Monday Glamour Starter --- Olivia De Havilland --- Part One
It seemed to me that Olivia De Havilland sort of merged with Melanie Hamilton about thirty years ago, hiding behind that persona so as to avoid revealing too much of her real self during all those dreary "nostalgia" oriented interviews. Melanie was a benign and beloved figure. Why not become her? There was a reasonably candid exchange with AFI students in October of 1974, but after that, she went into character and stayed there. More recently, there have been Academy Award appearances and a lengthy account on DVD of the Gone with the Wind filming. Her precise diction is to be admired, but it also creates a distance. Nothing seems spontaneous. Like a lot of elder statesmen, she’s got her line of anecdotes and she’s going to stick to them (a Los Angeles Times profile from just last week found her calling up many of them). It’s got to be tough when you’re nearing ninety to vary the dance card of memories when they go back nearly three quarters of a century. Just showing up should be more than enough, and yet one longs for a really knowledgeable interviewer to sit down with Olivia and get into specifics --- the junkets for Dodge City and Santa Fe Trail --- working with James Whale in The Great Garrick --- hey, what about co-starring with Sonny Tufts? – twice! Too bad access is limited to those same tired MSM outlets, forever dumbing down their puffball questions, wasting what might otherwise be a unique opportunity to get some Hollywood lowdown from one of its last great survivors. I’d like to think there was some livelier Q&A at that recent Academy tribute, but being 3000 miles away, I can’t know for sure. Was anyone there?
I’m just going to do a blueprint for all these Glamour Starter entries and lay it down each week --- save myself some duplicated effort. Here goes --- strong mother, would-be actress daughter(s), distant and/or weak father, mother seeks separation in order to accommodate daughter’s career aspirations, and so on. The variations this time are as follows --- Dad was actually cool with the separation (he had a Japanese housekeeper girlfriend back home in Tokyo where Olivia was born), the daughters were fiercely competitive, and Olivia wasn’t even sure she wanted to be an actress. That I had not known. She was talked into staying with Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream troupe after a sensational understudy turn for unavailable star Gloria Stuart. A teacher’s program scholarship at Mills College was eventually forfeited in favor of two-hundred a week at Warner Bros., where she’d debut in the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sister Joan Fontaine (her name taken from a step-father) also started the climb, but prospects at RKO were less promising. For now, it looked as though Olivia would be the star breadwinner. Jack L. saw her as a standard issue ingenue, and look what became of those --- Anita Louise, Jean Muir, Margaret Lindsay --- scarcely names to reckon with outside a TCM marathon. If anything, Olivia was compromised by her looks. She was just too pretty to be taken seriously. Better to let her play insipid leads opposite Joe E. Brown and George Brent that any of the stock girls could have done in their sleep. This might have lasted the entire seven years of her contract, but for the miraculous teaming with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood that would lead to seven more tandem appearances and still thriving multi-generational speculation as to the question of did they or didn’t they? Let’s just say the relationship was a lot more complex than anyone then or now realized. If indeed Olivia has an unfinished memoir, I hope she’ll address the Flynn paradox at length.
After Gone With The Wind (she’s here with Ona Munson), a part of Olivia De Havilland would forever be bathed in sweetness and light. The memory of Melanie would lend shock value to cast-against-type perfidy she’d display in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte ("now-will-you-shut-your-mouth?"). After GWTW, we look for Melanie, I mean, Olivia, to drop her halo and join the rest of us fallen angels. There’s a great series of blooper reels Warners used to do each year for the Christmas parties. They weren’t meant for public consumption, and they’re laced with profanity (some are turning up on DVD --- watch for them). One clip finds Olivia blowing a line with Paul Henreid as they’re shooting Devotion. "Son-of-a-bitch!" she exclaims, giving each syllable the benefit of her precise, measured delivery. She really stole my heart with that one. Others on the Warner lot were similarly affected. According to Stuart Jerome’s delightfully ribald, if not downright nasty, reminiscence of his days as a WB messenger boy, Olivia was one dream girl the guys really lusted after. Her virginal image just made the package that much more enticing for those randy teenagers bicycling memos back and forth across the lot. Used copies of Those Crazy, Wonderful Days When We Ran Warner Bros. are available over at Amazon --- right now they’re going for less than two dollars (HERE). I laughed till I cried back in 1983 when it was first published. I don’t really blame J.L. for confining Olivia to ingenue parts. I mean, just look at these swimsuit poses, and that delightful little pirate rig she’s donned to help sell Captain Blood. Even unretouched, as shown here, she’s perfection. All those shrieking murderesses locking unwanted husbands in garages with the car running parts went to Bette Davis and Ida Lupino. How could anyone with a face like the one George Hurrell photographed here for Dodge City resort to things like that? Better to let her remain Errol Flynn’s demure consort, even if it would take decades for the critical establishment (if not Olivia herself) to realize how wonderful those Flynn shows were, and how fortunate she was to have been a part of them. The big contract bust-out that made judicial history (and finally got her off the Warner lot) is something I still have mixed feelings about, but that’ll need to wait for Part 2.