Olivia de Havilland Retrospective at MFAH
In her 1962 memoir Every Frenchman Has One, Olivia de Havilland divides her time before and after she became a movie actress as BC, or Before Cinema, and AD, or After Damnation. After being out of print for years, de Havilland’s memoir has been republished to coincide with her 100th birthday.
Perhaps it’s synchronicity when de Havilland refers at the bottom of page 47 in the current edition of Every Frenchman Has One to a Winterhalter portrait. Upstairs the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is presenting an exhibit of Franz Winterhalter paintings and downstairs in the Brown Auditorium the MFAH is hosting a retrospective of de Havilland’s films, the titles of which were personally picked by her for their respective screenings. The actress turned 100 on July 1.
She spends the entire book not talking about movies and precious little about her sister Joan Fontaine. The reports of their rivalry seem to be more an invention of the media than actual hatred. Yes, de Havilland broke Fontaine’s collarbone when they were young but what siblings don’t fight on occasion. My younger brother knocked out my front teeth with a rock when I was sixteen and I still talk to him. On occasion.
The twelve films in the retrospective include two films for which de Havilland won the Academy Award for Best Actress — To Each Her Own (July 29) and The Heiress (August 6). In The Dark Mirror (July 30), de Havilland plays twins involved in a murder. You get two for the price of one.
Gone With the Wind, unwinding in a 4K-restoration digital print this Saturday at the MFAH, has a reputation that precedes its screening. She plays the role of Melanie Hamilton in the classic film. Under contract to Warner Brothers, de Havilland was traded for a one-time option for the services of Jimmy Stewart who himself was under contract to Selznick International. She would later sue Warner Brothers in 1943 successfully to release her from that contract. Essentially, an actor was under contract to a studio for seven years, but if you had a day or week or month off — as most actors do — the studio considered that as time that was owed them. The De Havilland Law is the unofficial name for California Labor Code Section 2855.
Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind — which has been re-released numerous times since its premiere in 1939 — is the highest domestic grossing film of all time.
In David Thomson’s book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, he examines the financial impact of Gone With the Wind. According to Thompson: “By the end of its first run, extended by the war through 1942 the picture had rentals of $31-million.” To put that in perspective for its era, “the 1941 Best Picture Winner How Green Was My Valley grossed $2.8-million, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs grossed $8-million, and Casablanca brought in $3.7-million.” Box Office Mojo, the go-to website for film grosses, has the adjusted take for Gone With the Wind at $1,733,542,900, which is $2-million more that the second place film, the 1977 Star Wars, and makes Gone With the Wind the top domestic grossing film of all time.
Gone With the Wind premiered on December 15, 1939 in Atlanta. Other historic events that took place that month included the opening of La Guardia airport on December 2, and the Soviet Union invading Finland on December 14, which got them tossed out of the League of Nations. Another film opened in 1939 that may very well be the best film ever made and is the complete opposite of Gone With the Wind in every aspect – Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
“Gone With the Wind” unreels at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this Saturday, July 9 at 3 pm. The film will be introduced by Free Press Houston film buff and associate editor Michael Bergeron.