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Classic Hollywood: Ann Rutherford relives growing up in the movies

The actress will be at an American Cinematheque screening.

August 18, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

Ann Rutherford jokes that she hasn't earned "5 cents" since the 1970s, but she's still very much in the public eye because of "Gone With the Wind." In the beloved 1939 Civil War epic she played Scarlett's ( Vivien Leigh) optimistic youngest sister Carreen.

"If anybody told me that 71 years later they would prop me up and have me talk about 'Gone With the Wind' I would have believed it because the whole world was a fan of the book."

Rutherford, a peppy 89, almost didn't get the role of Carreen in the romantic drama that also starred Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. She was under contract to MGM, and studio head Louis B. Mayer called her into his office to say they didn't want to loan her to producer David O. Selznick, who operated his own studio, Selznick International. "'My readers tell me it's a nothing part,'" she says he told her.

The 18-year-old actress had already read the Margaret Mitchell novel three times and wasn't happy with Mayer's edict. "I said, 'Please let me do it. I will sweep the floor, I will empty the wastepaper basket.' I just wanted to watch the book come to life."

Then Rutherford did something she had never done in front of the powerful mogul: burst into tears. "He was usually the emotional one," she explains. "All it needed for me was to burst out crying. He said, 'Get in your car and go over to the studio ….'"

Rutherford says she didn't know what to expect from Gable, the reigning king of Hollywood. "I didn't know if he was going to be full of himself or not," she says. "To me the acid test was always the crew, and if the crew liked you, you're OK. He remembered their names. If one of them had a deck of cards, they would play a 10-minute type of gin game. He wasn't full of himself. He wasn't being the star constantly."

Undoubtedly, Rutherford will be reminiscing about the "Wind," as she calls the film, when she visits the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre on Thursday evening. But she'll also be chatting about her two films the theater is screening, 1942's "Orchestra Wives," which also stars George Montgomery and Glenn Miller and features the Oscar-nominated tune "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," and 1941's " Washington Melodrama," in which she plays Frank Morgan's character's daughter.

"Orchestra Wives" was the first film she did for 20th Century Fox after Mayer sold her contract to Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck. Although she enjoyed working on the fun "Orchestra Wives," she didn't like Fox. "It was just as cold as a fish," she says in the living room of the Beverly Hills home she's owned since 1943. "MGM had a warmth to it. It was a family, and you felt almost related to everyone there."

Web biographies of Rutherford say that she began appearing on stage as a little girl.

"None of that is true," she says, noting it was all the figment of the imagination of publicists at Mascot Studios, where she was put under contract in 1935. Mascot later became Republic Pictures.

In reality, when she was attending Virgil Junior High here in Los Angeles, she and her friends would roller skate home from school every day. But before they went home they would skate down to Wilshire across the street from the Ambassador Hotel, hide their skates and take the elevator up to the radio stations and go into the "viewing room" and watch the actors at work.

One day she was kept after school for disobeying her teacher. When she was finally allowed to go home, she passed by KFAC and "thought if I had a job I wouldn't have to go to that crummy school anymore. That would liberate me."

So she went into the station and asked to apply for a job as an actor. She was ushered into an office where an executive talked to her and took her phone number.

About a month later, she got a call for an audition. "My dear, the ham in me rose," she says, laughing. She got the job of Nancy in the weekly series "Nancy and Dick: The Spirit of 76." "It was the height of the Depression, and suddenly I am earning pots of money."

Her picture in the paper caught the attention of a recently retired actor's agent who knew that Mascot was looking for someone to star opposite newcomer Gene Autry in a picture at the low-budget studio. The Mascot head had his sights set on a now-forgotten actress named Anne Darling, but she had recently married and her husband didn't want her to work. As fate would have it, Rutherford looked a lot like Darling, and he brought her to the attention of Mascot.

Though only 15, she was told to pretend she was 18. "I was Gene Autry's first leading lady and the only one he ever kissed — after that he kissed his horse," she jokes. Rutherford also played John Wayne's leading lady in "B" westerns. In 1937, MGM signed her to play all-American Andy Hardy's ( Mickey Rooney) girlfriend Polly Benedict in the wholesome Andy Hardy comedy series at the studio. Rutherford appeared in many other films at the studio, including 1940's "Pride and Prejudice," 1939's "Dancing Co-Ed" with Lana Turner and 1938's "Dramatic School" with Turner and Oscar-winner Luise Rainer.

"Oh, honey," she says, "I was having the best time. Every day was pretend day."

For more information on the screening go to http://www.americancinematheque.com.

susan.king@latimes.com

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