A Handful of de Havilland: Three Obscure Olivias from the Warner Archive

In the middle of October 2014, Olivia de Havilland found herself having outlived her frequent, iconic on-screen romantic interest from motion pictures of the ’30s and ’40s, one Mr. Errol Flynn, by five-and-a-half decades. Oddly enough, despite the fact that she retired from the film industry nearly thirty years after her famous leading hero passed away in 1959, Ms. de Havilland nevertheless managed to tally up the same amount of acting roles for film and television as he did. And yet, despite a relatively brief legacy in Hollywood – a career that waned in the ’50s due to motherhood and an increased interest in politics during the rampant paranoia of the McCarthy Era – her complete filmography is still finding its way to home video in our digital age.

Thanks to the Warner Archive, however, three new additions of relative obscurities are now available via the company’s Manufactured on Demand releases, the first of which premiered a few short months before one of her most famous endeavors, The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn in 1938. In fact, the strangely-titled Gold Is Where You Find It served as a test run for the more famous film of the two, as both pictures were shot in a new three-strip Technicolor process. But since Robin Hood wasn’t quite ready for release, Warner Bros. producer Hal B. Wallis decided they should shoot another movie with that new fancy color thing goin’ for it and give it a go.

Though disguised as a romantic drama, Gold Is Where You Find It – one of many films de Havilland had to make thanks to contractual obligations (which she would later, in part, sue Warner Bros. over – and win) – is basically a regular western with a bigger budget and color. Following a lengthy introduction wherein an uncredited narrator gives us the history California’s Gold Rush and the subsequent boom in wheat farming that ensured the state retain its nickname (the Golden State, for you non-Californians who failed that class in school), the story finally takes off. Well, sort of. Here, George Brent is the super nice recently transplanted head of a local hydraulic mining outfit in the Sacramento Valley, whose outfit is flooding the valley below with mud due to their high-powered water cannons of greed.

For the most part, the farmers – as led by Claude Rains, in the most ridiculous wig a distinguished, diminished actor like him could possibly sport – just bitch a lot. Rains also bitches about San Francisco a great deal, mostly because he can’t pronounce the name of the city properly. But it isn’t until a farmer’s family are killed when the floodwaters wash away the foundations of his home that they begin to point out their problems to the state – which leads to a typical western-style feud between miners and farmers. Highlighted by a climactic miniature dam explosion and flood (a decision made by nice guy Brent, whose solution to prevent violence is to drown everyone, apparently) Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz’s Gold Is Where You Find It also stars Margaret Lindsay, Sidney Toler (as the head of the mining operation, who is always living it up in San Francisco), future B western star Tim Holt, and a rather wasted pairing of cowboy picture regulars George “Gabby” Hayes and Willie Best.

The following year, only ten months before Olivia would be immortalized in Gone with the Wind, she played second fiddle to George Brent again in yet another “filler” flick – albeit one of another color. Well, no color, if you want to get somewhat technical, as Wings of the Navy (1939) was a return to the standard black and white format of the time. What it isn’t aside, Wings of the Navy most assuredly is a blatant piece of wartime propaganda produced over two years before America was forced into World War II with the Attack on Pearl Harbor – which the movie eerily, almost ironically seems to invite at the conclusion of the film as a fleet of naval aircraft head to Honolulu as a narrator proudly states America will be prepared for anything. (Er…)

The story barely obscuring the very obvious message is a bit of a muddled affair. Good, but muddled. George Brent, looking more like a prototype to the Richard Burton model than George Brent, is the son of a late, highly admired admiral in the naval air fleet (back before we had such a thing as the Air Force). John Payne is his younger, somewhat competitive brother, who starts out as a submarine officer but gets in his head that he’d rather head off on that highway to the danger zone (Wings of the Navy could be viewed as a forerunner to Top Gun, only witha plot), so he enlists to become an aviator for the navy. The desire enlarges (amongst other things) once he meets Brent’s unlikely girlfriend, as played by Ms. de Havilland, but then the movie takes a break from its main story to introduce and follow around a group of new and would-be cadets, including Frank McHugh as the film’s required comic relief.

