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SHE DID IT ALL HERSELF: 100 Years of Olivia de Havilland

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100 years ago today, Olivia de Havilland was born.

5 years ago this past March (and in the very wee infancy of this blog), I was studying abroad in Paris and heard that the great Olivia de Havilland would be introducing a movie she had recently narrated, a documentary about Alzheimer’s called I Remember Better When I Paint, at the American Library in Paris.

I was ecstatic. This was at a point in my studies where I was becoming quite homesick, and had spent the past few weeks binging classic movies at the Rue Christine in order to give myself a taste of home and comfort. I had become a huge fan of Olivia de Havilland over the past few years, had seen nearly every movie she ever made, and the fact that she would be appearing at the American Library while I was there in Paris seemed almost too good to be true.

She was 94 then, and I had no idea what to expect. Her onscreen persona had been a strange and appealing combination of sweetness and vulnerability, paired with a lion’s strength and an iron will in her eyes. Her life had been a series of triumphs and challenges in the extreme–from rocky relationships with her sister Joan Fontaine and first husband Marcus Goodrich, to loving and beautiful ones with her two children and her second husband, Pierre Galante. She won two Oscars and was nominated for three more. Her childhood had been difficult in many ways, and she overcame it to become one of Hollywood’s brightest superstars and a powerful advocate for the rights of entertainment workers who almost singlehandedly destroyed the studio system. This was a woman of enormous strength.

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She was born in Tokyo, Japan on July 1, 1916, the first of two daughters to Lilian and Walter de Havilland, a British couple living abroad in Tokyo’s international district. Her sister Joan was born in 1917. In the aftermath of World War I, in March 1919, she moved with her mother and younger sister to San Francisco. Her parents were separating, and Walter stayed behind to work in Tokyo while Lilian moved with the girls to a warmer climate that would be better for their health. They soon moved from San Francisco to a smaller town an hour south, the village of Saratoga, CA. Lilian became involved with the owner of a San Jose department store, a man named George Milan Fontaine, whom she married when Olivia was 8. He was immensely strict with the girls, his harshness prompting at least one runaway attempt. They weren’t allowed any extracurricular activities, but Olivia was beginning to show a talent for drama and disobeyed her stepfather’s orders by joining the school play.

When Fontaine found out, he gave her an ultimatum. “You will either give up the play,” Olivia recalled him saying later, “or leave this house forever.” Olivia chose the latter, and at the age of 16, she left home.

I had invited several European friends, all fans of Olivia de Havilland, to come with me to the American Library to hear Olivia introduce the movie. They flew in, two from Sweden, one from Italy by way of England, the afternoon of the movie and after cramming all of our stuff into my tiny apartment near Parc Monceau, we headed over to the library. Shortly after our arrival, we saw a regal, perfectly arranged shock of white hair sticking up from the front row of chairs. It was Olivia. She was sitting perfectly straight, talking and smiling with the people introduced to her, a perfect lady. She stood up whenever she was introduced to someone, leaping out of her chair faster than someone half her age. We watched her in awe. Essentially shunned by her family, left to fend for herself at 16 years old, she had forged her own path, never looking back and creating a livelihood entirely on her own, standing tall and maintaining her dignity all the way through her life. Even at 94 years old.

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In a local production of Alice in Wonderland, shortly after she left home.

Despite the difficulties she encountered as a teenager living on her own, Olivia received a full scholarship to Mills College based on her exemplary grades. But at the same time, she auditioned and got the role of understudy for Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt, to be performed at the Hollywood Bowl and various other places in California. Olivia decided to do the play in order to build up her resume and perhaps get more scholarship money for Mills, but after going onstage several times as the understudy, Max Reinhardt was so impressed with her that he selected her to go to Hollywood with him to make the movie version.

And thus began the career of Olivia de Havilland. She was signed to Warner Bros, where she made an impression not only with the acting talent that had so impressed Max Reinhardt, but also with her huge, winsome brown eyes and distinctive voice, perfectly suited for recording with the equipment in the mid-1930s.

 

When the program was to start at the American Library, the producer of I Remember Better When I Paint, Berna Huebner, went to the podium and introduced Olivia, who would introduce the movie. Her words were loving and kind, speaking of a woman whom she had clearly come to love as a dear friend. Then Olivia came up to the podium and began to talk about the movie. I was so profoundly struck by the sound of her voice, I could barely pay attention to anything but the beautiful deep tones that were coming out of her mouth. Her voice was like melted chocolate, rising and falling dramatically with each clearly enunciated word, articulated slowly and deliberately. I have never heard a voice like hers in my life. It seemed to come from an era that is long gone–and of course it does.

