31 March 2023

There is something I would like to straighten out with you ...

Olivia de Havilland was still working on Gone with the Wind (1939) when she started filming The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She had a minor role in the latter film as the queen's lady-in-waiting, playing third fiddle to Bette Davis and Errol Flynn and being billed below the title. It is said that casting Olivia in such an inferior role was Jack Warner's way of punishing her for doing David Selznick's GWTW. Warner, head of Warner Brothers and Olivia's boss, was at first unwilling to loan her out to Selznick, but Olivia was adamant about playing Melanie. In violation of her contract with Warners, the actress had secretly screentested for GWTW, and next secretly contacted Warner's wife Ann, pleading with her to make Warner change his mind. Persuaded by his wife, Warner eventually agreed to the loan-out but ordered producer Hal Wallis to cast Olivia in a secondary role on her return to Warners.

In early May 1939 —while still having to shoot retakes for GWTW— Olivia reported for work at Warners and later recalled that it was "torture for [her], leaving this wonderful atmosphere at Selznick for a very different atmosphere at Warner Brothers". A month later, on 10 June, an incident occurred on the set of Elizabeth and Essex, where Olivia had to do a scene but lost her usual calm in front of the cast and crew. The incident involved Warners' contract director Michael Curtiz, whom Olivia disliked working with (read more here). In a memo to production manager T.C. Wright, unit manager Frank Mattison described what had happened:


I had [a] display of temperament late SATURDAY afternoon from Miss DeHAVILLAND; to wit— at 5:15 PM when we started to rehearse a scene between her and Miss FABERES [Nanette Fabray], she informed Mr. Curtiz that she positively was going to stop at 6:00 PM, but Mr. Curtiz told her that unless she stayed and finished the sequence he positively would cut it out of the picture. Miss DeHAVILLAND expressed herself before the company and Mr. Curtiz came right back, with the result that it became necessary for me to dismiss the company at 6:15 without shooting this sequence. 

Inasmuch as this sequence of 2 pages was inserted at Miss DeHAVILLAND's request, I believe that we definitely should not shoot it and uphold Mr. Curtiz in the matter. I think this will put Miss DeHAVILLAND in a proper frame of mind so that she will take direction and instruction hereafter.  

[The scene was later shot and included in the film.]

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

Olivia de Havilland as Penelope Gray in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

In order to defend herself and to explain the situation to her boss Jack Warner, Olivia wrote him the following letter on 18 July 1939. Long afterwards, Olivia said about the incident: "I lost my cool, which was not like me, and which is unforgivable." 

Incidentally, with "a certain man who means well" Olivia unmistakably refers to Michael Curtiz and the "famous blond actress" is Bette Davis. The Lady & the Knight was one of the film's working titles.


July 18, 1939

Dear Mr. Warner —

It is a shame that you are so busy this week that it is impossible to arrange a luncheon engagement. I should have enjoyed the experience so much.

There is something I would like to straighten out with you, something that is, I feel very important to both of us. I have not been at all happy about the situation that existed during The Lady & the Knight. I feel that a misunderstanding was created between us that had no business to be there. As you know, when you called me on the phone, full of indignation, I wanted to talk to you in person, rather than discuss so vital a matter through such an unsatisfactory medium, but you were busy or preferred not to do so ....

The first time you called, the conversation concerned my starting date on The Lady & the Knight. As I explained to you, I had, four weeks before, forseen the problems that would arise between the schedules of G.W.T.W. and The Lady & the Knight and had discussed the matter with Mr. Wallis, [co-producer] Mr. [Robert] Lord and Mr. Curtiz and come to a conclusion satisfactory to all of us. My principle in being concerned was simply this: I wanted to do a good job in G.W.T.W.  for it was a solemn responsiblity, & I wanted to do my best in The Lady & the Knight, for it is one of your big pictures for the year, & a bad performance on my part could weaken the film perceptibly. As you know it is impossible to perform two decided and different characters at the same time, so our problem was to work out the schedules so that they would not conflict ...

When I started my first important day's work on The Lady & the Knight, not having had a vacation since September, I was quite nervous, and as one always is on the first day of a picture, somewhat apprehensive of my first consequential scene. And that scene was a charming, well-written one, & I wanted to do it well.

I arrived at the studio at 6:45 A.M., shot a number of reaction shots beginning at 9. The morning passed, the afternoon passed, & finally at 5:30 P.M. with my nose shiny, my makeup worn off, my vitality gone, & my tummy doing nip-ups, we prepared to line up the charming scene. I mentioned that it was nearing six, that everyone was tired, and I hoped that we could shoot the scene another day since it required virtually no set. However, when the lights were arranged, at 6:15, with everything against me technically, I limped on the set prepared to go through with this thing. Unfortunately, to make matters much worse, I found that a certain man who means well wanted to get this charming scene over in a hurry — and then, bang! he said something very tactless, and to my horror I found myself shaking from head to foot with nerves, & unable to open my mouth for fear of crying— which would never do in front of so many people. The man, who meant well, realized he had gone too far, apologized, & dismissed the company assuring me that he could quite well shoot the scene another day for it required no set & could be done in a short time. He had said the same kind of thing a few days before to a famous blond actress who had gone home with the tears streaming down her face.

And someone went to you about all this! I know that if you had been present on that set, and had realized my problem, you would have dismissed the company rather than shoot that scene so late in the day. I know, too, that you understand that an actress, no matter how talented she is, is dependent very seriously upon her appearance & her vitality for the quality of her performance. When those two things leave her, whether it is after five years work or at the end of a day, she has nothing to rely on. And when I make suggestions to anyone at the studio, it is for the good of the whole ...

You have a tremendous business to conduct, one that you have built to astounding success & complexity, & your time is not to be wasted with trivialities. 

My very best wishes to you,

Olivia de Havilland 

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

Above: Olivia de Havilland and the "famous blond actress" in a scene from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Below: Olivia and Mike Curtiz on the set of Captain Blood (1935), the first of nine films they did together. 

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