bette davis

Star Wars Episode IX: John Huston and Olivia De Havilland (YMRT #35), with Special Guest Rian Johnson by Karina Longworth

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She was the raven-haired beauty whose lily-white persona was forged by her supporting roles in Gone With the Wind and several Errol Flynn swashbucklers. He was the real-life swashbuckler, the heroic lover/drinker/fighter whose directorial debut,The Maltese Falcon, was an enormous success. They met when Huston directed de Havilland in his second film, In This Our Life, and began an affair which would continue, on and off, through the decade, as he joined the Army and made several controversial documentaries exposing dark aspects of the war experience, and as she waged a war of her own, taking Warner Brothers to court to challenge the indentured servitude of the star contract system. De Havilland’s lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court, and had massive implications on the future of labor in Hollywood and beyond. 

Show Notes:

Special thanks this week to Rian Johnson, who played John Huston.

Olivia de Havilland is still alive, living in France and, judging by her most recent interview, she’s still, at nearly 99 years old, lucid and fascinating. I should note that in that linked interview, which I came across after finishing this episode, De Havilland says she and Errol Flynn never actually got together despite a mutual attraction. In talking briefly about their supposed affair in this episode, I probably should have used a qualifier like “reported." There are, in fact, many reports suggesting that the pair did have an off-screen relationship; still, I can’t think of any reason why we should doubt a 98 year old woman when she insists that the hot affair that she is rumored to have had 65 years earlier didn’t actually happen. That said, she can protest all she wants, but the idea that she and Flynn were lovers is so pervasive that, true or otherwise, it’s part of Olivia De Havilland’s legacy in the collective imaginary. And that’s what we do on this podcast: talk about myths, legacies, and the collective imaginary.

Certainly, most of what John Huston has said about his own life should be assumed to be some kind of spin or exaggeration, although in his case he’s more likely to invent affairs that didn’t happen than downplay reports that one did. Huston’s entertaining autobiography An Open Book was a source for this episode, but weighed with a grain of salt against Lawrence Grobel’s The HustonsJohn Huston: Courage and Art by Jeffrey Meyers; and Mark Harris’ Five Came Back, which goes into much further detail on Huston’s war documentaries, and particularly the stagings of The Battle of San Pietro, than I was able to include here. 

As far as I can tell, there has not been a biography devoted solely to De Havilland. There is Robert Matzen’s Errol and Olivia, which I flipped through but didn't really put much stock in, as it's obsessed with the idea of a Flynn/De Havilland affair to the point of distraction. I did not bother with Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine by Charles Higham, because Higham is a controversial figure involved in next week's episode, but when I inevitably do an episode on Olivia and her sister Joan, I'm sure I'll look into it.

To fill in the gaps, I relied on two articles buried deep in the files at the Margaret Herrick Library: “In the State of California De Havilland vs Warner Brothers: A Trial Decision That Marked a Turning Point” by J.L. Leck, American Classic Screen Magazine, May/June 1982; and a transcript of talk with students De Havilland gave at AFI’s Institute for Advanced Film Studies, on October 23, 1974. I also watched the Huston episode of Creativity with Bill Moyers, and listened to the audiobook of the first few chapters of Anjelica Huston's memoir, A Story Lately Told.

Discography:

The Simple Complex by Uncle Bibby

Private Hurricane (Instrumental version) by Josh Woodward

The Wrong Way by Jahzzar

Gymnopedie No. 3 by Eric Satie, performed by Kevin McacLeod

Tara by Roxy Music

In This Our Life opening titles score by Max Stiener, performed by the National Philharmonic

Readers! Do You Read? by Chris Zabriskie

Dances and dames by Kevin MacLeod

Laserdisc by Chris Zabriskie

Rite of Passage by Kevin MacLeod

Melancholy Aftersounds by Kai Engel

Slim Fitting by Glass Boy

For Better or Worse by Kai Engel

Air Hockey Saloon by Chris Zabriskie

I’m Not Dreaming (Instrumental version) by Josh Woodward

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ performed by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood

YMRT #27: Star Wars Episode I: Bette Davis and the Hollywood Canteen by Karina Longworth

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Today we’re launching a new series for the new year, Star Wars, which will focus on movie stars and their lives and careers during times of war. Our first eight episodes will explore stories of women during World War II, and we’ll start with the woman who dominated all aspects of Hollywood, including its war effort, in the late 1930s-early 1940s: BetteDavis.

This is the story of how BetteDavis evolved from a wannabe starlet who was constantly told she was too ugly for movies, to the most powerful woman in Hollywood, by playing heroines that had never been seen on screen before — to borrow a term from Davis herself, sympathetic “bitches.” After Pearl Harbor, the tenacious Bette became the figurehead of the Hollywood Canteen, a nightclub for servicemen staffed by stars, which was the locus of the industry’s most visible support of the troops on the home front.

The Hollywood Canteen was a catalyst for propaganda in more ways than one, aims Hollywood furthered by telling the story of the Hollywood Canteen in a movie called, um, Hollywood Canteen, starring Davis, John Garfield, Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Lorre and other celebrities as “themselves.” The movie and most press accounts of the Canteen portray it as a miraculous force for good in the world, which it probably was, but that narrative leaves out a lot, including illicit affairs, a murder, and an FBI investigation whose findings would have an impact on the blacklist of the following decade. 

Show Notes

This episode was a hell of a thing to research. BetteDavis published two autobiographies and both are very, very far from being impartial, but I consulted The Lonely Life a bit, as well as the authorized biography The Girl Who Walks Home Alone by Charlotte Chandler. I’d also recommend the Mysteries and Scandals episode on Davis, mostly to marvel at all of the ways in which A.J. Benza manages to call her a bitch without actually using the word “bitch.” Mark Harris’ Five Came Back was useful, particularly in its shading of the relationship between Davis and William Wyler.

More difficult was nailing down the story of the Hollywood Canteen. Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in The World is as prosaic as its title; at least Hollywood’s propaganda about the Canteen, including the Delmer Daves movie Hollywood Canteen (excerpted in the episode) makes the spin fun. Much, much better is Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen. by Sherrie Tucker — a fascinating, beautifully written and researched study of the Canteen which goes into deep consideration of the social/racial/class/political conflicts enmeshed into this supposedly squeaky-clean nightclub which has become an icon of the supposed uncomplicated patriotism of the generation who fought WWII.

Discography:

Dance of the Stargazer performed by the US Army Blues Band

Rite of Passage by Kevin MacLeod

Lonely Town performed by Blossom Dearie

Ghost Dance performed by Kevin MacLeod

Au coin de la rue by Marco Raaphorst

I Knew a Guy by Kevin MacLeod

The Insider Theme by The Insider

5:00 AM by Peter Rudenko

Will be war soon? by Kosta T

Off to Osake by Kevin MacLeod

Balcarabic Chicken by Quantum Jazz

Hi Ho Trailus Bootwhip by Louis Prima and His Orchestra

Divider by Chris Zabriskie

My Country by Tune-Yards