During her years at Warner Bros, Olivia was often cast in damsel-in-distress roles, paired a whopping nine times with Errol Flynn. Their feelings for each other were palpable onscreen and off, but Flynn was married and Olivia refused to be the “other woman.” Still, Olivia continued to speak giddily about Flynn even in interviews many decades later, and it was clear that the love had never faded.

In 1938, she persuaded Jack Warner to loan her to Selznick International for a movie that Selznick was making based on the hit novel Gone With the Wind. Warner was reluctant, but finally allowed her to go, and Olivia signed on to play the shy, demure, ever-trusting Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.

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Cast members sign the contracts for Gone With the Wind.

It became the role of her lifetime. Above anything else, Olivia de Havilland is remembered as Melanie Hamilton, playing the character to nuanced perfection. She received her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress against costar Hattie McDaniel, with McDaniel winning the Oscar and becoming the first African-American actress to do so. De Havilland took it very much in stride.

People were very attached to Melanie, but they knew I wasn’t a supporting actress. They knew that Hattie was, and they were not tricked, and they were not deceived, and they voted for Hattie.

-Olivia de Havilland, Academy of Achievement, 2006

Back at Warner Bros, she was beginning to tire of being the damsel-in-distress, finding those parts too limiting and itching to expand her repertoire. She had been nominated for an Oscar again in 1942 for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn, but had lost to her younger sister, who had come to Hollywood and started acting under the name Joan Fontaine. Joan and Olivia eventually became fodder for the press, who scavenged for stories and contributed to the crumbling of their sibling relationship, which had never been strong. But on Oscar night, Olivia was extremely gracious and proud of her younger sister, and the press captured it.

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In the wake of her second Oscar loss, Olivia started refusing scripts from Warner Bros, resulting in suspensions that were then tacked on to the end of her contract. She seemed forever destined to the roles that she hated–and saw no light at the end of the tunnel for her career. She became very depressed, and consulted her agents to try to help her. The agents called a lawyer, who informed her of an obscure California law restricting the duration of time that a worker can be held under contract to seven years.

She went to court, and after an appeal, she won in a unanimous decision of the California Superior Court. The De Havilland Law, as the decision is now called, had and continues to have huge implications for workers in the entertainment business. It limited the power of the studios over their stars, and gave stars greater freedom to seek projects that they felt suited them, and set a precedent for workers in the music and sports fields. Most recently, Jared and Shannon Leto of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars sued in response to a musical contract issue, and won based on the De Havilland Law. They wrote Olivia personally to thank her.

From then on, Olivia’s career soared. In 1946, she played the role of a mother who gives up her illegitimate child and then tries to adopt him back in To Each His Own. The role finally won her her first Oscar. In 1948, she received another Oscar nomination for playing a mentally unstable woman whose treatment in a mental institution is documented in The Snake Pit, one of the first serious treatments of mental illness on film. Then in 1949 came another role of a lifetime, the role of a simple embroiderer set to inherit a large fortune who is courted by a man of questionable intentions in The Heiress, for which she won her second Oscar. Olivia’s metamorphosis from naïve, schoolgirlish embroiderer to bitter, jaded woman getting her revenge stands as one of the most brilliant transformations in film history.

At home, her life was becoming difficult. She was on the brink of divorce from Marcus Goodrich, whom she had married in 1946, and with whom she had had a son, Benjamin. They finally divorced in 1953, and shortly thereafter Olivia moved to France with Benjamin. Life got better in France–she married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, with whom she had a daughter, Gisèle. She continued to work, though more sporadically now than before, and focus her energy on raising her children. She wrote a witty memoir in 1962 called Every Frenchman Has One, recounting anecdotes of living as a foreigner in France.

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With her two children: Benjamin (left) and Gisèle (right).

Benjamin, a prodigious mathematician, grew up to be a statistical analyst and died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993. Gisèle became a respected journalist like her father, and currently lives in the Los Angeles area.

Olivia became an American citizen in 1943 and has long been dedicated to the bastions of American culture in Paris, devoting her time and resources to the American University, the American Library, and the American Cathedral. It was her commitment to the American Library that brought I Remember Better When I Paint to France, and Olivia de Havilland to me. After her introduction, she sat down and watched the movie with the crowd–delighting in the movie as a simple member of the audience. It was a memorable moment. I watched one of the towers of the entertainment world sitting on a simple folding chair, laughing at a movie’s funny parts and furrowing her brow at the sad parts, just like the rest of us.

