Olivia de Havilland Robert Matzen

The War About the War

Olivia returns to the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta in 1961 for the re-premiere of her favorite picture.

All my life, the film version of Gone With the Wind was a big deal. In my wonder years, my mother adored Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Huge crush. And I remember being dragged to see a reissue in a Pittsburgh movie palace where, as a red-blooded boy, I waited impatiently for Civil War battle scenes that never materialized. Just endless talk of war and a bunch of girl stuff. The closest I got to interest was a scene showing the aftermath of a battlefield, but for my four-hour forced investment, I was left embittered.

Some years later I became interested in Hollywood history and ultimately made a career of it, and GWTW became a different animal to me—a cornerstone of that history and a turning point in motion picture production.

So, yes, Gone With the Wind has been a big deal. While researching my book Errol & Olivia in 2009, I came across some photos of the 1961 Civil War Centennial re-release of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with festivities that mirrored the 1939 premiere, including a relaunch at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, which had been the focus of all in December 1939. Selznick came back for the series of events, along with Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Evelyn Keyes, Victor Jory, and some others, and they relived the glory of that December 1939 moment when the world turned to Atlanta and audiences finally, officially, got to see Selznick’s version of Margaret Mitchell’s vision flickering in the dark.

For 76 years of her life, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a spotlight for being central to the Gone With the Wind experience. More than any other topic, even Errol Flynn, people wanted to talk about GWTW and her Academy Award-nominated performance as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and she was always delighted to oblige.

Then in June 2015, New York Post entertainment columnist Lou Lumenick posed a then-shocking question: Wasn’t it time to send Gone With the Wind “the way of the Confederate flag?” Oh, the uproar among lovers of Old Hollywood. I can only surmise now how firmly Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek as he asked the question because he knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. More than that, it earned him late-career multimedia headlines.

Since then, for some, GWTW has transitioned from pleasure to guilty pleasure as consciousnesses have been raised to issues of racism in society worldwide, including and especially in the U.S. Deep South, and Lumenick has been revealed as a visionary for his question and its context.

Full disclosure: At first I thought Lou’s argument to be silly, just as I found the uproar over Confederate statues to be nonsense. Now I think, yes, let’s learn, grow, and move on. We shouldn’t be defending the politics that found it necessary to glorify the post-war Southern cause with monument after monument. In the Declaration of Independence, written four-score prior to the Civil War, all men were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If anything is the American way, this is it. And we should be honoring that concept at the expense of pieces of bronze or granite.

As an historian, I view Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film it inspired, as artifacts of their day—snapshots of early 20th century Southern perspectives on race as written by reclusive Margaret Mitchell, a product of her culture and times. Selznick’s picture based on the Mitchell manuscript drowned box offices in cash nationwide. To hold a 1935 fictional book billed as a “romance” to 2020 social and historical standards seems to me to compare apples and vacuum cleaners. And banning it screams fascism—sometimes the Left extends so far left that it ends up on the Right.

Why not just let the legion of GWTW fans enjoy Selznick’s picture for the fantasy it is? To me Rhett Butler represents the devil’s advocate and conscience of the South; never does he take “the Cause” seriously. I would love it if the fans of this picture could acknowledge the goings-on as fantasy and acknowledge the institutionalized racism that has been embedded in our society since long before the Civil War. Racism that endures to present day.

Of course Gone With the Wind is a racist tome; it has to be, based on subject matter that views the Antebellum South as Camelot burned to the ground by damn Yankees.

My point is, OdeH lived so extraordinarily long a life that she got to see her greatest accomplishment tarnished black. When she turned 100 and proclaimed that she planned to live to 110 and then reevaluate, of course I believed her. I had seen her iron will on display both from afar and up close. But then two things happened, either of which may have made her question her extended longevity plan. In 2018 the courts ruled against her lawsuit with the makers of the TV series Feud. Such a bitter pill for the victor of the de Havilland Decision to be forced to swallow. She was just as right this time as that time—one may not defame living people—but the ruling went against her. To be blunt, the grand dame took big business’s sucker punch.

When George Floyd was murdered, the nation quaked, and the shock waves hit her beloved Gone With the Wind full force. I can only wonder if she then reasoned, It’s time for me to go. Who knows?

I still don’t love Gone With the Wind the movie, but I admire the filmmaking and the drama of its production and release. Recounting the epic months on Hollywood soundstages as seen through the eyes of OdeH rates among my favorite aspects of researching and writing Errol & Olivia. And I feel sad that the fallout over racism as it applies to Gone With the Wind occurred in the final reel of the life of Olivia de Havilland, the last titan of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece seven weeks ago but due to various factors am only posting it now. Aside from a broken bone, the issue is completion of my next book, which I’ll be discussing soon.

Complicated

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

My favorite image of Olivia de Havilland, taken in 1942. Though she be but little, she is fierce.

It’s pretty weird living in a world that doesn’t have Olivia de Havilland in it. Columnists and bloggers have been singing Olivia’s praises since her passing a week ago, justifiably so of course. She was the last major star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. In taking OdeH for granted as one does since she’s been around all our lives (unless you happen to be age 105 and up), I was awestruck last Sunday to scroll through Facebook and see tribute after tribute in an unbroken string that went on and on. Even the latest from the White House couldn’t crack the de Havilland hit parade.

