Olivia de Havilland enjoys telling tales from `GWTW'
Author: MARSHALL FINE
Source: Gannett News Service, 06-24-1998, pp ARC.
Olivia de Havilland, still spry and lively in her 80s, positively
with laughter as she recalls a prank she pulled on Clark Gable during
the making of ``Gone With the Wind.''
``Oh, I played a dreadful trick,'' she says, her eyes wide with mirth
and seeming to suggest that, dreadful as it was, she still finds it
highly amusing more than 60 years later.
They were rehearsing the scene in which Rhett Butler picks up Melanie
Hamilton Wilkes, who has just given birth to a baby, from her sickbed
and carries her down the stairs to a waiting buggy to escape the
invasion of Atlanta. At 105 pounds, de Havilland was virtually
when the strapping Gable would pluck her from the bed and carry her.
``He picked me up as if I was nothing but a feather,'' de Havilland
recalls. ``He did it with extreme ease.''
Before the final rehearsal, while Gable was in his dressing room,
de Havilland called over the assistant director and pointed to a large
cement block with an iron ring in the top, which was being used to
steady a piece of scenery. She had the assistant and some stagehands
move the block under her bed, then tied a rope through it, lashed
it around her own waist and hid the rope under a quilt.
``So Clark comes in and reaches to pick me up,'' she says and mimes
both the red-faced effort and look of surprise on Gable's face when
he found he could barely budge the then-21-year-old actress.
``He was really startled, but he was a very good sport. It was a
daring thing to do. But there's a streak of that that runs through
Then she bursts again into a hail of undainty guffaws. The good times
are still good, de Havilland seems to be saying, even at a distance
of six decades.
At the age of 81, de Havilland is in New York to talk about ``Gone
With the Wind,'' which is being rereleased in a restored version around
the country Friday. Despite a crowded interview schedule, she seems
energized by the press attention, going so far as to change her clothes
for each interview and photo session.
The only surviving principal from the film, de Havilland is all but
retired in Paris since appearing in a couple of TV miniseries in the
mid-1980s. But she talks about the early days of her career, in which
she won two Oscars and was nominated for several more, with an
and sense of detail that appear as if she were discussing things that
happened last week.
She took the role of Melanie after she was recommended to producer
David O. Selznick by her actress sister, Joan Fontaine (who lives
in Carmel, Calif., and from whom she is famously estranged). From
the beginning, says de Havilland, she knew she was involved in
``I really felt at the time that this was a film that would have a
special life, a special destiny, that it would live longer than other
films of the day,'' she says. ``Through videocassettes, other movies
have had a continued life that was undreamed of. But decade after
decade, `Gone With the Wind' comes back to theaters. That's thrilling,
``I still receive letters from people about it. There's a boy in
who wrote me that he runs it every Sunday on video. But to see it
in the cinema is an entirely different experience.''
The film's troubled journey from the pages of Margaret Mitchell's
best seller to the annals of cinematic history has been well
The film went through three directors: George Cukor (who was fired
at the insistence of Clark Gable), Victor Fleming (whose name appears
on the film) and Sam Wood (who finished the film when Fleming fell
After Cukor left the picture, de Havilland and her co-star, Vivien
Leigh, each continued to work with him on the sly to develop their
characters -- without knowing that the other was doing the same thing.
``We had to do it in secret,'' de Havilland says. ``I felt terribly
guilty about stealing up to George's house on Sundays, asking his
counsel about how to play certain scenes. I only did it about three
times and, finally, I told him that I felt this guilt. He said, `Don'
t. Vivien is doing the same thing.'-''
Cukor, who was gay, had a reputation as a woman's director (he later
directed both Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Colman in Oscar-winning
The ultra-masculine Gable finally put his foot down and demanded that
Selznick replace him, several weeks into production.
``It would be logical for Clark, who had never worked with George,
to be concerned,'' de Havilland says. ``After all, he was the King
-- the biggest star in Hollywood. He felt an immense responsibility
to the public to fulfill the public's image of Rhett Butler that they
had from reading the book. And I think he was afraid that, with George,
the women would dominate the film.
``Even Louis B. Mayer (the head of MGM) was worried. Clark was so
important to the company. So he needed to protect Clark, to make him
feel comfortable. When George left the picture, I was having dinner
with Howard Hughes and he reassured me by saying, `Don't worry --
George or Victor, it's the same talent, except that George's is
through a finer sieve.' ''
De Havilland is a British citizen who was born in Tokyo and grew up
in what is now the Silicon Valley area of California. She acted in
high school and was set to attend college when she had the opportunity
to understudy the role of Hermia in a Hollywood stage production of
``A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' When the actress cast as Hermia (Gloria
Stuart of ``Titanic'' fame) had to drop out of the production to finish
a film that had gone over schedule, de Havilland was given the role.
Her film career was launched.
She spent many years under contract to Warner Bros., where her frequent
co-star was Errol Flynn, in films such as ``Captain Blood,'' ``The
Adventures of Robin Hood,'' ``They Died with Their Boots On,'' ``Santa
Fe Trail'' and ``The Charge of the Light Brigade.'' De Havilland found
herself cast again and again as the love interest of Flynn, a notorious
ladies' man in real life.
``Oh, he was a charmer,'' de Havilland says knowingly. ``He was wildly
attractive. I think he had a lot of Rhett Butler in him, and he was
considered for the part at one time.''
Was it hard to resist his charms? ``Yes, it was -- but I did,'' affirms
de Havilland, whose marriage to Pierre Galante, editor of Paris Match,
ended in 1979. ``But he was the one I enjoyed kissing most. When
I was working with him, I could hardly wait to get to rehearsal.''