After it was over, we prepared to leave. Olivia was taken by the arm by one of the library staff, and accompanied out of the main room. But just as we were about to head out the door, we saw that shock of white hair again–this time behind the library desk, as Olivia chatted with the audience members who had come to see her. She had somehow broken free of the library staff member who was supposed to lead her to her car, and she was simply interacting with those who had loved her for so many years.

Just in case, we had brought things for Olivia to sign. I had brought my copy of Every Frenchman Has One, and my friends and I excitedly positioned ourselves in the crowd. She talked with us for several minutes, asking us where we had gotten our long out-of-print books and interacting in just as charming and gracious a way as she did on the screen.

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When it finally came time for her to leave, she went unwillingly. “They’re making me leave!” she exclaimed. It took her another good few minutes to get out the door, and when she did, we saw that she had come to the event alone at 94 years old.

And so it has always been. She did it all herself.

Happy 100th birthday, Olivia. There is no one more deserving of this special birthday than you.

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SUMMER UNDER THE STARS BLOGATHON: Light in the Piazza (1962)

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Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux in Light in the Piazza (1962).

Today’s Summer Under the Stars marathon focuses on two-time Academy Award winner, cinematic legend and all-around delightful human being Olivia de Havilland, who at age 99 is still living and enjoying life in Paris where she has made her home since the early 1950s. I have always been a fan of Olivia de Havilland’s, and when I looked at the schedule today to try to decide what to review, I found that I had seen all of the movies on the schedule except one. I came to the conclusion that since I had seen just about everything, I should review one of the more meaningful films on the schedule today, and decided on Light in the Piazza (1962).

I have always been fascinated by Light in the Piazza. Made in the days before there was a great deal of advocacy surrounding the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities, this love story about a young woman with an intellectual disability, her non-disabled boyfriend, and a mother’s advocacy and concern for her daughter is lightyears ahead of its time in many ways.

Olivia de Havilland plays Meg, a mother traveling in Italy with her 26-year-old daughter, Clara, whose mental development was stalled following an accident at age 10. Clara meets and falls in love with a handsome young Italian, Fabrizio, who is taken by what he perceives to be Clara’s simple naïveté. Meg wants to explain Clara’s condition to him and his family, but the moment never seems right and she worries about the family rejecting Clara. It becomes clear that she has been rejected several times when suitors find out about her age, and that Meg and her husband have made plans to put Clara in a special care home. Meg doesn’t like the idea of her daughter in such a place, and prefers that she be able to marry, if possible. But the husband is set on putting Clara in a home, so Meg tries to expedite Clara’s marriage to Fabrizio. When Fabrizio’s father sees Clara’s actual age on the wedding documents, he flees, taking Fabrizio with him. Meg is certain that he has a problem with Clara’s condition, but upon a visit by the father, it turns out that he is only concerned with the fact that Clara is older than his son. The issue is resolved, and the two marry.

The cast.

A bit of a saccharine ending, but still a forward-thinking piece on marriage rights for the disabled, and rights to live the life of an individual’s choosing. These are issues that still press the disabled community today, and to have a movie from 1962 highlighting these same issues much of a debate about the legitimacy of these rights, is truly something to think about.

It is perhaps fitting that Light in the Piazza, Olivia’s first movie after taking a 3 year hiatus to focus on raising her children, takes place in Europe and was filmed on location in Rome and Florence. The cast has a wonderfully international flavor to it, with Italian Rossano Brazzi playing Fabrizio’s father, and  Yvette Mimieux, an American-born actress with French and Mexican parents, playing Clara. Olivia de Havilland, born in Japan to British parents, was raised in California and had become a French citizen.

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Olivia de Havilland in the south of France with her son, Benjamin Briggs Goodrich, in 1953.

On July 1, Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 99th birthday. I had the great honor to meet her in Paris in 2011, and she was exactly as I had hoped–warm and funny, with a voice like melted chocolate. Meeting her remains one of the highlights of my life, as her greatness in person met and exceeded her greatness onscreen.

Don’t miss Light in the Piazza this evening at 11:30 PST, and for all those on the East Coast, be sure to set your DVRs.

Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for hosting this blogathon!

