Sadly most of the stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood are gone now. In some cases, such as Vivien Leigh and Judy Garland, they have been dead for literally decades. That having been said, there is one who is still with us. Today one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age celebrates her 100th birthday. It was on July 1 1916 that the legendary Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo.
Today Olivia de Havilland is best known for two things. The first is her role as Melanie Wilkes in what is still the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind (1939). The second is playing opposite Errol Flynn in eight films, particularly such classic swashbucklers as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Although it is not often acknowledged, both Gone with the Wind and the films Miss de Havilland made with Errol Flynn demonstrate her talent as an actress. In particular, Melanie Wilkes was a more complicated role than many seem to believe. Today when people think of Melanie, they tend to think of her sweetness, her kindness, and her humanity. What is not often acknowledged is that Melanie had a will of iron. While other ladies of the gentry turned down madam Belle Watling's offer of some of her earnings to help with the hospital, Melanie Hamilton accepted, even though she knew it could damage her reputation. When a Yankee soldier invaded Tara, it may have been Scarlett who shot him, but it was Melanie, weakened from childbirth, who dragged herself from her sickbed wielding a sword. Melanie Wilkes was no pushover. She may have been sweet, kind, and non-judgemental, but she had courage of the sort no other character in Gone with the Wind possessed. It is Olivia de Havilland's sheer talent that made Melanie one of the most complex characters in the film.
While her characters in the films she made with Errol Flynn are not nearly as complex as Melanie Wilkes, they were also more sophisticated than they might appear on the surface. After all, in The Adventures of Robin Hood it was Maid Marian who helped Robin Hood's men rescue the outlaw when he was captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham. In Dodge City (1939) Miss de Havilland played a character about as far from sweet, forgiving Melanie Wilkes as one could get: Abbie Irving, who resents Wade Hatton (played by Errol Flynn) after Hatton shoots her drunken brother for having caused a cattle stampede. Although they are sometimes characterised as such, Olivia de Havilland's characters in the films she made with Errol Flynn were much more than window dressing or mere romantic interests.
Although today best known for action movies and dramas, early in her carer Olivia de Havilland actually starred in light romantic comedies. It should come as no surprise that Miss de Havilland is as good at playing comedy as she is drama. She played the female lead in The Great Garrick (1937), a countess mistaken for an actress. In It's Love I am After (1937) she played a dizzy heiress who also happens to be the number one fan of actor Basil Underwood (played by Leslie Howard). She later starred opposite Henry Fonda in The Male Animal (1942). Olivia de Havilland had a real knack for playing comedy. Her timing and her delivery of lines were perfect, and she could make even the most outlandish comic character seem convincing. I have always thought that had Miss de Havilland not become a star of action films and dramas, she could have been very successful making comedies alone.
Of course, Olivia de Havilland's career goes far beyond Gone with the Wind, the action movies she made with Errol Flynn, and comedies. Miss de Havilland is extremely talented as an actress and can take on complex roles in the most serious of dramas. In fact, what may be her greatest role is that of Virginia Cunningham in The Snake Pit (1948). The Snake Pit is an extremely realistic, harrowing drama portraying the conditions in the mental hospitals of the time. Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Through the course of the film we witness Virginia's descent into madness, her ordeal in the mental hospital, and her eventual recovery. Olivia de Havilland gave an incredible performance as Virginia. She was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. It still shocks me that she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948)!
Over the years Olivia de Havilland appeared in virtually every genre of film out there. She starred in comedies (It's Love I'm After), swashbucklers (Charge of the Light Brigade), Westerns (Santa Fe Trail), period dramas (My Cousin Rachel), and even horror movies (Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte). Fittingly given her fame for appearing in some of the greatest films of the genre, her last appearance in a feature film would be in a swashbuckler. She played the Queen Mother in The Fifth Musketeer (1979).
Olivia de Havilland is in many respects as strong as many of the characters she played. When she was under contract to Warner Bros. she sometimes refused to play roles the studio wanted her to play, which would result in her being suspended for time. In 1943 when her seven year contract with Warner Bros. ended, the studio told her that six months had been added to her contract to make up for the times she had been suspended. Miss de Havilland maintained that she was under contract for a set number of years and that when that number of years was over she was under no further obligation to the studio. Miss de Havilland sued Warner Bros. and on December 8 1944, the California Court of Appeals for the Second District ruled in her favour. Labour Code Section 2855, the rule Olivia de Havilland used in her suit (first enacted in 1937), has been known as the "De Havilland Law" ever since.
During World War II Olivia de Havilland helped sell war bonds. She also helped out at the Hollywood Canteen and went on a USO tour that took her throughout the United States, Alaska, and the South Pacific. The conditions when travelling to remote areas of the South Pacific were often less than ideal, but Miss de Havilland endured without complaint. She even survived viral pneumonia while on a USO tour.
In real life Olivia de Havilland seems to have a good deal with the character of Melanie Wilkes that she played so well. I have friends who have corresponded with her and from them I have to say that Miss de Havilland is sweet, considerate, thoughtful, and always helpful. One would not realise that she is one of the biggest stars to emerge from the 20th Century!
Ultimately it must be said that Olivia de Havilland is a most remarkable woman, and not simply for having reached the century mark. She is an immensely talented actress who could play everything from comedy to dramas, and who could play a wide variety of roles. She is also a strong willed woman who actually took on a major studio and won. Finally she is truly a good person, one who appreciates her fans and is always eager with a kind word or thoughtful gesture. We are truly lucky to still have Olivia de Havilland on her 100th birthday. I do hope that she has a very happy one.