Olivia de Havilland Cracks The Code

Olivia de Havilland looking like “I don’t have time for this mess.” So many actors past and present still owe her a huge debt

On December 8th, 1944 the California Court of Appeal for the Second District handed down a ruling that sent shock waves through Hollywood. Not only because the ruling was unexpected but also because of the far reaching impact it would have on the movies. Leading lady Olivia de Havilland was a star of the first order when she decided enough was enough. Her courage and determination set in motion the beginning of the end for the studio system.

Things had cooled considerably for de Havilland by 1943.  Not so much in the way of movies. She was in an all star musical (Thank Your Lucky Stars)  and a romantic comedy (Princess O’Rourke which garnered an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) both of which did quite well with wartime audiences.  Even a subpar film like Government Girl made while de Havilland was on loan to RKO Studios turned a profit.

So it should have been a given that after seven years of showing Warner Brothers what she was capable of de Havilland would be on the fast track to meatier roles

Jack Warner didn’t see it that way.

I was really restless to portray more developed human beings. Jack never understood this, and … he would give me roles that really had no character or quality in them. I knew I wouldn’t even be effective

And like her peers in the motion picture industry there wasn’t much she could do to alter her situation. Movies studios were fiefdoms with people like Warner, Mayer and Zanuck exercising total control of all they surveyed. They could be benevolent one minute and downright cruel the next but that was the point. The king always gets to do what he wants.

The Wizard

From the beginning of American movie making there have always been people who looked at it as there own personal candy store. You want something then you pay their price for it.

Get it somewhere else? Good luck with that. Build it yourself? Expect a visit from a lawyer or someone that didn’t go to law school but has definitely earned a degree in the art of persuasion.

The movie business was a rough and tumble one with many of the participants playing for keeps. And no one was playing it harder than the Wizard of Menlo Park Thomas Alva Edison.

By the time he had built the Kinetograph, Edison the man (see what I did there?) was an institution. No one could deny his contribution to humanity’s progress.

At the same time he could be quite ruthless when it came to getting what he wanted.

Since 1891, when the Wizard of Menlo Park filed his first patent on a motion picture camera/film system, his lawyers had launched 23 aggressive infringement suits against other production outfits. Sometimes Edison won. Sometimes he lost. But the costs of these battles overwhelmed his rivals, and that was the intent.

Thomas Edison. Taking a break from monopolizing the American movie industry.

Edison had set his sights on a fledgling industry that was bringing it in by the millions and there was only one thing he could do about it. Take it all.

Seeking to end the ceaseless lawsuits, Edison brought the representatives of the biggest film companies in the United States together in December 1908 to form the Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as the Edison Trust, which collectively held 16 major film patents. The cartel was the most powerful force in American film.

For the time being Edison had gotten his candy store.

Closing Shop

It’s safe to say that by 1909 many in the movie business were sick of Thomas Edison. The constant barrage of lawsuits was bad enough but now other tactics were being employed to make sure everyone bought from the same store.

Movie makers and distributors couldn’t take it anymore. While some continued to battle it out on his turf others decided the best way to deal with Edison was to get as far away from him as possible.

Many in the film industry, known as “independents,” chose a third option: flee. California made a lot of sense, not only for the reasons listed above, but also because it was in an area where judges were less friendly to the patents awarded to Edison and company.

Hollywood, born out of a desire to avoid Edison’s intellectual property claims, quickly became the primary location of the motion picture industry.

Westerns truly made in the West thanks to Thomas Edison

A number of issues led to the demise of the Motion Picture Patent Company but the 1915  ruling officially stated what a lot of people already knew. Edison was running a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Not soon afterward the MPPC folded and with it Edison’s candy store.

Out of The Frying Pan

By the time of the court ruling the movie industry had come out from under Edison’s boot with a force. The king was dead. Long live Hollywood. A different way of doing things took hold.

Longer productions of quality instead of Edison’s 20 minute rule. Getting good actors and promoting them instead of using non-credited stock players. The move away from nickelodeons to movie houses all topped off with the California climate to film in all year round and make the kind of films they wanted. It was all there.

But certain independents had studied the Edison game plan pretty carefully. While they may have rejected one man controlling the entire industry the thought of a few (them) controlling it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Adolph Zukor. founder of Paramount studios and creator of block booking

It was a system that made sure that the biggest studios in Hollywood were in total control of the movies they made and that the movies would be distributed.


The biggest studios at that time were divided in two groups. ‘The Big Five’: MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO and Fox and ‘The Little Three’: Universal, Columbia and United Artists.

