3 Women Take on the Hollywood Studio System

It was the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” where the major motion picture studios operated like “dream factories” churning out an astounding array of movies each year. At their height, on average each major studio produced a feature film every week.

Movies were the quintessential American art form. Each major studio had its own artistic style and “stable of stars.” Contractually bound to their studio, “the talent” had little or no say in the films they made or their number. This was the so-called “studio system.”

Paramount's Iconic Gate

Bette Davis’s Battle in Britain

Jack Warner (1892-1978)

Presiding over Warner Brothers Studios was the often crude and always ruthless Jack Warner. His top actress was the formidable Bette Davis. As her star power grew, Davis became increasingly unhappy with the scripts she was assigned (what she called “junk”) and the money she was paid.1 Davis recalled: Oh, it was terrible! I wanted a chance at the great directors and the best available actors. And I wanted to be able to accept outside work when it was offered, and more money. Mr. Warner made some minor concessions and said, “Just be a good girl, Bette, and everything will work out.”2

In 1936, famed European director Ludovico Toeplitz’s lawyers convinced Davis she did not have to be “enslaved” to Warner and offered her an astounding annual salary of $120,000 to make two prestigious films a year in England. One of her first co-stars would be Maurice Chevalier.3 So, when she refused to play “a queen of the lumberjacks” in the Warner production of God’s Country and the Woman, she threatened to go to Europe. Warner said, “Please don’t leave. I’ve just optioned a wonderful book for you.” (He was falsely hinting it was Gone with the Wind.) But Davis snapped back, “Ha! I’ll bet it’s a pip!”4

Bettie Davis (1908-1989)

Knowing Jack Warner would do everything in his power to prevent her departure and knowing process servers did not work on Sunday, Davis slipped out of Hollywood late on a Saturday night and flew to Vancouver. She then took a train across Canada to Montreal and booked passage on the RMS Duchess of Bedford to Britain. When her exodus hit the press, it was a sensation.5

An enraged Warner rushed to London and hired Sir Patrick Hastings, England’s foremost barrister. In October 1936, amid massive press coverage (presenting Davis as a self-indulgent star making a salary many times that of the average British citizen), a trial began in the High Court of Justice, King’s Bench Division. Hastings scorned Davis’s lawyer’s argument that she was subject to a form of “slavery” and proclaimed that “this is the action of a very naughty young lady.”6

In the end, the court enjoined Davis from working for other film producers in Great Britain for the duration of her contract.7 Davis dropped her appeal when learning that if she lost, she would be liable for not only her attorney fees, but that of Warner Brothers, too.8

Bette Davis during her
1936-37 London legal battle.

Also, with Jack Warner’s knowledge, Davis’s beloved mentor and fellow star George Arliss came to London. He praised her bravery but pleaded with her to surrender graciously and return to Hollywood. He promised her life would be better at the studio.9  Davis said Arliss convinced her that “I’d lost the battle, but not the war.”10 Upon her return in 1937, Warner relieved her of responsibility to pay the legal fees and gave her better parts, but he later reneged on his promise to pay the fees, and Davis had to take out a large loan from Bank of America.11

The indomitable Davis later proudly claimed that “I was a pioneer in trying to break the studio system’s hold on actors.”12 Yet, for the time being, the studios remained as powerful as ever. But as Davis later said, “I paved the way for Olivia de Havilland’s eventual victory over the studio system.”13

Olivia de Havilland Wins

One of Bette Davis’s closest friends was Olivia de Havilland. The refined, soft-spoken de Havilland, best known as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind, was just as determined and tough as Davis. She was equally unhappy with her roles at Warner Brothers, especially after winning an Oscar, and she wanted “respect for difficult work well done.”14 She was also exasperated by the fact that she was paid $500 a week but her frequent co-star, Errol Flynn, was paid $2,250 a week.15

Olivia de Havilland’s 103rd birthday is July 1, 2019.