“EVERYONE WHO MET HER FELL IN LOVE WITH HER:” A Letter From Susan, the Secretary of Joan Fontaine

Upon checking my inbox earlier today, I found that I had received a letter from Susan Pfeiffer, secretary and beloved friend to Joan Fontaine. Susan and I have been in touch several times–last October when I conducted a written interview with Joan, it was Susan who helped with the correspondence and was an integral part of the interview coming to fruition. And when Joan passed away this past December, we were in touch again. Susan was a very important part of Joan’s life during her last decade. She knew her perhaps better than anyone over these past few years, and in her letter to me today, she asked to clarify some things she has heard over the years about Joan, her life, her legend, and her character.

I have long been protective of Joan, as I feel that she was terribly misunderstood by many people. A progressive thinker and very sensitive to the plight of animals, she was ahead of her time in many ways, in ways inconceivable to most of her generation. In her letter, Susan opened up to me about some of the misconceptions that she often comes across regarding Joan and her life. I am deeply humbled that Susan chose Backlots for this honor.

Joan spent her final years in quietude (she had no computer and no presence on the internet, as has been incorrectly reported), in a beautiful house in Carmel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When she passed away on December 15, there was some talk that she was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the Pacific Ocean close to her home. Susan would like our readers to know that this is not true–though Susan did not disclose Joan’s true final resting place, she would like us to know that Joan’s ashes were not scattered in the Pacific. There were countless places very special to Joan–she was a woman who loved deeply and became attached to many people, places, and things. Susan describes her as “one of the kindest, loving women I have ever met.”

Joan had two daughters, Deborah (born in 1948) and Martita (a daughter born in Peru in 1946 who came to live with Joan in 1951). In her teens, Martita went through some problems and there was a rift between them. Joan discussed this in her autobiography and as she was a private person who didn’t talk much about her private life, people assumed that the rift remained and Martita and Joan never made up. But, Susan tells us, that rift healed, and healed well. Martita and Joan were close as adults, and Martita came to Joan’s home in Carmel for a visit during Susan’s years with her. She was close to both of her daughters–Deborah and Martita both sent flowers and cards for birthdays and holidays, and they talked often on the phone. Susan tells us: “Joan saved all the cards and letters sent by both Martita and Deborah. They meant a lot to her. She loved both of her girls.”

Playing with her daughters, circa 1955.

Perhaps the most discussed part of Joan’s life was her relationship with her sister, Olivia de Havilland. As with many siblings, their relationship was one of very serious ups and downs. At the time of Joan’s death, she and Olivia had not spoken for a long time. Joan is often maligned for this, and Susan tells of countless letters from fans advising Joan to “mend fences” with Olivia, and chastising her for not attending the ceremony when Olivia was awarded the Legion d’Honneur (Joan never received an invitation and didn’t learn of the event until after the fact). However, Susan wants to make it very clear that Joan had no hard feelings toward her sister and that she “never saw any animosity toward Olivia.” Susan tells me that Joan was once approached about the possibility of an on-air interview with her and Olivia together, and Joan agreed to it. Unfortunately, the interview never came to pass and the sisters never had the opportunity to come face to face again.

Sisters share a smile in 1967.

In addition, Susan recalls speaking with Joan about a rumor regarding her and Errol Flynn being lovers. Errol and Joan were friends/acquaintances, writes Susan, but never lovers. Susan also wishes to clear up a rumor about Joan and Howard Hughes. “Joan never had an affair with Howard Hughes,” she writes. “She was not attracted to him.” This is also corroborated in Joan’s autobiography, in which she relates that Howard Hughes made several passes at her, but she was never interested.

Closing her letter, Susan gives us one final, beautiful insight into Joan Fontaine, the person: “She cared about everyone, and everyone who met her, fell in love with her. She was very special and will be greatly missed.” A true testament to a gentle, caring soul.

Thank you to Susan Pfeiffer for these wonderful insights into a woman who truly is greatly missed.

Dueling Divas–THE ENTRIES

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By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

It’s Sunday, everyone, and the divas are out in full force! I will be updating this page throughout the day as the entries come in. Here is our list of duels so far:

Vanessa oversees legendary rivals Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford squaring off in several dueling rounds in a delightful post over at Stardusthttp://bwallover.blogspot.ca/2013/12/dueling-divas-blogathon-joan-crawford.html

Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth compete for the love of Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand at Critica Retro. Don’t forget to hit Le’s handy translate button if you don’t speak Portuguese! http://criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2013/12/quem-vai-ficar-com-ty.html

At Girls Do Film today, Vicki explores Dark Mirror, Olivia de Havilland’s tour-de-force playing a mysterious pair of twins. http://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/the-dark-mirror-olivia-de-havilland-as-terry-and-ruth-collins/

