Olivia de Havilland Turns 100: How ‘Gone With the Wind’s’ True Rebel Fought the Studio System and Won

Olivia de Havilland 100th Birthday

July 1, 2016, marks the 100th birthday of Olivia de Havilland, an actress who made Hollywood history in more ways than one. She is best remembered as Melanie in the 1939 “Gone With the Wind,” as well as her roles opposite Errol Flynn, including “The Adventures of Robin Hood”; she’s also one of the few to have won two leading-actress Oscars.

But her influence on the movie industry goes far beyond that: She helped bring an end to the studio system, thanks to her landmark lawsuit against Warner Bros. in 1944.

The actress had made her film debut in 1935, at age 19, in a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that starred James Cagney and Mickey Rooney. Eventually WB signed her to a seven-year contract, which was standard when studios wanted to hold onto actors.

The studio suspended her seven or eight times for refusing to play certain roles. When de Havilland’s contract expired, Warner Bros. claimed it was owed an additional six months of work, for the time off when she was suspended. She countered that the contract was for a seven-year period, not for the time actually spent working. Superior Court Judge Charles S. Burnell agreed with her, saying that if a contract was for actual working weeks, this would make the contract one of “peonage.”

In truth, the stars were essentially indentured servants. They had to do whatever the studio wanted. Studios groomed stars by giving them classes in acting, voice and movement, and sometimes changing their looks (Rita Hayworth underwent painful electrolysis to change her hairline). Execs controlled their image by putting out press releases about their private lives and hushing up scandals, ranging from illegitimate children to manslaughter.

A Variety advertisement from 1943

In exchange, stars went where they were told, dated whom they were told, and performed in whatever movie they were told. Many stars were suspended for refusing roles (Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, etc.). And Bette Davis had legal wrangles with Warner Bros. over her contract. But de Havilland changed things by challenging the entire system — and winning.

On March 15, 1944, Variety ran the headline “De Havilland Free Agent.” The article stated “Warners contended that they were entitled to ‘seven years’ actual working time’ and that because she had been suspended seven or eight times, they could add the suspension time to the seven-year period.” Four months later, de Havilland went to court again, seeking assurance that she could work elsewhere and that Warners would not interfere. Again, she was successful.

Meanwhile, the relatively new guilds were gaining power and challenging studios. In 1948, the rigid studio system received a serious setback with the Paramount Consent Decrees, in which the Dept. of Justice forced studios to give up ownership stakes in movie chains. When studios had been able to make films and exhibit them, they had power in deciding what kind of movies they wanted to make, and could pretty much dictate their own terms when negotiating with other theater circuits.

And, of course, the studio system received a fatal blow from television, which exploded in the early 1950s and changed moviegoing habits forever.

Some Hollywood stars in those days had reputations for being temperamental. So who would have guessed that the radical game-changer would be an actress known for playing wholesome characters like “Gone With The Wind’s” relentlessly sweet Melanie Hamilton?

It might have seemed like a risky move in 1944, but de Havilland’s career thrived. In just a few years after her legal victory, she won Oscars for 1946’s “To Each His Own” and 1949’s “The Heiress.” She continued to work in films, including “The Snake Pit,” “My Cousin Rachel,” “Light in the Piazza” and “Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte,” among many others. She segued into TV work, with her final onscreen appearance in the 1988 TV movie “The Woman He Loved.”

Her 1962 autobiography, “Every Frenchman Has One,” is still in print. The actress lives in Paris and for nearly 50 years, has been the lone survivor among the top stars of “GWTW”: Vivien Leigh died in 1967, years after Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel and Gable. So it was on de Havilland’s shoulders to promote the film for special occasions (its 50th anniversary, etc.) And she appears in public when she chooses, such as her trip to Los Angeles for a June 2006 celebration of her 90th birthday thrown by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

In November 2008, President George W. Bush presented de Havilland, 92, with the National Medal of Arts, saying “Her independence, integrity and grace won creative freedom for herself and her fellow film actors.” Two years later, she was appointed a Chevalier (knight) of the Légion d’honneur. French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the actress, “You honor France for having chosen us.”

In truth, not every Frenchman has one. But every industry needs at least one Olivia de Havilland.

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  1. Dave J says:

    Still looks great even at a 100!!

  2. Bill.B. says:

    I can’t believe that she is 100 years old! I don’t think she was among the greatest of her era, but she gave a few very fine performances and was utter perfection in The Heiress. It’s a fascinating performance.

