Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Olivia DeHavilland - Free Agent

A very Happy Birthday to Olivia DeHavilland! Most people think of her as Melanie in "Gone With the Wind", or as Maid Marian in "Robin Hood"; or as a score of other characters she portrayed in her long and storied career. And that would be enough of a legacy in and of itself. But there is more to Ms. De Havilland's story than all that.

When you pick up the sports pages, and see the articles about athletes negotiating as "free agents", we never think of the role Ms. De Havilland played in the drama of labor negotiations. Actually, when you come right down to it, she is the star of that show.

Ms. De Havilland was under contract to Warner Brothers for seven years in 1943 when she filed suit. Her initial one year contract had been extended each year since 1936 for a total of 7 years. The studio was trying to take the position that the extensions were separate contracts of 1 year apiece. The court ruled that 1 times 7 equals 7 and so she was free to pursue her interests with other studios.

It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise we might not have her in such groundbreaking films as “The Snake Pit.” Her victory in the case became known as the De Havilland Law and affects entertainers in film, television and even the music industry. 

The De Havilland Law is the informal name of California Labor Code Section 2855, the California law disallowing personal services contracts between an entity and one party beyond 7 years from the original date of contract. These are contracts apply to individuals who's services cannot be duplicated by anyone else. Athletes are a good example, as well as actors and some musicians.

This was quite a blow to the old “studio” system of making movies. Although that system did reward the actors/actresses with security; and a good bit of money; it had a chilling effect on the creative side of things. Actors were not free to make movies with actors from other studios. That would come later on; after Ms. De Havilland became a “free agent.”

So, this year I’m wishing a very Happy Birthday to a woman who was ahead of her time and made a difference in the lives of so many creative people. Without her successful fight for her own artistic freedom, which is what this case was all about, think of all the wonderful artists and performers who may have never reached their apex. That loss would have been ours.

Ms. De Havilland as Maid Marian in "Robin Hood".

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