Olivia de Havilland died last month in Paris, where she had lived since the 1950s, and where she had been a star since at least the late-1930s. Her Warner Bros. films with Errol Flynn made her famous, although at first she was eclipsed by her co-star, who for a few years was as big an attraction in the city, and indeed the rest of the country, as even the greatest French performers. But by the time of her role as Maid Marian in Les Aventures de Robin des Bois (The Adventures of Robin Hood ), de Havilland had become practically as well-known as Flynn, with the French film press detailing not just her movie performances, but reporting on her ambitions, her biography, and her private life as well.
There was a slow build to de Havilland’s Parisian celebrity. When her first significant film, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream ) opened in the city at the Marbeuf cinema in the eighth arrondissement, the press referred to it typically as a James Cagney film, even though, as Bottom, he probably had less screen time that Ian Hunter, who played Theseus, or Verree Teasdale, as Hippolyta. De Havilland, performing the role of Hermia, received far lesser billing in reports on the film, if she was mentioned at all.
Capitaine Blood (Captain Blood ), released in Paris a few months later, in March 1936, started to change that. Opening at the Apollo cinema in the ninth arrondissement, Capitaine Blood introduced Paris to Errol Flynn, who received instant and massive attention in the film press, while de Havilland also drew notice. The film played for about a month en exclusivité at the Apollo and then left Parisian cinemas for several weeks, but would show in reprises throughout the 1930s.
De Havilland’s initial, significant breakthrough came with her next film with Flynn, La Charge de la brigade légère (The Charge of the Light Brigade ), which also opened exclusively at the Apollo, Christmas week in 1936. La Charge played there for almost two months, a very healthy first-run for the period, and within two weeks of ending that engagement it opened again at two cinemas in the seventeenth and eighteenth arrondissements, and two weeks after that moved to an exclusive engagement at the Studio Universel on the rue de l’Opéra in the first. Moving slowly through the city, rather than opening in a number of cinemas, probably was a sign of the film’s popularity, and film journalism began paying more attention to the woman who played Flynn’s love interest.
After La Charge and another star turn in Anthony Adverse (1936, with Fredric March rather than Flynn), the press started covering de Havilland’s private life, a sure sign of stardom. In July 1937, for instance, the daily Le Courrier headlined on its movie page, “Olivia de Havilland Dreams of Abandoning the Screen,” and then detailed the struggle of the young actress to balance career and intimacy, and the melodrama of life as a star. “I love my work,” de Havilland allegedly said, “and I have completely sacrificed myself to it.” She went on that she would always be willing to do so, “unless I fall in love” with her “Prince Charming.”
Things continued to change for de Havilland, and her ascension to the ranks of the greatest stars came a year later, with her next film with Flynn, the Technicolor Les Aventures de Robin des Bois. That movie, of course, is still well known, but we probably haven’t realized what a spectacular international hit it really was. Robin opened at the Rex in the second arrondissement, one of the largest and most opulent cinemas in the city. But unlike a lot of the cinémas d’exclusivité in Paris, the Rex often showed films for just one week. Robin des Bois began at the Rex the week of November 23, 1938, replacing a double bill of a reprise of Coqueluche de Paris (The Rage of Paris ), with perhaps the greatest of all French stars, Danielle Darrieux, in her first American film, and Le Prince de mon coeur (1938). The week before that, La Maison du Maltais, with Louis Jouvet and Viviane Romance, had shown there.
Unlike those films, Robin des Bois stayed at the Rex week after week, for two months through December and January, 1939. As soon as it left the Rex, the film opened exclusively once again, at the Colisée cinema in the eighth arrondissement. Successive showings en exclusivité, with no time in between, was rare enough in Paris. But then, just a few weeks after it left the Colisée and disappeared from Parisian cinemas, Robin des Bois opened for yet another exclusive run, back in the second arrondissement at the Gaumont-Théâtre, where it played for more than two months until it was replaced by an even greater international hit, Walt Disney’s Blanche Neige et les sept nains (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ). Only then did Robin des Bois begin to fan out to other Parisian cinemas, two or three at a time.
During the 1930s, Parisian exhibition reserved this strategy of three consecutive exclusive runs for only the most important, most popular films. As a sign of the status of Robin des Bois, newspapers and film journals lavished attention on the two stars, and a quick look at one of those sources, Pour Vous, perhaps the most important film periodical of the era, shows that de Havilland had virtually reached the same level of fame as Flynn.
I’ve written about Pour Vous before (see my post from August 16, 2019, at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/2381117842). Just to revisit that history quickly, this was a film weekly that began in 1928, and that covered an international film scene but always concentrated on the cinema culture of Paris, on the movies there and on the stars. In its Easter double issue from April 6, 1938, Pour Vous ran a full-page profile of de Havilland, with three glamor photos, two of them as Maid Marian from the upcoming Robin des Bois. The article began, “She’s so pretty, don’t you think?” Then, asking readers to examine the three pictures, the article explained, “She’s pretty in three ways…like a child, like a young lady, like a mature woman.”
When Robin des Bois opened in Paris seven months later, Pour Vous ran a special short story version of the film, and then a few weeks later, in its 1938 Christmas issue, printed a back-cover photo of Flynn and de Havilland, giving them equal billing as “the heroes of Les Aventures de Robin des Bois, the great film now showing at the Rex.” Then, after the spectacular success of Robin des Bois, Pour Vous dedicated more and more energy to revealing de Havilland’s thoughts and experiences to French movie fans.
In May, 1940, as part of a page of articles from Hollywood, “the land of stars,” about the new and much anticipated American film Autant en emporte le vent (Gone With the Wind ), an article speculated that de Havilland, Melanie in the film, would marry her new beau, Jimmy Stewart. A few weeks later, in coverage of “Small love problems” (Les petits problèmes de l’amour, Pour Vous featured de Havilland, along with Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, and Phyllis Brooks, and detailed the recent end of an affair that had left the actress heartbroken. Pour Vous wondered, does Olivia still “dream of James Stewart?”
That kind of coverage would soon end. Autant en emporte le vent, of course, wouldn’t open in Paris until after World War Two, and Pour Vous ceased publication with the 1940 Nazi occupation of Paris. The collaborationist journalism in Paris as well as the film magazines rarely mentioned American stars anymore, except perhaps when they died, and the Germans banned all Hollywood films from Paris and the rest of the Occupied Zone (see my post from September 19, 2017, at https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/817). There would be nothing further about Olivia de Havilland, her films, or her love life, for almost five years. She was almost certainly, though, perhaps along with Deanna Durbin, the last American actress to achieve truly great stardom in France in the years just before the war. Of course, she was helped initially by her partnership with Errol Flynn, but she would become the equal of most of the era’s French movie divas–Odette Joyeux, Josette Day, Edwige Feuillère, perhaps even Michèle Morgan and Danielle Darrieux—in the hierarchy of Parisian celebrity.