Eventually, director Lloyd Bacon remembers to call Olivia back to set and the love triangle gets a chance to play out from all sides. Frankly, however, one could edit out all of the scenes featuring our lead actress and still wind up with the same movie, sans maybe ten minutes or so. And that’s being generous, as Olivia de Havilland really isn’t a vital part of the story, nor is she featured very prominently (the underlying purpose of the film was for men to enlist, after all, not send them out looking for a lay). Victor Jory gets rather nice billing too for only appearing in one scene as a PBY captain, as does Regis Toomey as an instructor. Bit player extraordinaire George Meeker has a small part as a doomed test pilot in this lighthearted excuse to waste an afternoon.

Lastly in this trio of forgotten films is RKO’s 1943 wartime romantic comedy, Government Girl (which saw a general release the following year). With an entire nation working hard to fight off the foreign peril of Hitler and Tojo, a calm, obstinate, and seemingly obtuse automobile engineer named Ed Browne (played by a calm, obstinate, and seemingly obtuse Sonny Tufts, who was only ten years away from starring in Cat-Women of the Moon with Victor Jory) is called to Washington DC to help manufacture more bombers – because we apparently weren’t as prepared as Wings of the Navy claimed we were. From the get-go, Ed clashes with a young war office secretary nicknamed Smokey (guess who); of course, Smokey winds up being assigned as Ed’s personal assistant. Naturally, they begin to see signs of that strange far-off ally known as love over the course of the film. But will they realize it before it’s too late?

More importantly, will anyone make it to the end of the movie to find out? Looking at this apparently rushed production, Government Girl emerges as being a very subpar feature overall. Most of the film’s comedy is as stilted as Mr. Tufts’ acting (and we love you dearly, Sonny, but…), the material is pretty cut-and-paste, and is there’s one genre Olivia de Havilland didn’t quite have down pat, it’s comedy. The top-billed actress herself wasn’t feeling the part here, and it shows (weirdly enough, she comes off as almost mimicking The Three Stooges’ regular co-star, Christine McIntyre). The final blow to an already faltering film – which made a profit at the box office, nevertheless – comes when our heroine bursts into a senate hearing to defend the man she has suddenly realized she loves, delivering a pro-Sonny Tufts/pro-America speech that reminded me of the SCTV skit, “Bad Acting in Hollywood”.

Some of Government Girl‘s failing can be blamed on it being a (presumably) rushed and (obviously) forced operation made toward the end of World War II, when most money was going to the good of the armed forces. The fact that the film was the first time screenwriter Dudley Nichols tried his hand at directing (producing as well) can is probably most at fault, though. Well, that, and the material wasn’t very good to start with. Nichols was far better at writing comedy than he was here, having penned Bringing Up Baby a few years before (in this instance, he wrote the screenplay from somebody else’s adaptation of another person’s original story). In addition, Nichols wrote the screenplays for the much better motion pictures And Then There Were None, John Ford’s Stagecoach, and even Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (turning out a much better WWII propaganda piece than Wings of the Navy in the process, but I digress).

Also featured in Government Girl are Anne Shirley as de Havilland’s roomie/best pal; Jess Barker as de Havilland’s initial love interest and Tufts’ future enemy; James Dunn as Shirley’s frustrated new hubby (who can’t get a chance to consummate his new marriage because there’s a war going on!); and Paul Stewart and Agnes Moorehead, both players from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Ms. Moorehead’s character seems like it was trimmed down quite a bit in the editing process, as she is clearly something of a villain, but it is never fleshed out fully. Similarly, Sig Ruman (a regular antagonist of The Marx Brothers) receives noteworthy credit in the cast, but his part – as an acquaintance of Moorehead – is reduced to him shuffling about during a party scene, refusing to interact with anyone. (Something whoever sanctioned the script should have done instead of ordering another drink.)

OK, I suppose that’s enough bashing of Government Girl now. On the plus side, the film does have a couple of funny scenes (such as a memorable motorcycle ride). Likewise, the slightly better titles Wings of the Navy and Gold Is Where You Find It have their moments, but are just as forgetful in the long run. It’s easy to see why Olivia de Havilland wasn’t happy with a lot of the parts she was handed when you look at this trio of features. At the same time, however, since the still living legend only made a limited number of movies during her career, we have to appreciate what little there is. One should not expect Gone With the Wind or The Adventures of Robin Hood here, of course. Instead, mind the eponymous lesson of the first film: gold is where you find it. And it is most assuredly here. You just have to scratch the surface a bit.

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Luigi Bastardo

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