Accordingly, de Havilland counted the days until her seven-year contract would expire in the middle of 1943. A state statute limited employment agreements to no more than seven years. Yet when the date arrived, the 27-year-old was stunned to learn she was not free. Under her contract, any time she was on unpaid suspension, such as when refusing to perform a role, time was added to the end of her contract period.16 She had 10 suspensions.17 Therefore, de Havilland was bound to work at Warner Brothers for another six months. She retained a lawyer, Martin Gang.18

On Aug. 23, 1943, de Havilland filed suit in California Superior Court. Although Warner Brothers’ lawyers, like with Bette Davis, tried to portray her as a spoiled actress and strove to anger her when on the witness stand, she followed her lawyer’s instructions and remained calm. When asked if she had refused to play a role, she replied, “I didn’t refuse. I declined.”19 She won in the trial court and at the California Court of Appeals.20

Because of de Havilland’s precedent setting case, henceforth called “the de Havilland Law,” actors would only be bound for seven calendar years, not seven years of actual work. She, her fellow actors, and the screen writers were free to refuse assignments without having suspension time tacked on the end of their contract, and they could sooner move on to other studios. And stars fighting in World War II, who were placed on suspension during their military service, would not be required to work off their time away at war upon returning to Hollywood. It was a devastating blow to the foundation of the studio system.21

The Supreme Court Strikes the Final Blow

Mary Pickford

In U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, et al. (1948)22 the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision in an antitrust case against eight major studios, an action originally prosecuted pursuant to the demands of independent producers led by the shrewd businesswoman Mary Pickford, the former superstar of the silent era. The studios were accused of violating the antitrust act because of their control of film distribution and exhibition.

The defendant-studios controlled most of the nation’s movie theaters, either through direct ownership or “block booking,” in which independent theater owners were contractually bound to show a given number or “block” of movies, such as newsreels, short subjects, serials, cartoons and often low-budget “B movies.” Block booking guaranteed minimal ticket sales because of guaranteed theater placement. This gave the studios an immense advantage over independent producers, who were at the mercy of the defendants when seeking access to theaters.23
Furthermore, the major studios generally specialized in certain genres, such as MGM with musicals, Universal with monster movies and Warner Brothers with biopics and crime dramas. And their theater chains tended to dominate regions of the country where their types of movies were most popular. For example, MGM had more theaters in the northeast where musicals drew larger crowds.24

On May 3, 1948, the Supreme Court issued its decision. The studios had to stop block booking and had to sell all movies individually. They also had to divest themselves of their theater chains. The independents could now compete with the major studios for actors and audiences.25

Contending for mass audiences and nationwide theater placement, the major studios lost their artistic focus as movies became more standardized. They shifted to big budget “blockbusters,” with a small number of films making huge profits and the majority making little or no money.26  Therefore, films lessened in number and creative diversity and thus offered the consumer less instead of more choice. The studios’ power was further weakened as free entertainment was increasingly broadcast into homes via television. Therefore, loss of control of artists and theaters and the rise of new competition ended the studio system and the good and bad it produced. Hollywood’s golden age was over.


In 2017, the day before turning 101, the indefatigable Olivia de Havilland, who lives in France, filed a defamation suit in California against FX Networks and the producer of the mini-series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” in which de Havilland was portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Although de Havilland successfully defeated a motion to dismiss, the state trial court was reversed on First Amendment grounds by the California Court of Appeals.27 Review was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 7, 2019.


RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET)and since 1999 he has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of
Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal

1. Richard Brody, “The Clippings File: Bette Davis and the System,” The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2012.
2. Charlotte Chandler, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, 110-11 (2006).
3. Richard Schickel and George Perry, Bette Davis: Larger Than Life 99 (2009).
4. Chandler at 111-12.
5. Schickel at 99.
6. Id. at 101.
7. Chandler at 114; Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson, 1 KB 209 (1937).
8. Schickel at 100.
9. Id. at 100.
10. Chandler at 114.
11. Schickel at 100-101.
12. Chandler at 110.
13. Id. at 111.
14. Thomas J. Stipanowich, “Olivia de Havilland: The Actress Who Took on the Studio System and Won,” The Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2016.
15. Id.
16. Id.
17. Chandler at 155.
18. See Stipanowich, supra note 14.
19. Olivia de Havilland, Video Interview, produced by the Academy of Achievement (Oct. 5, 2006).
20. De Havilland v. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 67 Cal.App.2d 225, 153 P.2d 983 (1944).
21. See Stipanowich, supra note 14.
22 334 U.S. 131; 68 S.Ct. 915.
23. See Keith Humphreys, “How a Landmark Antitrust Case Changed the Movies,” Washington Monthly, May 1, 2013.
24. Id.
25. See U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, 334 U.S. 131; 68 S.Ct. 915 (1948).
26. See Humphreys, supra note 23.
27. De Havilland v. FX Networks,LLC, 21 Cal.App.5th 845 (2018).
28. De Havilland v. FX Networks LLC, 2019 WL 113121 (U.S. Jan. 7, 2019) (No. 18-453).

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