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Worker Rights In Hollywood–Olivia de Havilland And Labor Day

September 1, 2019

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As we celebrate Labor Day I felt the story of Olivia de Havilland’s Hollywood studio system fight was an interesting way to underscore what the day is about.  Many recall the film legend as Melanie Wilkes from the classic Gone With The Wind.  But her legal challenge to the studio system is even more remarkable.

Back at Warner Bros., though, De Havilland found herself consigned to the same old arm-candy roles. She began taking suspensions without pay to avoid the parts she regarded as unacceptable. When a loan to Paramount for “Hold Back the Dawn” brought her another Oscar nomination, she began counting the months until her contract with Warner Bros. would be up.

Under California’s studio-friendly labor statute, employers were entitled to hold individuals to personal services contracts for up to seven years; De Havilland’s contract was set to end in mid-1943. But when the time came, she was shocked to discover that she still wasn’t free. All of the months of suspension without pay that she had accumulated would be tacked on to the end of her original contract period. In other words, De Havilland owed the studio a full seven years of active labor, however long that might take.

The enforceability of such “tack on” terms had never been addressed by the courts and no actor had risked making a legal challenge, although powerful stars like Cagney and Davis were able to negotiate modifications in their contracts. Now, 27-year-old De Havilland decided to fight back. She hired attorney Martin Gang to seek a judicial declaration that the “tack on” provision of the suspension clause was invalid under California law. Despite the very real possibility of wrecking her acting future by taking on the system, she persevered. In late 1944, an appellate court victory freed her — and the rest of the studios’ contract actors — from Hollywood’s version of indentured servitude.

De Havilland immediately proved the value of her freedom by taking roles in three great films: “To Each His Own,” “The Snake Pit” and “The Heiress.” The result was three Oscar nominations, two Academy Awards and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.

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