26 August 2023

Olivia de Havilland's first Oscar win

On 13 March 1947, the 19th Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles, honouring the films released in 1946. Olivia de Havilland was one of the nominees in the Best Actress category, being nominated for her role as Jody Norris in Mitchell Leisen's To Each His Own. Also nominated were Celia Johnson for Brief Encounter, Jennifer Jones for Duel in the Sun, Rosalind Russell for Sister Kenny and Jane Wyman for The Yearling. The Oscar eventually went to Olivia, this being her first of two Oscar wins. 

A day before the Oscar ceremony, Margaret Herrick (Executive Secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) sent telegrams to the Oscar nominees with instructions regarding the ceremony. The following telegram was sent to Olivia.

Source: Bonhams

Olivia de Havilland with Ray Milland at the 1947 Oscars, holding her coveted prize. Olivia would receive a second Best Actress Oscar a few years later, i.e. for her performance in William Wyler's The Heiress (1949). Apart from her two Oscar wins, the actress also received nominations for the 1939 Gone with the Wind (for Best Supporting Actress) as well as Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Snake Pit (1948) (the latter two for Best Actress). 
Olivia de Havilland and John Lund in To Each His Own


As instructed in Margaret Herrick's telegram, after receiving the Oscar for To Each His Own, Olivia exited off stage to meet the press. There to congratulate her was her sister Joan Fontaine who had just presented the Best Actor Oscar. "After Olivia delivered her acceptance speech and entered the wings, I, standing close by, went over to congratulate her as I would have done to any winner", recalled Joan in her 1978 memoir No Bed Of Roses. "She took one look at me, ignored my outstretched hand, clutched her Oscar to her bosom, and wheeled away just as Photoplay's photographer Hymie Fink captured the moment with his camera". The reason for Olivia's rebuffing her sister was reportedly a derogatory comment Joan had made to the press about Olivia's first husband, author Marcus Goodrich ("All I know about him is that he's had four wives and written one book. Too bad it's not the other way around."). The two sisters had a lifelong feud which lasted until Joan's death in 2013.

The infamous picture of the two sisters, shot by Hymie Fink

12 August 2023

You force me to refuse to make the picture unless the billing is mine

By the spring of 1939 Bette Davis was already a star. She had just won her second Academy Award for Jezebel (1938) and had recently starred in successful films like Dark Victory (1939) and Juarez (1939). While the actress was still working on The Old Maid (to be released in September 1939 and also to become a big hit), her next project —a film based on Maxwell Anderson's 1930 play Elizabeth the Queen was already underway. For a long time Bette had wanted to play Queen Elizabeth I in a film adaptation of Anderson's play and was thrilled when producer Hal Wallis bought the property for her. Bette wanted Laurence Olivier to play the role of the Earl of Essex, but Warners wanted Errol Flynn, the studio's then biggest male star.  

Bette and Errol had played together in The Sisters a year earlier and at that time Bette was very happy to be co-starring with Flynn ("He was a big box office star at the time and it could only be beneficial to me to work with him"). For this project, however, she found Flynn "the only fly in the ointment", feeling he was not up to the task, not being "an experienced enough actor to cope with the complicated blank verse the play had been written in." Apart from being unhappy with the casting of Flynn, Bette was also unhappy with the title of the film. The title of the original play, Elizabeth the Queen, was initially set to be the film's title, but Flynn was opposed to it, demanding to be acknowledged in the title too. Warners consequently came up with a new title, The Knight and the Lady, to which Bette, in turn, fiercely objected.

Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; below they are pictured rehearsing a scene, with producer Robert Lord (l) and director Michael Curtiz looking on.
In April 1939, Bette Davis sent the following telegram to Warner Bros' studio head Jack Warner, demanding that the title The Knight and the Lady be changed.

Jack L.Warner, Personal  

Warner Bros Studio 

April 28, 1939 

I have been trying for some weeks to get an answer from you concerning the title of my next picture. I felt confident that you would of your own volition change it, considering the fact the play from which it is taken was bought for me and was called "Elizabeth the Queen". I have found out today you are not changing it. You of course must have realized my interest in the title change concerned the billing ... The script "The Knight and the Lady", like the play, is still a woman's story. I therefore feel justified in requesting first billing, which would automatically change the title, as the present title is obviously one to give the man first billing. I feel so justified in this from every standpoint that you force me to refuse to make the picture unless the billing is mine. If you would like to discuss this matter with me I would be more than willing. 

Bette Davis 
Bette Davis and Jack Warner

A week later, Jack Warner informed Bette that she would get first billing while assuring her The Knight and the Lady would not be used. The title was later changed to The Lady and the Knight, but Bette was still not satisfied. Again she sent Warner a telegram, demanding another title change. 
J.L Warner 
June 30, 1939

I have waited now since day picture started for title to be settled. I was promised it would not be "The Knight and the Lady". The present title "The Lady and the Knight", as announced in paper and called such in fan magazines, I consider the same thing ... You have the choice of "Elizabeth and Essex", "Elizabeth the Queen", or "The Love of Elizabeth and Essex". If Mr. [Paul] Muni is allowed the title "Juarez", another historical picture ... you need have no worry about the box office with the title "Elizabeth and Essex" with far more well known people than "Juarez". 

Bette Davis
Source of both telegrams: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

The title Elizabeth and Essex was already under copyright (as the title of a book by Lytton Strachey) so it couldn't be used. As said, Flynn objected to Elizabeth the Queen, so this title couldn't be used either. Apparently Warner didn't approve of Bette's last suggestion (The Love of Elizabeth and Essex) and eventually opted for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, inspired by other historical films, such as the successful The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex became the box-office hit Warner Bros. had anticipated. It received five Oscar nominations, yet none in the major categories. While Bette Davis was expected to receive a nomination for her performance, she was not nominated for thís role but for her role in Dark Victory (also a Warners production). Eventually, the Oscar for Best Actress went to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind, GWTW being that year's big winner.

Billing for The Sisters (top photo) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. For The Sisters, Flynn would initially receive sole billing above the title. "At that time I had no billing clause in my contract," Bette recalled. "I felt after Jezebel that my name should always appear above the title. That is star billing." She held her ground and Warners eventually gave her above-the-title billing, although she came after Flynn. For The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, like she had demanded, Bette came first.