The Olivia de Havilland
Fifty years ago, two-time
Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland took action to change her career
and the lives of all performers. The indomitable actors' advocate
(who gladly joined the fledgling Guild on April 29, 1936) successfully
sued Warners to get out of an unfair contract in the mid 1940's.
"The de Havilland decision", as the landmark case
became known in the industry, was a breakthrough for actors
who were then able to choose their own roles and career destinies.
In an exclusive interview with Screen Actor, Miss de Havilland
spoke with Harry Medved about her choice of roles, early Guild
meetings, and "the decision" of a lifetime.
Tell us about your first SAG meeting.
I attended some of the big gatherings of SAG members held at
the Hollywood Legion Stadium, a large fight auditorium. I recall
these as lively affairs with strong and vociferous reactions
from the membership. I recollect, in particular, a large assembly
where a group of players was seated with the Chairman on a sort
of raised platform and that one of them was Joan Crawford, who
knitted industriously throughout the meeting. Ralph Morgan was
one of our first leaders and he had his hands full, but he made
a valiant effort to be equal to the challenge.
Were certain actors reluctant to join the Guild?
The formation of SAG was a very controversial matter and major
stars, though protected in many ways by their contracts, were
at risk because these agreements not only contained a unilateral
yearly option which the producer could exercise at will, but
also quite strict provisions regarding behavior offensive to
public opinion. A major star's popularity outside the industry
could well be diminished by appearing pro-labor in a society
still uneasy about unions, and such a star could jeopardize
his or her career by seeming to oppose the interests of the
employer. Joan Crawford's hearty welcome at an early Guild gathering
may have been because her presence showed courage, which everyone
else there recognized, and it also showed solidarity with those
less well-placed than herself.
Was it necessary for you to keep your SAG membership a secret?
I never made a secret of my membership, but I did incur my mother's
How did you feel about your early roles as delicate heroines
I detested playing the female leads in Alibi Ike (1935),
Wings of the Navy (1939), and other films, but enjoyed
Arabella Bishop in Captain Blood (1935) and Maid Marian
in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
How did you get cast in Gone With The Wind (1939)?
Did you have to fight to show your range?
According to Memo [the Selznick biography], David O. thought
that I would be a good choice for the character of Melanie after
having screened The Adventures of Robin Hood, a huge money maker
for Warners in 1938. George Cukor subsequently asked if I were
interested and would I come very discreetly to his office for
a reading? I complied and a few days later, equally discreetly,
drove to Selznick's house for another reading. That decided
the matter for David, but to obtain Jack Warner's agreement
was a complicated and suspenseful operation. Finally, Jack Warner
took in exchange for me a one-picture commitment which Selznick
held for the services of James Stewart.
Was Warners a tough studio to work at?
Warners was a particularly well-equipped, well-run, and well-maintained
studio but was also rather cut-and-dried and business-like in
its approach to making movies. Very different from Selznick,
who was passionate about the films he made. He selected them
with great care, and wanted them to be works of art as well
as financial successes. At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, actors could
reason with the studio when they felt uncomfortable about a
role, they could take a lay-off or a different assignment in
its place. At Warner Bros. a suspension was the immediate reply
to an actor's disinclination to take on a particular assignment.
What was the effect of the "de Havilland decision"
on your fellow actors?
I was very proud of that decision, for it corrected a serious
abuse of the contract system - forced extension of a contract
beyond its legal term. Among those who benefitted by the decision
were the actors who fought in World War II and who, throughout
that conflict, were on suspension. I was deeply gratified when,
returning to MGM after his long and distinguished military service,
Jimmy Stewart asked the court on the basis of that decision
for a ruling on his contract - and thus the contracts of other
actor-veterans - and received, of course, a favorable verdict.
When I won the final round of my case on Feb. 3, 1945, every
actor was now confirmed as free of his long-term contract at
the end of its seven year term, regardless of how many suspensions
he had taken during those seven years. No one thought I would
win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived
from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding. The Guild
served as Amicus Curiae in my case: friend of the Court.
What are your memories of working with future Guild President
Ronnie Reagan was a very sociable creature. Extroverted in the
nicest way. When we worked with Errol Flynn on Santa Fe
Trail in 1940, Ronnie was already interested in the Guild
and would sit beside me on the set to chat about SAG and other
things. During night shooting out in the San Fernando Valley,
when Flynn continually turned up late for our 9 p.m. call, forcing
the cast to work until dawn, Ronnie sought me out and asked
me to plead with Flynn to mend his "wicked, wicked ways."
I went into Flynn's on-location tent as Ronnie's emissary to
persuade him to be on time. To my astonishment Errol was really
quite cold with me and said: "Why do you have to put it
on a personal basis?" I never understood his behavior and
it took me 50 years to figure it out. It wasn't until a White
House dinner, when Ronnie reminisced about the night shooting
on Santa Fe Trail and how Flynn had re-arranged a photo
line-up to Ronnie's extreme disadvantage, that I finally realized
that Errol was nettled by Ronnie's popularity on the set and,
very possibly, by his affable relations with the leading lady.
Evidently Flynn thought Ronnie and I were engaged in a passionate
romance. Of course it was nothing of the kind. Ronnie was happily
married at the time and I was interested in a shy, tall, blue-eyed
actor whose name it will take you much less than 50 years to
What is your secret for longevity?
I don't understand the question - I'm only 78 years old!