We salute today a familiar classic movie star, but not for the usual reason.
Sure, we have much to thank Olivia de Havilland for: a body of work that covers some 60 movie and tv credits including a memorable role in perhaps the best known screen epic ever made.
And there are those lusty screen appearances with Errol Flynn in nine titles most notably including 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. And let’s not forget that De Havilland was an actress of range as seen by her portrayals in dramas dealing with tough subjects including 1948’s The Snake Pit, about a woman who finds herself incarcerated in an insane asylum.
Further, we will always be indebted to her for being one half of Hollywood’s most infamous sibling rivalry. The other half belongs, of course, to de Havilland’s younger sister, Joan Fontaine.
The de Havilland-Fontaine contretemps, which began early in their respective lives, are certainly long lasting since both grand dames are alive at this writing. Olivia turned 97 in July while Joan passed the 96 mark in late October. (The daughters of a British patent attorney, Olivia retained the family surname while Joan was compelled to change hers, and borrowed her stern stepfather’s monicker.)
Having lived in Paris for the last some 60 years, Olivia was awarded in 2010 the Legion d’honneur, the French government’s prestigious award.
The French have great memories for the accomplishments of Hollywood’s classic stars, and de Havilland was feted not only for her chosen place of residency but for her popular identification as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With The Wind and for her two best-actress Oscar roles, respectively, as an unwed mother forced to give up her son in 1946’s To Each His Own and as the homely heroine pursued by a dazzling but devious Montgomery Clift in 1949’s The Heiress.
DeHavilland’s name will also live on for another perhaps more important reason. It’s called “The de Havilland Law.”
No kidding. Olivia actually has a legal precedent named after her, one that changed the course of business in Hollywood, and considerably loosened the control of the stars by the powerful studios.
In short, “the de Havilland law” re-defined the standard seven-year personal services contracts that studios imposed on actors and actresses. (We’re not sure where the seven years came from but we speculate that the duration initially comprised two years of studio introductory build-up followed by five years of capitalizing on an actor or actress’ presumed star status.)
Anyway, de Havilland chafed under the arrangement since, as the studios saw it, the personal service contract meter stopped clicking when an actor or actress was not actually working — especially during periods when they were suspended for balking at front office orders to take disliked roles.
Thus, a seven-year-contract in effect extended on a calendar basis far beyond the stated personal services term of seven years. That gave studios immense power to control the careers of their contracted stars, preventing them from seeking on their own employment at other studios.
Even the biggest stars could be tied to one studio for their whole careers.
DeHavilland’s contract at her home studio, Warner Brothers, began in 1936. By 1943, she figured she had had enough and wanted out. Abetted by the Screen Actors Guild, she took Warners to court, and challenged the prevailing interpretation of the seven-year rule. A year later, California’s Second District Court of Appeals ruled in her favor.
Seven years from the actual beginning of services means seven calendar years, the Court said. Thus, de Havilland’s time was up, and she was free to seek work elsewhere.
The case is still considered an entertainment industry landmark and crops up on all manner of Hollywood contract disputes. When tv host Johnny Carson once considered leaving the NBC network (he never did, it turns out), his attorney cited “the de Havilland Law” as his prospective pathway to a more lucrative offer from ABC.
After de Havilland won her case, actors and actresses were no longer considered pampered and highly paid “indentured servants.”