  3. gumptionnation_1940 says:

    Happy 100th Birthday 🎂, to the lovely Ms. Olivia de Havilland! Even in my 20s, you are one of the few actresses/public figures I truly admire and consider to be a bona fide inspiration. Wishing you all the best on your special day and may God bless you now and always!

    ♡💋♡💋 from the USA

  4. Pat Bennett says:

    Have a wonderful birthday to an amazing actress, pioneer, and brave rebel, who was not afraid to stand up for her rights and those of others. Totally contrary to her meek, mild, soft spoken Melanie Hamilton, fortunately she had a lion’s roar to right the wrongs.

    • Pat Bennett says:

      Not taking away from her GWTW role, I loved her as Melanie. My mother always said no one else could have played that role as well.

  5. Ken says:

    Love you, Miss de Havilland! Tonight I will run HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. You’re amazing as “Miriam Deering”!!

  6. Mila says:

    Happy 100th birthday, Olivia!
    July 1st – Olivia de Havilland’s 100th birthday.

  7. Nancy Massi says:

    I have always loved her, wonderful lady and actress. She was the person I wanted to be when I was growing up.

  8. David Smith says:

    A Great Lady And Wonderful Actor Who Still Maintains The Standards Of What The Motion Picture Should be doing Today Instead putting The Filth They Are Doing Today.

  9. Rick says:

    Shoddy fact checking. Another cast member survived long after those mentioned. Butterfly McQueen, who spoke one of the films most enduring and mis-quoted lines, died in a house fire in 1995.

    • timgray2013 says:

      It’s not a question of “shoddy” fact-checking. The five actors mentioned are the stars of the film, but I think most people would agree that Butterfly McQueen, Thomas Mitchell and Laura Hope Crews, for example, are memorable but co-stars.

  10. Raniroo says:

    Happy Birthday Olivia. We’ve enjoyed seeing you in all the wonderful movies you starred in, and thank you for all you’ve done for the arts. Congratulations on your 100th Birthday. You will always be a beautiful, classy and gracious lady.

  11. Steve Antone says:

    Why does every recognition of someone have to be that they fought some kind of nameless, faceless system? Is this intended to make them relatable because we see ourselves that way? It’s plenty enough to just celebrate her as a great actress. Period.

    • Ken says:

      Because what Miss de Havilland accomplished in the mid-40s was a significant achievement for employment rights…she helped destroy grossly unfair studio servitude. They even named a law after her. And because of the artistic freedom she gained from her battle against Warners, she was able to enjoy the most fulsome period of her long career…TO EACH HIS OWN (Oscar), THE SNAKE PIT (nomination), and arguably her finest role, in THE HEIRESS (another Oscar). That’s why.

  12. Rick says:

    Congrats Olivia, god has blessed you, for being you, a beautiful and gracious lady thank for the memories.

    • Karen says:

      Yes. And by achieving the “De Havilland Decision”, Olivia de Havilland made it possible for Hollywood stars returning from combat in WWII to not have their years of war service discounted from their 7-year contract. Because of the decision she achieved, Ms. de Havilland made it possible for returning combat veterans such as Tyrone Power Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and many others to negotiate new contracts, as their pre-war contract had run out during WWII. Had Ms. de Havilland not achieved the Decision, these returning combat veterans would have been stuck with pre-war wages.

  13. John S says:

    I fell in love with her the first time I seen her star with Errol Flynn in the movie Captain Blood and They Died With Their Boots On what a beautiful actress. I wish I could have met her to tell her that and I still love her even at 100. She will always be my favorite of all time. Love you forever Olivia.

  14. James Smith says:

    My birthday, too! Also, Pamela Anderson, Debbie Harry, Dan Akroyd, Liv Tyler, Lady Di, Carl Lewis, David Prowse (aka Darth Vader), Harold Sakata (Oddjob) and Jamie Farr. Happy Birthday to Ms De Havilland and the others.

  15. Nan says:

    Happy 100th birthday and many many thanks for all you’ve done on screen and off screen . You are a true and much beloved icon whose wonderful work will live forever.

  16. Carylie Forte says:

    There is no other like her today and so we are all blessed to have had the one and only Olivia de Havilland come along when she did, and shine when Hollywood was at its best. What a fabulous 100 years of a life well lived! Congratulations and Happy Birthday to Olivia!

  17. Terry of fakeababydotcom says:

    Truly a legend!

  18. Phillip Ayling says:

    A real star with a life amazingly lived.

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