Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #6

By the end of the 1940s, Olivia de Havilland was arguably the best dramatic actress working in Hollywood.

And that distinction didn't come easily, as perhaps one of her great accomplishments of the decade came off screen through a landmark court decision in which she sued her studio, Warner Brothers. This led to some bravura performances -- but more on that later.

In 1940, de Havilland was fresh from the achievement of playing Melanie in "Gone With the Wind," which was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Showing a dramatic range that had been absent up to that time, de Havilland was ready for meatier roles.

But those parts were slow to come. Having been signed by Warner Brothers in 1935, the studio had used her mainly as a love interest, with some of her biggest successes coming opposite Errol Flynn ("Captain Blood," "Charge of the Light Brigade," "Adventures of Robin Hood"). Despite her success upon being loaned out to David Selznick for "Wind," de Havilland became increasingly frustrated with the roles she was landing at Warner Brothers.

In 1941, she would co-star with Flynn for the final time in "They Died With Their Boots On." That same year, she earned strong notices in "Hold Back the Dawn," co-written by Billy Wilder (the year before directing his first film, "The Major and the Minor" with Ginger Rogers) and Charles Brackett. In this movie, de Havilland plays a spinster traveling south of the border who ends up being romanced by Charles Boyer, who wants to get into America and realizes his best bet to do so is to marry one. This above-average soaper features fine work all around, with de Havilland getting that chance to display her ever-maturing talents. Another Oscar nod came her way for this film (and she was competing against little sister Joan Fontaine, who won that year for "Suspicion," which continued a rift between the two that would intensify as the decade continued).

'The Male Animal" in 1942 lets de Havilland have some fun, playing opposite Henry Fonda as a college professor's wife who reunites with old flame Jack Carson. It's a good role for her, although de Havilland really wanted the meaty dramatic roles.

Despite another success in "Princess O'Rourke" in 1943, a film de Havilland didn't want to make, she wanted stronger material. When her seven-year contract came to an end, she discovered Warners had added time onto it due to a six-month suspension during which she was fighting for better parts. The addition wasn't uncommon back then, and stars felt they could do nothing about it.

But de Havilland decided she would and sued Warners. For nearly three years, de Havilland was kept off screen during the court battle. The trouble was worth it: She ended up winning a landmark decision in which studios were no longer allowed to enter into such practices. A term contract ended at the end of the specified period of length. This also led to more people pursuing contracts in other ways, such as signing deals for a specified numbers of films rather than a length of time.

In 1946, de Havilland had several films in release, including "Devotion," a film she made at Warner Brothers that was held back from release during the lawsuit. Better are "The Dark Mirror," a dated but still likable drama in which she superbly plays twins -- one good, one evil -- caught up in a murder investigation, and "To Each His Own," a well-made melodrama in which she plays a woman who gives up illegitimate baby and becomes his beloved aunt instead. I'm sure the Oscar she received for this role was a combination of her fine talent and Hollywood welcoming her back to the screen (and perhaps congratulating her on the lawsuit).

What followed next are two knock-out performances: "The Snake Pit" and "The Heiress."

"The Snake Pit" is based upon Mary Jane Ward's book of the same name, in which she discusses her own stays in psychiatric hospitals. It caused a sensation upon its release in 1946. In the film version, de Havilland (right) plays Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a woman who can't remember how she got to a state asylum. Some may find the treatment dated, but I've seen it twice in the last several years and find it a powerful indictment of some psychiatric practices and that de Havilland's performance is as impressive today as when the film was released in 1948. She reportedly lost weight for the performance to make herself look more drawn, and her meticulous research into institutions, which she visited before shooting began, results in a harrowing portrait.

Then came "The Heiress," perhaps her greatest triumph. I've already written about this amazing film, and you can read about it here. She plays Catherine Sloper (below, with Montgomery Clift), whose father keeps an eye out for her. He admits she is shy and plain yet wants her to have a full life. Still, he is suspicious of any suitor who may be after her only for her future inheritance.
Although director William Wyler wanted de Havilland to be even more plain, which she resisted, the performance is otherwise rich, particularly when Catherine is torn between the man courting her (Clift) and her father, and cynicism begins seeping into her demeanor as she struggles to determine the right path to follow.

If you read my previous blog posting, you'll see I love this film and the performances in it. For de Havilland, it caps a tumultuous decade that saw her develop into one of the decade's finest dramatic actresses. It's unfortunate her post-1940s work never lived up to "The Snake Pit" or "The Heiress." Still, her talent and beauty are something to treasure during this decade, and I strongly urge people who have not seen these films to do so immediately and discover how terrific de Havilland is.

Editor's note: I had planned to be further along with my countdown at this point, but a family emergency kept me from writing this week (despite the date at the top, which is when I started this entry, I didn't post it until Dec. 26). However, beginning Dec. 26, I will post daily through the end of the year and conclude on Dec. 31. So stay tuned!


  1. Olivia is one of my favorite actresses, and her performance in the movie "The Snake Pit" is a brave one. I enjoy when beautiful actresses take on tough roles and prove themselves to be more than a pretty face. Q.

  2. Hi Q, I agree completely. Thanks for the comment!