Olivia de Havilland’s Audacious Lawsuit Against Warner Brothers Changed Hollywood’s Studio System Forever

Olivia de HavillandDespite being one of the biggest stars of her time, Olivia de Havilland found herself in 1943 pitched in a bitter legal battle with her studio, Warner Brothers, when they arbitrarily added six months to her contract to cover time she had spent on suspension. Her decision to fight the studio broke all convention and ended up changing her and Hollywood forever.

Even though Bette Davis had failed to have a similar extension overturned in the courts in the 1930s, Olivia successfully sued Warner Brothers in 1943, with the support the Screen Actors Guild. The case put a limit of seven years on a performer’s contract and became known as the ‘de Havilland decision’. Her success with the case won her great praise from her fellow actors, however, Warner Brothers decided never to put her in one of their films again.

Olivia’s tenacity and determination in dealing with her studio is something of a family trait. Her sister is the equally famous Hollywood actresses Joan Fontaine and their cousin was the noted British aircraft designer and manufacturer, Geoffrey de Havilland.

Olivia and Joan were born to actress Lillian Augusta Ruse, whose stage name was Lillian Fontaine, and Walter Augustus de Havilland, a patent lawyer who had a practice in Japan. Olivia Mary de Havilland was born on 1 July 1916 in Tokyo and her sister, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, was born the following year on 22 October 1917, also in Tokyo.

Joan and Olivia

Olivia’s sister Joan adopted the stage name Joan Fontaine and is famous for many reasons, not least of all that she is the only actress to have won an Oscar for a performance in an Alfred Hitchcock film. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in the 1941 film Suspicion, opposite Cary Grant and co-starring the wonderful Nigel Bruce, Cedric Hardwicke and May Whitty.

Olivia achieved great acclaim as an actress, with scores of successful film appearances to her name, including numerous roles opposite Errol Flynn, in particular Flynn’s first leading role in the 1935 film Captain Blood and in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice. The first was for the 1946 film To Each His Own, with Mary Anderson, Roland Culver and John Lund in his first screen role, and the second was for the 1949 film The Heiress, with Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson.

Olivia was nominated as Best Actress three times, for the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind, with Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard, for the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, with Charles Boyer and Paulette Goddard and for the 1948 film The Snake Pit, with Mark Stevens, Leo Genn and Celeste Holm.