Java’s Journey referees the duel between Judy Holliday’s “Ella” and Valerie Allen’s “Olga” in Bells Are Ringing. http://javabeanrush.blogspot.com/2013/12/dueling-divas-ella-vsolga-in-bells-are.html

Movies, Silently gives Mary Pickford’s dual role in Stella Maris epic treatment in this exhaustive post about the film. http://moviessilently.com/2013/12/22/stella-maris-1918-a-silent-film-review/

Angela at The Hollywood Revue gives us a rundown of Dead Ringer and Bette Davis’ dual role in it. http://hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/dead-ringer-1964/

Silver Screenings sings the praises of not one Edward G. Robinson, but TWO, in The Whole Town’s Talking. http://silverscreenings.org/2013/12/21/the-dual-edward-fan-club/

Sepia Stories gives us a view into the lives of Mary Pickford, her mother, and their nemesis Olive Thomas, who wanted to marry Mary’s brother Jack. Fun read! http://sepiastories.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/thomas-vs-pickford-backlots-third-annual-dueling-divas-blogathon/

Christy over at Sue Sue Applegate gives us a rundown of June Allyson and Joan Collins in The Opposite Sex…and also gives us some insight into the rivalry between June Allyson and Joan Blondell over mutual hubby Dick Powell. http://suesueapplegate.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/that-darn-smack/

My own entry–Backlots takes a look at Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in All About Evehttps://backlots.net/2013/12/22/dueling-divas-blogathon-margo-channing-vs-eve-harrington/

Announcing Backlots’ Third Annual DUELING DIVAS BLOGATHON!

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It’s back, readers!

Take a seat and get ready to see some sparring, ladies and gentlemen, because on December 22 for the third year in a row, Backlots will be hosting the Dueling Divas Blogathon! This blogathon has proven to be lots of fun in the past, and always elicits very interesting entries. I look forward to what’s to come this year!

On December 22, write about your favorite dueling divas. Your piece can be on one of those legendary offscreen duels (ex. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford) or an onscreen one (ex. Eve Harrington and Margo Channing). You can even write about an actress (or actor, we’re gender-neutral here at Backlots!) who played a dual role in a classic film if you would like–such as Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror or Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. We don’t often get many entries of this type, but it’s there if you want it!

Olivia de Havilland in THE DARK MIRROR.

You don’t have to just focus on two people. You can talk about the various duels a single actor had (good heavens, Bette Davis’ duels alone could fill a book!) or duels within a group. Last year I wrote about the divas in The Women, which was a lot of fun.

So to sum up, here are the guidelines on who to write about:

  • Those who had a rivalry in real life, either over a particular film role or over a personality clash, ie Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
  • Those who had a rivalry on the screen, ie Mildred and Veda from Mildred Pierce
  • Any dual role played by an actor or actress in a classic film, ie Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap.

Please do try to stay on track with the theme! Since this is an open-ended blogathon with a lot of choices, it’s easy to get carried away. But if you just refer to the guidelines above, you’ll be good to go.

Comment on this post with your diva choices and I will add you to the list. So far we have:

MOVIES, SILENTLY: Mary Pickford’s dual role in Stella Maris

SILVER SCREENINGS: Edward G. Robinson’s dual role in The Whole Town’s Talking

CHRISTY PUTNAM: June Allyson vs. Joan Collins in The Opposite Sex

LOVE IS A FIRE: Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford

OUTSPOKEN AND FRECKLED: Josephine vs. Daphne in Some Like It Hot

STARDUSTJoan Crawford vs. Norma Shearer in The Women

ONCE UPON A SCREEN: Greta Garbo vs. Marlene Dietrich

MOVIE STAR MAKEOVER: Rita Hayworth vs. Kim Novak in Pal Joey

CRITICA RETRO: Rita Hayworth vs. Linda Darnell in Blood and Sand

SEPIA STORIESOlive Thomas vs. Mary and Charlotte Pickford

THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE: TBA

GIRLS DO FILM: Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror

Liz Smith: Two Bette Davis duels

While you ponder over who to write about, feel free to take this banner and add it to your site to let everybody know you will be participating.

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I can’t wait to read all your posts! This is going to be fun.

Backlots to Cover Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour

As I write to you, dear readers, I am on Highway 5 heading from my home in Oakland down to Los Angeles. The purpose of my visit, this time, is to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary VIP tour which is happening tomorrow. I was invited along with several other classic film bloggers to be among 10 featured writers on the tour.

