“I wanted to do complex roles, like Melanie for example, and Jack Warner saw me as an ingénue. I was really restless to portray more developed human beings.”
— Olivia de Havilland
“These contracts gave all of the advantages to the studio and made it nearly impossible for stars to have a say in their careers.”
— Howard Suber
Film professor, UCLA
Actress Olivia de Havilland, the last surviving star of Hollywood’s “Golden Era,” died this week at the age of 104. Best known for her appearance in “Gone With the Wind,” which earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination, she was a two-time best actress Oscar winner, though my love of bad 1970s disaster films led to my first being introduced to her in “Airport” ‘77.
Few today remember the pivotal role that de Havilland played in creating the modern movie industry, nor the lawsuit that generated the rule which bears her name. But without that lawsuit, her determination to make the pictures that she wanted to make, and the ruling of a California appeals court, the movie industry would be very, very different today.
Prior to the end of World War II, movie studios would sign young actors to long contracts and through those contracts would direct which movies the actors could make. If a rival studio wanted the actor for a film that they were making, the studio that held the actor’s contract would have to agree to “loan” the actor, often in exchange for another actor producing a film for the loaning studio.
It was under this arrangement that Warren Brothers “loaned” de Havilland to MGM in 1939 for the filming of “Gone With the Wind.” But following her role in the Civil War blockbuster, she quickly grew dissatisfied with the parts that Warner was offering her. She turned down script after script, quickly angering the studio executives.
Like many actors, she had a seven-year long contract with Warner. Under California Labor Code section 2855, a “personal services” contract could be no longer than seven years in length. The code did not specify, however, how those seven years should be calculated. Interpreting the law to their greatest advantage, studio lawyers decided that the seven years meant seven years of actual service — 2,555 days. And since actors didn’t work in between movies, they never worked anything close to every single calendar day.
Thus, when the seven years of her original contract ended, Warner Brothers told de Havilland that they were extending her contract unilaterally. The law didn’t bar them from doing so, they argued, and her refusal to do the pictures they wanted justified the extension.
De Havilland didn’t agree, and neither did the Screen Actor’s Guild. So in 1943, she filed suit in California seeking to invalidate the contract and, more importantly, to get an opinion that seven years was a concrete time period and could not be extended. She prevailed in the lower court, and following an appeal, the California Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that seven years meant seven calendar years from the start of the contract, regardless of the number of days actually worked.
Freed from her contract with Warner Brothers, de Havilland signed with Paramount Pictures and hit an immediate streak of incredible success. Finally given the kind of roles that she desired, she won a best actress Oscar for the 1946 film “To Each His Own,” was nominated again two years later for “The Snake Pit,” and won her second award the following year for “The Heiress.”
Seven decades later, the interpretation of Section 2855 is still known as “the De Havilland Law,” and it continues to be utilized by actors, musicians, and other performers to limit the length of their contracts or improve their bargaining position with studios, TV networks and record labels.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. He has written a weekly column on law and history for the Gazette since 2005.