The oldest living, and earliest surviving, Academy Award winner (until her death July 26, 2020).
Below: Daniel Martinez Owns One of Errol Flynn’s 1930s Tunics (From a Movie With De Havilland) and Wears It With Panache! Photo Copyright Wilbur Norman 2017.
[NOTE: I thought I had published this at the same time as I posted it on Facebook, but it did not… So, herewith… a little late!]
Some people really do lead storied lives – long ones at that. When I read the de Havilland died three weeks ago at the age of 104 I began to recall those eight great movies she did with Errol Flynn in the 1930s and 40s. And, she was perfectly cogent the last time we saw her when she was interviewed at her 100 mark.
I thought about writing something when she passed but did not. Then today I was reminded that her daughter has a home here, as does her niece – the daughter of another legend: the actress Joan Fontaine. De Havilland and Fontaine were the only sisters to win Best Actress Academy Awards.
The de Havillands were quite a family: cousin Captain Sir Geoffrey was an aviation pioneer along with his brothers Hereward and Ivon. Some of my favorite aircraft were/are de Havillands and I have flown in many over the years, especially the Beaver and Twin Otter. Take-off and landing on water is such a thrill! And, I’ve always thought the Comet one of the most beautiful planes ever, tho I’ve not had the pleasure of flying in one.
When I was a kid I was totally enthralled by those early swashbuckling movies she did with that Tasmanian devil of an actor, Errol Flynn, especially 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, the most expensive film Warner Bros. had made at the time (it took a lot of 25-cents-per-entry movie-goers to re-coup the budget of $2 million – altho my father was pretty sure it was only 10 cents in his hometown in Malta!) The ensemble cast were great actors all: Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Alan Hale, Sr. and, yes! the horse ‘Golden Cloud’ who so impressed Roy Rogers (born Leonard Franklin Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio) that he bought him and renamed him ‘Trigger’!
I still remember the initial meeting between Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Rathbone) and SIr Robin of Locksley (Flynn) in Sherwood Forest. It went something like,
Sir Guy: “You know the penalty for poaching deer in the King’s forest is death!”
Sir Robin (mounting an arrow and aiming at Sir Guy’s chest): “Are there are no exceptions?” (As one of Norman descent I suppose I ought to have been on the side of smarmy Prince John (Claude Rains) but the Saxon underdogs were more sympathetic!)
In real life South African born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was one of the best, if not the best, swordsman in Hollywood, having twice been the British Army Fencing Champion in WWI where he served in the London Scottish Regiment with Claude Rains and Ronald Colman. Those sword-fighting scenes are terrific, tho Rathbone, as a superior fencer, had to tone it down.
In 1940 de Havilland and Flynn made their sixth movie together, ‘Santa Fe Trail’, also starring Ronald Reagan. The world premier was here at our beautifully restored Lensic Theater and saw 60,000 fans hanging out around the theater striving to catch a look at the stars. I cannot imagine the chaos: even today we have less than 85,000 folks in this, the oldest and highest (2,194 meters/7,199 feet) state capital city in the U.S. (Founded by the Spanish in 1610 as ‘La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís’ but occupied for at least the last several thousand years by indigenous Tanoan peoples.)
One of de Havilland’s most significant coups was her successful 1943 lawsuit against Warner Bros., known now as the ‘De Havilland Law’, a challenge to actor’s labor contracts with studios (it had been previously challenged by Bette Davis who lost.) When de Havilland won her suit it freed up actors tied to the Hollywood studio system but got her blackballed from any studio’s roles for two years (but allowed her to do WWII USO tours, including to the South Pacific.)
Despite having been cast with many leading men and having relationships with some: Howard Hughes, Jimmy Stewart and John Huston, she never, she said, had an affair with leading man Errol, ‘in like Flynn’!
De Havilland’s achievements and honors were many: her role in the classic ‘Gone With the Wind’, bestselling author, first female president of the Cannes Film Festival, Academy awards, National Medal of Arts, Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur (lived outside Paris since 1953(?), Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (she was born in the UK) and many others.
What I will always remember her for, however, are her roles in those classic movies of Hollywood’s Golden Years that brought entertainment and joy to people of my parent’s generation during The Great Depression and WWII and then, later, Boomers like me!