Hollywood Flashback: Olivia De Havilland Went to War With Warner Bros. and Won

Princess O'Rourke (1943) -  Olivia de Havilland - Photofest-H 2020
Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest

When the 'Gone With the Wind' actress — who died in Paris on July 26 — refused to appear in films "unsuited to her ability," a lawsuit followed that would soon weaken the studio system.

It's remarkable that an actress who starred in Gone With the Wind, won two Oscars and lived to 104 made her biggest impact on Hollywood by winning a lawsuit.

Olivia de Havilland — who died July 26 in Paris — was 20 when on May 5, 1936, she signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. (She was loaned to MGM for the filming of GWTW two years later.) But seven times during the contract's term, de Havilland declined to appear in pictures that Warners had cast her in. The studio then "suspended" her contract for periods when she wasn't working.

In 1943, de Havilland said her contract had expired, but Warners contended that she owed them six more months because of the time she'd spent under suspension. That's when the litigation began.

The actress claimed that she declined the roles because the parts "were unsuited to her ability, and which she could not conscientiously portray."

The legal mastermind behind it all was Martin Gang of Gang, Kopp & Tyre — a major litigator whose clients included Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. (Gang died in 1996 at 98, but his law firm lives on under the name Gang, Tyre, Ramer, Brown and Passman.)

De Havilland's legal victory weakened the power of the studio system by limiting artists' contracts to their calendar terms. Said the actress in 2010, "I couldn't bear to disappoint [my fans] by doing indifferent work in an indifferent film." 

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.