Discovering the Films of Olivia de Havilland


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.

de Havilland as Melanie in Gone with the Wind – via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Flynn and de Havilland in Captain Blood – via Wikimedia Commons

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.

de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde – via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Favorite Films:

  1. Gone with the Wind: Epic, wondrous, and moving – no other way to describe it.
  2. The Heiress: A great movie that contains one of cinema’s most powerful endings.
  3. Hold Back the Dawn: A forgotten gem about the lengths some would take to enter the U.S.
  4. The Snake Pit: A shockingly powerful exploration of mental institutions.
  5. The Adventures of Robin Hood: Simply put, the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie.

Favorite Performances: In which de Havilland:

  1. The Heiress: Reckons with her father thinking her lover is merely a fortune hunter.
  2. The Snake Pit: Screams and fidgets her way through a mental institution.
  3. The Dark Mirror: Shows off two screen personas by playing twins.
  4. To Each His Own: Runs a gamut of emotions as an unwed mother.
  5. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte: Shows that she can do horror, too.

Other Films Deserving Mention

  1. The Strawberry Blonde: A delightful treat – and the best of three films de Havilland did with James Cagney.
  2. Four’s A Crowd: Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in a screwball comedy with Rosalind Russell and Patric Knowles?  Yes, please.
  3. It’s Love I’m After: De Havilland fangirls over Leslie Howard (yes…her husband in GWTW), much to the chagrin of Bette Davis.
  4. The Great Garrick: Hilarious satire on acting with a wonderfully pompous performance from Brian Aherne.
  5. 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?


9 thoughts on “Discovering the Films of Olivia de Havilland

  1. Yes, I’d love to see more of these discovery posts. I have a tendency to bounce around in both my reading and movie watching, so I appreciate these kinds of analyses, not least because they’re great ways of getting recommendations of what to read/watch next.

    So far I’ve seen de Havilland only in The Heiress, which I’ll write about at some point on my blog, as I loved the movie and her performance in it, the rendering of her character’s transformation. I’m also checking out The Strawberry Blonde soon, as the DVD is coming to my library branch. Gone with the Wind… haven’t watched it or read the book. Yet. I don’t know why I’ve held out for so long. Regarding the movie, maybe it’s because I’ve seen only one film with Clark Gable – It Happened One Night – and I disliked his character in it and found problems with his performance; maybe it’s temporarily put me off his other works. But at least I’d like to read Mitchell’s book.

    • Thanks for your feedback! My plan (as of now) is to do at least one of these posts per month. More often than not, they’ll be on classic film, but I have some theater and literature posts planned as well.

      Regarding de Havilland, it’s interesting that you’ve seen her in The Heiress and not GWTW – you might have the opposite of the shock I had, especially if you go back and watch some of her early work at Warners. Since you liked The Heiress, I’m pretty sure you’ll appreciate her other ’40s dramatic performances. Enjoy watching The Strawberry Blonde when you have the chance!

      Regarding GWTW, I don’t particularly care for Rhett Butler, and I’m on the fence about Gable. But I’ve always seen GWTW less as a love story between Scarlett and Rhett and more of an exploration of survival and how two different women (Scarlett and Melanie) pull through things. Perhaps if you see it in this light, it would take some of the emphasis off Gable and help you to enjoy it. But I’d still recommend the book, too.

  2. I would love to see more of these Discovery posts! It’s a very interesting idea and I think would shed some light on different aspects of film/actors that people usually don’t think about. I honestly never really thought much of de Havilland outside of GWTW, but I am a lot more interesting in checking some of them out now. Excellent post!

    • Thank you – I really appreciate the feedback! If you’re going to check out more de Havilland films, I’d definitely recommend starting with The Snake Pit or The Heiress, as they’re both enormously powerful and easy to find. After those, you won’t see de Havilland just as Melanie for sure.

  3. Great idea for a series! My favorite de Havilland performance would have to the in The Heiress, which I fell completely in love with earlier this year.

    • Thanks! I fell in love with The Heiress as well, and it holds up perfectly with repeat viewings – I’d even venture to say that it and de Havilland’s performance get more powerful each time.

      • I agree! The first viewing had a lot of impact, but it holds up so well upon multiple viewings. Her performance is so strong that I’m always glued to the screen even though I know what’s going to happen.

  4. Pingback: Discovering the Films of Vivien Leigh « Many Media Musings

  5. Pingback: Discovering the Films of Rosalind Russell | Many Media Musings

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