Olivia de Havilland died last weekend at the age of 104. She was often described as the last survivor of Hollywood’s golden age.
Making theatrical movies from the mid-1930s to the late-1970s and continuing in television until 1988, de Havilland earned five Academy Award nominations and won Best Actress twice. Not bad going by anyone’s definition.
But there was much more to her than that.
In the 1940s, de Havilland played two off-screen roles that took courage and independence. She was, to put it simply, a woman of genuine substance.
The Hollywood that de Havilland went to work in was a place where power rested with the studios. Stars could be well-paid and cossetted, but the big decisions weren’t theirs to make.
Some kicked against it. The street-savvy Gene Autry even went “on strike” as a means of using exhibitor pressure to force the studio to reopen his contract.
However, it was de Havilland who struck the most consequential blow. While assertions that she broke the studio system may be hyperbolic, she certainly changed things.
An unknown when she signed her seven-year Warner contract in 1936, de Havilland found herself in a bind.
There was plenty of work, the money was good and she became a star. Still, she wasn’t always keen on the proffered parts. She wanted to play more interesting characters.
So she declined some roles, at which point the studio exercised its contractual right to suspend her without pay. And it tacked the suspensions on to the end of her contract.
When the seven-year contractual term expired in 1943, de Havilland took the position that she was now a free agent. The studio disagreed, claiming that the contract still had six months of accumulated suspension time to run.
It was a position that could keep her tied down for ever. The studio could proffer roles, she could decline and be suspended again, and the contract would extend indefinitely.
Instead, she went to court, filing suit under a California anti-peonage law precluding employment contracts from running longer than seven years. Going against the system was a gutsy thing to do. But she won, first at trial and subsequently in the appellate courts.
The ongoing balance of power between studios and talent was thus decisively shifted. What has been described as “a form of indentured servitude” was no more. Hollywood would never be quite the same.
The second area of de Havilland’s off-screen influence was political.
Although the U.S. Communist Party was a legally tolerated entity, it kept its membership lists secret. That made it easier to gain influence. Members could join organizations and work to steer them in the desired direction without scaring people off.
And the party’s desired direction was very simple – whatever suited Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.
For instance, when Stalin and Adolf Hitler were allies, the party was adamantly opposed to any American intervention or assistance for the beleaguered British and French. Then when Hitler turned on Stalin by invading the Soviet Union in 1941, the party’s stance turned on a dime.
Hollywood was an obvious target for attempts to gain influence. As America’s popular culture engine, it offered the theoretical potential for shaping public opinion on key issues. And if managed carefully, front organizations embracing a broad membership might be especially useful in carrying out this purpose.
One of these organizations was the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), of which de Havilland – a liberal Democrat politically – was a member.
Scheduled to address a Seattle HICCASP rally in June 1946, de Havilland was astounded by the pro-Soviet speech prepared for her by screenwriter – and party member – Dalton Trumbo. So, with help from a couple of others, she rewrote it without telling him.
What de Havilland delivered in Seattle was very different from the speech she’d been given.
There was this: “We believe in democracy and not in communism.”
And this: “Communists frequently join liberal organizations. That is their right. But it is also our right to see that they do not control us. Or guide us … or represent us.”
Trumbo was displeased at what he considered not only “a denunciation of communism,” but also an exercise in “Red-baiting.” It was one the first indicators of what would ultimately become a rupture between Hollywood liberals and communists.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.