A brief history of the company: Warner Bros. was founded by four brothers, Albert, Sam, Harry and Jack Warner who had been collecting and distributing films for many years, in 1923. It remained a fledgling studio until Warner Bros. had the foresight to see that the future of movies was based in sound. In 1927, the studio released The Jazz Singer and Warner Bros. became a household name.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Bros. had under contract some of the most gifted and eminent stars in the business. Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and directors such as Michael Curtiz, Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy and William Wellman all called Warner Bros. home at seminal points in their careers. Such diverse films as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, A Star is Born, My Fair Lady, Cool Hand Luke, and The Exorcist were all shot at Warner Bros., securing the studio a reputation for staggering versatility.

Today, Warner Bros. is known and appreciated by classic film fans for the incredibly vast library of films available in the Warner Archive. Previously unreleased or rare films get a new audience with the Warner Archive Collection, and it has proven to be a very valuable resource to those researching classic film. It recently procured a license to release Paramount pictures under the Warner name, so the releases from the Warner Archive will continue to grow exponentially as time goes on.

The Warner Archive release of Thirteen Women.

In recent times, many high profile television shows have been shot at the studio, and on the tour I expect to see the sets of modern television shows like ER and Friends, both shot at Warner Bros. in the 1990s. I will be taking pictures and live-tweeting, and at the end of the day I will make a blog post here about my experience and some information about the Warner Bros. tours themselves, should you want to go on one.

See you soon!

Happy birthday, Olivia de Havilland!

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Left: Olivia de Havilland in “Alice in Wonderland” at age 16, and right: Olivia recently at the César Awards in Paris.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Today marks the 97th birthday of the wonderful Olivia de Havilland, one of the last surviving icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the last principal cast member of Gone With the Wind. The recipient of 5 Academy Award nominations and 2 Oscars (earned for her roles in To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949), the Presidential Medal of the Arts and, recently, the coveted Légion d’Honneur from former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Olivia de Havilland is a true legend and a treasure to the industry.

The powerful final scene of The Heiress, which, in my opinion, singlehandedly won her the Oscar.

Born in Tokyo, she moved to the United States at the age of two and a half and grew up in Saratoga, CA. She acted in local plays before making her big break in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by Max Reinhardt. Hollywood followed and she rose to stardom at Warner Brothers (with a loan out to David O. Selznick for a little picture called Gone With the Wind, earning her her first Oscar nomination for the portrayal of the mild and kind Melanie), subsequently breaking out of her contract via a landmark ruling that is still discussed in entertainment law books today, a ruling known as the de Havilland decision. Without a studio contract, she had the freedom to choose her own roles and chose wisely, accruing both of her Oscars after her tenure at Warner Brothers.

After a rocky marriage to the novelist Marcus Goodrich, Olivia relocated to Paris in 1953 with her 3-year-old son Benjamin. She wanted to pursue a fledgling romance with Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, whom she had met at a film festival shortly before. They soon married and had a daughter, Gisèle, in 1956. Though the marriage ultimately didn’t last, Olivia and Pierre remained the best of friends and shared the same house for many years after the divorce. It was Olivia who was taking care of him when he died in her house in the 1990’s. Not long before, her son Benjamin had also passed away at her home, from complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

With Benjamin, shortly after their move to Paris.

Contrary to the enormous fame she attained at the height of her stardom in the 1930’s and 1940’s, she maintains a relatively low profile nowadays, making her home in the same modest Paris townhouse that she has occupied since she first moved to Paris in 1953. Since the death of her son, she has been very involved with the American Cathedral in Paris, whom she credits with providing her enormous support in dealing with Benjamin’s long and difficult struggle with cancer. She is also enormously active in the Anglophone community as a whole, often hosting benefits and fundraisers at her home for the American Library and the American University in Paris.

As many of you know, I had the great pleasure to meet Ms. de Havilland at the American Library in Paris 2 years ago when she was introducing I Remember Better When I Paint, a documentary she recently narrated. I found her just the way I hoped she would be–sweet, modest, demonstrative (she held my hand as we talked), and incredibly beautiful. Age seems to have nothing on her, she looks just as beautiful now as she did in her Hollywood days. It was an indescribably great honor to meet her and she signed my copy of her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, that she wrote in 1962. Always the social butterfly, she stayed long after the event was over, talking to people and ignoring the whispers in her ear that her taxi was outside. After a good 3 or 4 ignored whispers, the organizers finally told her that it really was time to go, and she disappointedly sighed “Oh, they’re making me leave!”

Well Olivia, we hope you never leave! Here’s to 97 more!