Olivia De Havilland and Fred MacMurray were Hollywood stars who changed things

Olivia De Havilland in Gone With the Wind. Picture: Supplied
Olivia De Havilland in Gone With the Wind. Picture: Supplied

Olivia de Havilland's death at the age of 104 has severed one of the remaining living links to the Golden Age of Hollywood - and possibly the last of the really big names of her vintage. Hitchcock collaborator Norman Lloyd (Saboteur), Caren Marsh Doll (who worked on The Wizard of Oz), Nehemiah Persoff (Some Like It Hot), and Marge Champion (Show Boat) were all 100 or more and still alive at the time of writing.

But De Havilland was a bigger star than any of them and was important off the screen as well as on it.

The two-time Oscar winner - for To Each His Own and The Heiress - had a long career with films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind to her credit.

But she was also a star who helped change the way Hollywood worked.

In the studio era, a studio would frequently sign actors to contracts, often for seven years, which might sound good - they were guaranteed employment and a good income (albeit modest by latterday standards). However, the studios held the power, and if an actor refused an assigned role, he or she would be suspended without pay and the period of suspension would be added to end of the contract. They could be bound to a studio indefinitely regardless of the quality of the work they were offered.

In 1943, De Havilland should have been at the end of her seven years but had six months tacked on in suspensions for declining to make what she felt were unworthy films. She filed suit under a law that barred employers from enforcing a personal-services contract for more than seven years. De Havilland eventually won, and despite two years of unemployment came back in the 1940s, winning her Oscars and making other films such as The Snake Pit (1948).

The "De Havilland rule" allowed other actors to refuse roles and take suspensions knowing their contracts would still be limited to seven calendar years. It was a big blow to the studio system's power.

Some actors, including Clark Gable and James Stewart, took advantage of the ruling: both men served in World War II and afterwards became freelancers, gaining more freedom and more money since they were no longer salaried employees. Big names were often able to negotiate perks such as percentages of the box office gross and part ownership of the films as power shifted away from the studios.

In a 2006 interview, De Havilland said, "I suppose you'd like to know how actresses of my day differ from actresses of today.

"Well, the actresses of today are richer."

Thanks in no small part to her.

Bette Davis seen in Stardust: The Bette Davis Story. Picture: Supplied

Bette Davis seen in Stardust: The Bette Davis Story. Picture: Supplied

De Havilland wasn't the first to try to challenge the system. In 1936 Bette Davis, fed up with the "junk" she was getting at Warner Bros., sued to break her contract. She had been offered two films in Britain and brought her case to court there.

Davis lost and returned to Hollywood but got what she wanted. The studio began giving her better roles and films including Jezebel (1938), for which she won her second Oscar, and Dark Victory (1939).

Television was regarded as an enemy by many in Hollywood and for many years seen as being of lower status than movies.

But some found it fulfilling or at least lucrative even before the medium's enhanced status in recent years.

Four Star Playhouse ran from 1952 to 1956. The TV anthology series was produced by and featured movie stars Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Joel McCrea (who soon left and was replaced by Ida Lupino, who did not have an ownership stake). It certainly didn't limit their careers: all continued to work and Niven, for example, went on to win an Oscar for Separate Tables (1958).

One configuration of the cast of My Three Sons including Fred MacMurray, seated.

One configuration of the cast of My Three Sons including Fred MacMurray, seated.

Fred MacMurray was an enduring star from the 1930s on who through popularity, frugality and shrewd business sense became one of the wealthiest people in Hollywood. He got a new audience when he began making films with Disney in the late 1950s.

MacMurray had turned down the TV role of Perry Mason, giving Raymond Burr his signature role. The hard grind of TV - working long hours every day for most of the year - was unattractive.

But producer Don Fedderson offered MacMurray an irresistible deal to play the widowed father in My Three Sons. The actor was to receive a good salary, 50 per cent ownership of the show, and a unique production schedule.

MacMurray would work in two blocks of time 10 weeks apart for 65 non-consecutive days of the year, from 8.30am to 6pm.

During these periods, all of his scenes and shots for every episode of the season were filmed. Often all the scenes for several episodes that were set in one location, such as the dining room, would be filmed one after another.

When MacMurray was away, scenes and shots in which he was not needed were filmed.

Maintaining continuity was even trickier than usual working in this way and "the MacMurray System" meant the other actors were often not really reacting or talking to MacMurray but to a mop being held by a production assistant.

But with careful preparation and editing, it worked (mostly - there were problems like kids' teeth growing in). The show ran for 12 seasons and 380 episodes from 1960 to 1972 on two networks: the first five on one (in black and white) and the last seven (in colour) on another.

MacMurray was free to spend the rest of the year making movies, playing golf and spending time with his family.

Brian Keith got a similar deal with the same producer for the sitcom Family Affair.

It seems an individual actor, if determined and talented, could make a difference to how things work in Hollywood

This story Stubborn, shrewd stars of the past first appeared on The Canberra Times.