From owning the theater to forcing distributors to take whatever they were given in blocks and often without seeing the films, moguls picked up the Edison torch and took control of the U.S. movie industry. The Wizard must have been somewhere shaking his head in admiration.

Locked In

The studio system is the Golden Age of Hollywood. Movie stars were everywhere and the public drank it up. What they didn’t know was behind the glamour execs were running something akin to indentured servitude.

It starts with the contract normally averaging seven years. LB Mayer gives you the rest

If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. …We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting.

Commonly known as creating a product and for the moguls creating a product meant you own it. Complete.

Never anywhere near a great actress Jean Harlow flourished in the studio system. It was all about the look.

So when an actor says he or she would rather not do a movie for whatever reason the answer was simple. Make them. If they balked put them on suspension with the added guarantee they can’t get a job at the other studios.

It’s not that actors and actresses didn’t want to work. They just wanted quality. The lack of which was the overriding complaint from stars like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. Suspension wasn’t unique to any particular studio but something definitely got in the water when it came to Warner Brothers.

“I had to fight for everything at Warners, From the casting director up to Jack Warner . . . A knock-down, drag-out fight. You didn’t always win, but it let them know you were alive.”  – Ann Sheridan

Ann Sheridan was most likely expressing the opinion of countless actors, writers, directors etc that at one time or another worked for Albert Sam Harry and Jack Warner. More so Jack.  By a lot.

Warners had become major players in the movie game thanks to their revolutionary breakthrough in sound. The films the studio made spanned a wide variety but they gained a lasting reputation in the 1930’s for their social conscience movies.

They also gained a reputation for being cheap.

The result was a roster of films whose quality varied often wildly; a fact that was not lost on critics and audiences.

It wasn’t lost on the stars of Warner Brothers either and nobody took it more personally than Bette Davis.

“I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.”

This quote probably confused the Warners something fierce. Davis became the first actress at the studio to win an Academy Award for her role in Dangerous (1935) so what was she talking about?

When a person receives a high honor like the Academy Award the next logical step is to build on it. For Warner Brothers the opposite was apparently true. That was the time to give the actor or actress whatever the studio wanted to give them.

Davis said no thanks and went to England to make movies. Warner Brothers sued her for breach of contract and won.

Yet in the end Davis got what she wanted. Better scripts and parts including one that culminated in her second Academy Award for Jezebel. This was a period where Davis morphed into the fifth Warner.

The Warners had finally gotten the message that an unhappy Bette Davis was not worth the migraine she was capable of inflicting.  But even that only went so far. One actress no matter how brave and talented was going to have a rough time changing decades of bad behavior.

Davis’ good friend Olivia de Havilland knew this all too well. The steady diet of characters with no quality continued. A frustrated de Havilland on more than a few occasions joined her fellow actors on the suspension roll.

Olivia  de Havilland’s contract at the studio expired in mid 1943. To her astonishment the Warners informed her they had tacked on six more months in order to make up for the time lost due to her suspensions.

It’s unknown if she went on a profanity laced tirade after being told of the decision or how long said tirade might have lasted. What we do know is the Warners would very soon become intimately familiar to what the phrase, “F______ with the wrong person” meant.

Walking the Gang-Plank

Martin Gang was the lawyer of a number of Hollywood stars. His most famous (or infamous depending on who you talk to) period was less than a decade away.

In the summer of 1943, Gang convinced his client Olivia Mary de Havilland to take Warner Brothers to court. By this time the Hollywood studios had compiled an impressive record against anyone who felt the need to challenge them or that they felt needed to be set straight. They were quite adept at steamrolling the opposition. Edison had taught them well.

But Gang had a plan. Tucked away in all the laws and statues of California was one regarding debt slavery.

On August 23, 1943, on the advice of her lawyer, Martin Gang, de Havilland took Warner Bros. to court citing an existing California labor law that forbade an employer from enforcing a contract against an employee for longer than seven years.

Like Better Davis before her Olivia de Havilland had thrown down the gauntlet in front of the studio system’s gates. The battle ahead would change Hollywood history forever.

Known today as the de Haviland law. It cost two years of her film career but to say she made up for it big time is an understatement.

The ruling as if by design set off a chain of events which would once and for all end the studio system. Just like the man they were trying to get away from in the early years the mogul’s grab for total control was broken.

Actors and actresses were independent players. Contracts became per project rather than seven years of mandatory service. Independent producers whose voices were stunted during the studio era would take off in the 1950’s. It was all there.

The difference is this new film industry that emerged wasn’t for only one man or a handful. From now on it belonged to everyone.

She did that.

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