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

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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