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Olivia de Havilland enjoys telling tales from `GWTW'


Source: Gannett News Service, 06-24-1998, pp ARC.

Olivia de Havilland, still spry and lively in her 80s, positively rollicks 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 Northern invasion of Atlanta. At 105 pounds, de Havilland was virtually weightless 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 terribly daring thing to do. But there's a streak of that that runs through my character.''

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 enthusiasm 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 something special.

``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 think.

``I still receive letters from people about it. There's a boy in Louisiana 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 documented. 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 ill).

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 performances). 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 strained 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.''

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