That’s on the one hand. The day after her passing I was contacted by Barnett Parker from a FOX TV affiliate in California and put on alert to appear on-air via Zoom to speak about OdeH. Then an hour later the idea was nixed because the 40-year-old news editor had never heard of Olivia de Havilland, and so obviously her passing wasn’t newsworthy. That is the other hand; time has marched on.

I go back to 1986 with OdeH. Like every other growing boy who came into contact with the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Robin Hood, I fell in love with Olivia as Maid Marian. Heck, what was not to love? She received bins of mash notes from smitten men written in care of her easily accessed Paris address, and mine was just another. She responded politely and girlishly because she knew that’s what her legion of admirers needed her to do. There was also, even then, an author inside of me, and so I started asking her questions getting at the story behind the filmmaking she had experienced, and our occasional correspondence continued.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

To promote Captain Blood in 1935, Warner Bros. dressed its newest starlet in short-shorts and leather boots for a series of  publicity pinups. By the late 1930s Olivia chafed at such exploitation and refused to participate.

Flash forward to 2009 after Michael Mazzone and I had co-written the surprise hit Errol Flynn Slept HereErrol Flynn Slept Here—a forensic look at Flynn’s life through the mountaintop playpen he had built at the height of his fame. Research conducted then suggested his life with OdeH onscreen and off warranted a separate volume and that led to Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. During the writing of that one I got back in touch with my old pal Olivia who, it turned out, was a fan of Errol Flynn Slept Here. I told her about E&O and asked for an interview and a phone number—basically asked respectfully for what any author needs from a subject-matter expert.

(You can’t see it, but I’m sitting here looking out the window rubbing my whiskers trying to find words for the process of corresponding with OdeH.) The words I’m coming up with are “glacial.” “Tectonic.” Maybe if I had jumped in the DeLorean and gone back 10 years and written the letter in 1999, she’d have been ready to help me in 2009. But I knew she had an assistant and a particular way of handling the volume of mail she received. I also knew this is the gal who would invite people to Paris to meet with her, and tell them to give her a call at an appointed time after they’d arrived, and when they called she would say, oh, was that today? Well, let’s make it the same time next week. Which is perfectly within her rights as a legendary multiple Academy Award winner in her 90s. But over here in the real world, where there are author contracts and deadlines, her science of time didn’t really match mine. I tried violating protocol by calling and I left a couple of messages to no avail.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

In 1940, Olivia turned the tables and posed for this series of shots as if to say, You don’t own me, Jack Warner. I’m my own woman.

Also while writing E&O, I contacted Olivia’s sister Joan Fontaine (Olivia + Joan = the second or third most famous feud in Hollywood history) for an interview to talk about  her sister and Errol Flynn. Joan had jaunted into Hollywood in the later 1930s and won an Oscar under the nose of her hard-working sister, before her hard-working sister had won one, which only deepened a rivalry that went back to their childhood. The very idea of speaking about this subject for the record appalled Joan, who told me in that caramel voice of hers, “If I spoke to you about Olivia, it would be like an atomic bomb going off.” Maybe in 1969 that would have been true, or 1979, but this was 2009 when only we dedicated few movie lovers remembered the Joan Fontaine of Rebecca and Suspicion—and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for that matter. That’s OK, Joan, I was still able to cover your crazy relationship with Olivia in a no-holds-barred section entitled Twisted Sisters.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Olivia de Havilland was a live-by-her-own-rules firebrand, the same woman who had beaten Jack Warner’s blacklist of 1941 through ’45 in court and earned the de Havilland Decision that really was an atomic bomb going off in the middle of Hollywood. This little woman of 5’4″ brought down the studio system stubbornly and single-handedly and then carried that victory into a string of three Academy Award nominations and two wins in four years. After she had proved everything there was to prove, she left Hollywood and settled in Paris, wrote a terrific book about it, and spent the remainder of her life sipping champagne and living life on her own terms. Not my terms, certainly. Her terms.

When Errol & Olivia was published, I sent her a copy just to say, look, a coffee table book about you and Errol. It’s a beautiful volume with a couple hundred photos; I bet many she’d never seen before and I bet they brought back memories. I did this with some trepidation because I wrote something in there based on all my research that I knew she wouldn’t like—that evidence suggested she and Errol had been more than friends around the time of Santa Fe Trail when they were a couple of lonely and restless souls. The narrative nailed her as exactly what she was: a loner, a workaholic, an accomplisher, depressive and isolated her whole life. The silence coming out of Rue Benouville was deafening. She sure wasn’t that silent a couple years ago when she went after the producers of Feud for the way Catherine Zeta-Jones had portrayed her, as a cold and gossipy bitch—which was not OdeH at all. OdeH was a charmer and the soul of discretion at all times, which is, I believe, why she couldn’t deliver the memoir she’d promised to her publisher, Dutton, at the end of 1980.

Oh, that’s another story. So when she continued to miss her deadlines, and after I’d had a couple of books published, I asked if maybe I could help her get over the hump and finish her memoir and get the manuscript safely off. Well! The nerve of this whippersnapper! She told me this was quite impossible because “Every word has to be my own.” I tried, friends, but as it stands, she took every word to her grave, which is the ultimate evidence that Feud got her all wrong.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I love you, Olivia. I admired the time you gave me, and every challenge and every complication that went with it. You lived life your way and enjoyed a champagne diet past age 104. I can only hope you and Errol have had a chance to catch up—there must have been plenty to say since you outlived him by, oh, a mere 61 years.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen