Film, History

Remembering Olivia De Havilland (1916-2020)

Greetings, cinephiles! This is Peter, one of the adult reference librarians. When I was in elementary school, the annual 5th Grade field trip was always to Radio City Music Hall to see a first run “family” film and the spring stage show, featuring the Rockettes, which took place after the film. My 5th Grade class got to see a revival of Gone With the Wind, which had never been shown on TV up to that time, over thirty years after it was first released in 1939, and was only shown in large theater revivals every few years. Of course, this was also many years before home video. So this was actually the only way to see the “classic” film at that time. The film was, indeed, spectacular, especially on the big screen, with the theater organ providing a musical prelude and the huge curtain slowly opening to the overture and opening credits of the movie itself. Naturally, there was no historical, social or cultural context provided by the school to an all-white class of children as those sorts of considerations were years in the future, so certain “troubling” (to say the least) aspects of the screenplay were simply there for us to absorb with no educational explanation provided. The distorted depiction of slavery and relations of slave to “master” and vice versa were shown as they always were in films of the time and even in films and TV of the time we were seeing it. Only in TV movies from later on in the 1970’s were more realistic depictions of slavery and the later Jim Crow era shown, such as Roots, Minstrel Man, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

In any case, we were all impressed by Radio City Music Hall. Although I had been there myself a couple of years earlier (to see the musical film Scrooge and the holiday stage show) my family arrived late and didn’t have time to look around. This time, we got there in plenty of time to see the lobby and once spectacular interior of the theater in all its rundown glory, badly worn rugs and all, as Radio City was experiencing the same economic downturn as the rest of Manhattan. A few years later, after escaping the wrecking ball, it was completely renovated to the pristine appearance you can still see today. After the four-hour movie with an intermission, plus an organ interlude and finally the spring stage show featuring the Rockettes, which lasted just under an hour, it was time to climb back onto the bus to go home. On the way, the girls discussed who was “cuter”, Rhett (Clark Gable) or Ashley (Leslie Howard) while the boys debated the relative merits of Scarlet (Vivian Leigh) and Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). I continue to be equally mesmerized by both. De Havilland was still active in movies at the time, retiring in the 1980s, and passed away on July 26 at her longtime home in Paris, France at age 104, one of the very last of the movie stars of her “golden” era. Her late life interviews with close friend the late Robert Osborne were often shown on TCM in recent years. She had a fascinating career, co-starring with sometime beau Errol Flynn in numerous films of the 1930’s and famously winning a lawsuit against Warner Brothers that limited the studio’s (or any employer’s) ability to bind employees to certain types of long term contracts, effectively ending the studio contract system, a ruling that came to be known as the “De Havilland Law” and still holds to this day. Even her younger sister and fierce rival, the actress Joan Fontaine (1917-2013), with whom she feuded over much of their lives, was quoted as saying “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal.” An early film of hers that I’ve always enjoyed is the beautiful 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she appears as Hermia and which also stars James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. She made her stage debut in the same role in the production on which the film is based, replacing Gloria Stuart, another actress with a long career who also lived past the age of 100. De Havilland went on to receive five Oscar nominations, including a supporting actress nomination for Gone With the Wind (Hattie McDaniel won instead for the same film) and won the best actress award twice, for To Each His Own in 1947 and The Heiress in 1950. The library owns most of her many films for circulation to our patrons on DVD, and they are currently on display in our DVD section. Anything currently checked out may be reserved or inter-library loaned from other libraries.

Several of her films are available for immediate download on the library’s digital service provider Kanopy. They include Santa Fe Trail, with Errol Flynn, The Ambassador’s Daughter, Raffles, one of her earlier films and The Proud Rebel, one of her later films. Also available as an e-book is the biography Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant, by Victoria Amador. The following link will bring you directly to the Kanopy page containing these downloads, which are automatically returned after the loan period ends:

The following link will bring you to the Overdrive download page for Every Frenchman Has One, an e-book authored by De Havilland, in which she describes her 1953 marriage to a French citizen and her life from that time on living in Paris:

Also available on Overdrive is a fascinating e-book about one of the great Hollywood love stories; Errol and Olivia: Ego and Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood, by Robert Matzen, explores the relationship between De Havilland and her frequent and favorite co-star, Errol Flynn. Here’s the link:

Both e-books are available for immediate download from our Overdrive digital service or, if checked out, may be reserved and will be automatically returned when the loan period has expired.

To sign up for a Kanopy or Overdrive account through the Library, you will need to enter the email and password connected to your library card, select your home library of Lindenhurst from a drop-down list, and enter your library card barcode. Click here for your library account. If your card has expired, you may click here for a temporary Library card. For any other issues that arise, please email the Library at for help.

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