of the love triangle. She was kept busy with film after film and proved she was as good in comedy roles as in her dramatic performances, such as The Great Garrick (1937), where, in a case of mistaken identity, she is spurned by pompous actor Briane Aherne. Then, in 1938, she reunited with Flynn and director Michael Curtiz in Four’s a Crowd, a nice little screwball comedy about a public relations firm specializing in giving scoundrels a good name. Eventually, she would make nine movies under Curtiz’ direction.
In the classic comedy Hard to Get (1938), de Havilland stars as a spoiled young heiress who takes her valet’s car and leaves for a ride without any money on her person. Being unable to pay for gas, she is forced to clean rooms by attendant Dick Powell at the station’s adjoining hotel, and — you guessed it — unexpected romance lies ahead! ’38 was indeed a banner year for Olivia, as well as Errol Flynn, marked by her Maid Marian to his Robin in the classic Technicolor epic The Adventures of Robin Hood. With a cast that also included Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale and Eugene Pallette, the Oscar-winning mix and action and romance is for many the definitive “Sherwood Forest” depiction.
Flynn and de Havilland would keep bumping shoulders on the Warner soundstage over the next few years. 1939’s lavish costume drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex found a gorgeous Olivia, as Lady Penelope Gray, competing with Queen Elizabeth (Bette Davis) for the favors of the Earl of Essex (Flynn) Later that year, in the thrilling frontier saga Dodge City, Errol pins on the sheriff’s badge and cleans up the Old West’s roughest, rowdiest town, which includes one of cinema’s all-time barroom brawls, while Olivia showed she was just as much at home in a western as an English castle.
After she was loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn for his 1939 David Niven starrer Raffles, it didn’t take long for Olivia to chafe at the overall quality of her assignments; she lobbied hard for another loan-out — this time to David O. Selznick — to play the selfless, fragile Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind, and her efforts resulted in her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, although she would lose out to fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel. At the 70th Anniversary of Gone With the Wind‘s premiere,” de Havilland, as the film’s sole surviving major player, spoke about the film classic’s enduring appeal, “It will go on forever, and how thrilling that is. It has this universal life, this continuing life. Every nation has experienced war — and defeat and renaissance. So all people can identify with the characters. Not only that, it’s terribly well constructed. Something happens every three minutes, and it keeps you on your toes and the edge of your seat…”
Back at Warner Brothers, she was a gifted young violin student finding herself at the center of a series of hilarious misunderstandings in the frothy comedy, My Love Came Back in 1940, and quickly followed with another frontier effort with friend Flynn, Santa Fe Trail, a sweeping frontier drama set in pre-Civil War Kansas during John Brown’s anti-slavery raids. History buffs will recognize that Warner Brothers took literary license with some of the facts involving Flynn as military leader Jeb Stuart and Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer. She was to remain close friends with Flynn and Reagan for many years.
It would take another studio loan-out, to Paramount, for the actress to garner her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for the 1941 romantic drama Hold Back the Dawn; she’d lose out to her younger sister Joan Fontaine for her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, an event that would help stoke a lifelong estrangement between the siblings. Olivia continued her streak of cinemas successes in the comedy The Strawberry Blonde (1941), with two of Hollywood’s biggest names, Rita Hayworth and James Cagney. Later that year she made what was to be her final screen turn Errol Flynn, playing his devoited wife in They Died with Their Boots On, Warners’ attempt at glorifying (some might say falsifying) the life and career of General Custer.
She’d remain busy at Warner through 1943, albeit in roles that she felt did not showcase her talent: The Male Animal (1942), based on a James Thurber/Elliott Nugent stage play, co-starred her with Henry Fonda in the first of their three films together; then, she had a less dynamic role than co-star Bette Davis in John Huston’s grand soap opera, In This Our Life. The next year, she played the title role of Princess O’Rourke, who travels to America in search of love and instantly falls for airline pilot Robert Cummings, much to the dismay of her ambassador uncle. If you’re thinking this Oscar-winning comedy sounds a bit like Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy Coming to America, there are some similarities.
Her continued balking at the caliber of her assignments resulted in a six-month suspension. After her contract was up, and Warner sought to extend her obligations for the length of her suspension time, de Havilland took the studio to court, She stunned the industry by prevailing. After years of reflection on her landmark legal victory, she stated about the Warner Brothers, “I was told I would never work again, if I lost or won. When I won, they were impressed and didn’t bear a grudge. In 1946, after doing one more film for Warners — Devotion, a stirring drama which told the story of the relationship between literary luminaries Charlotte and Emily Brontë — went to work for other studios, getting the weightier assignments she craved.
