This is the first in my proposed series of “Discovery” posts, in which I will endeavor to describe how I discovered a certain genre/style or artist’s work. Each post will include a note on why I wanted to discover these works, notes on the body of work, referencing the ones I’ve seen/read, and at least one list. Please note that these posts are not meant to be an exhaustive survey of the work; rather, they solely chronicle my discovery of the work.
The Discovery: I am a big fan of Gone with the Wind, in both novel and film form. The film boasts brilliant casting of the lead actors, and though I admired each of them, it was a while before I saw any of them in other roles. I never thought to watch Olivia de Havilland in any movies until I had the opportunity to write about The Heiress (1949) for a class. I jumped on the opportunity to see her in a role other than Melanie. I ended up loving The Heiress – and Olivia de Havilland’s performance – and from there, I set out to watch as many de Havilland movies as I could.
Thoughts on the Body of Work: Though I admired de Havilland’s performance in GWTW, it didn’t prepare me for the force of some of her other performances. When you watch many de Havilland movies, you notice a divide between her earlier and later work. In her beginning years at Warner Bros., de Havilland was cast in ingénue roles, despite her promising start in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The studio heads relegated her as the innocent love interest in silly comedies like Alibi Ike and The Irish in Us. After those came Captain Blood, the first of eight films opposite Errol Flynn. De Havilland toiled away playing ingénues – in westerns (Gold Is Where You Find It, Dodge City, Santa Fe Trail), war movies (The Charge of the Light Brigade, half of They Died with Their Boots On), period pieces (Anthony Adverse, The Great Garrick, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex), and swashbucklers (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood) – but grew tired of such roles.
After Oscar nominations for roles in Gone with the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland grew frustrated with Warner Bros., later going to court with them over extending her contract. De Havilland won a landmark case, preventing studios from unilaterally extending actors’ contracts. She earned freedom and better roles, roaring back in the mid ’40s with a series of powerful films/performances, with To Each His Own, The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit, and The Heiress as standouts. It was The Heiress that set me on this de Havilland streak, and in it, de Havilland delivers one of the screen’s greatest performances. After winning a second Oscar for the role (the first was for To Each His Own), de Havilland acted intermittently until the late 1980s, performing as warm-hearted women in movies like The Proud Rebel, Libel, and Light in the Piazza.
Throughout her career, de Havilland proved that she was more than just a pretty face. She dabbled in melodrama (In This Our Life, To Each His Own), horror (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and biopics (Devotion) and even performed a lively jive number in Warner Bros.’s all-star Thank Your Lucky Stars. In addition to these dramas, she acted in comedies, some better (The Great Garrick, It’s Love I’m After, Four’s a Crowd, My Love Came Back, The Strawberry Blonde) than others (The Male Animal, Government Girl, The Ambassador’s Daughter). She even endeavored to play twins – one sweet, the other psychotic – in the film noir The Dark Mirror and a woman in a mental institution in the harrowing The Snake Pit.
During my discovery, what I found that I love about Olivia de Havilland is that even when she was playing ridiculous roles, she brought talent to the table. She rarely, if ever, gave a bad performance (unless doing so on purpose, *cough* Government Girl). De Havilland is blessed with a sweet-looking face, which lends itself to playing innocent characters. But when she plays against type, she will stun you with her ability. She’s caused me to laugh, cry, and shiver: a mark of a great actress if ever I knew one.
- Gone with the Wind: Epic, wondrous, and moving – no other way to describe it.
- The Heiress: A great movie that contains one of cinema’s most powerful endings.
- Hold Back the Dawn: A forgotten gem about the lengths some would take to enter the U.S.
- The Snake Pit: A shockingly powerful exploration of mental institutions.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood: Simply put, the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie.
Favorite Performances: In which de Havilland:
- The Heiress: Reckons with her father thinking her lover is merely a fortune hunter.
- The Snake Pit: Screams and fidgets her way through a mental institution.
- The Dark Mirror: Shows off two screen personas by playing twins.
- To Each His Own: Runs a gamut of emotions as an unwed mother.
- Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte: Shows that she can do horror, too.
Other Films Deserving Mention
- The Strawberry Blonde: A delightful treat – and the best of three films de Havilland did with James Cagney.
- Four’s A Crowd: Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in a screwball comedy with Rosalind Russell and Patric Knowles? Yes, please.
- It’s Love I’m After: De Havilland fangirls over Leslie Howard (yes…her husband in GWTW), much to the chagrin of Bette Davis.
- The Great Garrick: Hilarious satire on acting with a wonderfully pompous performance from Brian Aherne.
- Captain Blood and They Died With Their Boots On: For how can I decide between the first and the last Flynn/de Havilland pictures?
Will I continue the discovery? This far in, it’s unlikely that I’ll stop trying to watch more de Havilland films. However, I’m not sure if I’ll ever complete her filmography, as much of her post-Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte work does not interest me.
What de Havilland films have you seen, and which are your favorites? And finally (if you’re still reading), would you like to see more of these Discovery posts?