In 1946, director Frank Capra offered her the role of James Stewart’s wife Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life when Jean Arthur, one of the filmmaker’s frequent stars, turned it down. De Havilland also declined, and it would became one of Donna Reed’s most popular roles. Don’t feel bad for Olivia, though, because her performance that year as a young woman who has a child out of wedlock and is forced to give him up and follow his life from afar, in the three-hanky melodrama To Each His Own, would land her a Best Actress Academy Award. Oscar Night trivia fans may know that de Havilland set the record for the most people thanked during an acceptance speech, expressing gratitude to 27 people.
She followed with another Oscar-nominated turn in a devastating 1948 depiction of mental illness, The Snake Pit, and proudly took home a second Best Actress statue in 1949 as the plain spinster of The Heiress, based on Henry James’ Washington Square and co-starring screen newcomer Montgomery Clift. Both To Each His Own and The Snake Pit were scripts originally offered to Ginger Rogers, who turned them down. Ginger was later to regret her decisions and wrote, “”It seemed Olivia knew a good thing when she saw it. Perhaps Olivia should thank me for such poor judgment”.
With the coming of the ’50s, de Havilland turned to Broadway for a time, and then moved to Paris, only sporadically breaking from retirement to return before the cameras. Elia Kazan wanted her as Blanche DuBois for his movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, but she passed and was rumored to have said that “ladies don’t say or do those things on screen.” In a 2006 interview she set the record straight, explaining that when she was offered the part, she had just given birth to her son and at that time couldn’t relate to the Tennessee Williams character.
Notable turns from the ’50s include roles opposite Richard Burton in the thriller My Cousin Rachel (1952) and alongside Robert Mitchum in Not as a Stranger in ’55; the romantic comedy The Ambassador’s Daughter in 1956, and the exciting, heartfelt 1958 drama The Proud Rebel co-starring with Alan Ladd. The latter was Olivia’s ninth and final movie with director Curtiz, and years later she commented, “He was a tyrant, he was abusive, he was cruel. Oh, he was just a villain but I guess he was pretty good. We didn’t believe it then, but he clearly was. He knew what he was doing. He knew how to tell a story very clearly and he knew how to keep things going.”
In 1959’s Libel, she was Dirk Bogarde’s wife, who starts to have questions about her husband’s true identity in a captivating study of memory, trauma, and self-awareness. Her ’60s portfolio was marked by a romantic drama, Light in the Piazza (1962), and–in the wake of the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane–a pair of 1964 suspense shockers, Lady in a Cage and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the last opposite old friend and Baby Jane co-star Bette Davis. Producer Irwin Allen tried to get her for his all-star disaster epic The Towering Inferno in 1974 but when she wouldn’t take the role (Jennifer Jones played the part).
She surfaced in the late ’70s for Airport ’77, Universal’s third entry in its popular series of aviation actioners, and was finally nabbed by Allen for his “honey” of a disaster saga, 1978’s The Swarm, with Michael Caine and Fred MacMurray. Her last big-screen appearance as the Queen Mother in The Fifth Musketeer in 1979.
She joined other Hollywood notables in TV appearances such as the mini-series Roots: The Next Generations and North and South, Book II, and returned to the small screen for the telefilms The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, Anastasia: The Mystery Of Anna (in an Emmy-nominated performance) and The Woman He Loved. In 2003, de Havilland received a standing ovation when she appeared at the 75th Annual Academy Awards, and in 2008, Olivia was a surprise guest honoring her old comrade, the late Bette Davis, at “A Centennial Tribute to Bette Davis”, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. Once she said about her old friend and colleague, “The great lesson I learned from Bette was her absolute dedication to getting everything just right. She used to spend hours studying the character she was going to play, then hours in make-up ensuring that her physical appearance was right for the part. I have always tried to put the same amount of work into everything I’ve done.”
For many years, Miss de Havilland passed the time at a local church by teaching Sunday School classes for children and she is currently enjoying a peaceful retirement at her home on Rue Benouville, in Paris. Once, during an interview when asked if she missed acting, she offered, “Not at all. Life is too full of events of great importance, that is more absorbing and enriching than a fantasy life. I don’t need a fantasy life as once I did. That is the life of the imagination that I had a great need for. Films were the perfect means for satisfying that need.”
This article originally ran in 2017 but is being reprinted today as we remember Olivia de Havilland, who has died at the age of 104.