Scarlett's sister remembers the making of a legend

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Seventy years later, actress Ann Rutherford still gives a damn about "Gone with the Wind."

 

Rutherford, 89, is among the few surviving principal cast members of the Clark Gable-Vivien Leigh Civil War epic, which arrives this week on a new special-edition DVD set and also marks its Blu-ray debut.

When its box-office take is adjusted for inflation, the film ranks as the highest-grossing North American movie release. And many critics and fans consider "Gone with the Wind" not only a Hollywood classic, but THE Hollywood classic -- with Rutherford, who played heroine Scarlett O'Hara's sister "Carreen," clearly among them.

"It is so real," Rutherford said. "'Gone with the Wind' is an entity. It is like a person." The actress was interviewed in the lobby of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which had just screened the best-picture Oscar winner as part of its salute to Hollywood's 1939 output, which also includes such classics as "Dark Victory," ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "The Wizard of Oz."

"The studio system had finally ripened," Rutherford noted. "It was a year that we have not known since."

Rutherford almost wasn't a part of the "Gone with the Wind" legacy. She was already a screen success, perhaps best known for playing Mickey Rooney's girlfriend in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's hugely successful Andy Hardy series.

"I got a call to go up and see (MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer)," recalled Rutherford. "He said, 'My son-in-law has been trying to borrow you.' And I said, 'Borrow me for what?' He said, 'Well, he has a new property.'"

The son-in-law was producer David O. Selznick and the property was Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," of which Rutherford was already a repeat reader.

"'It's a nothing part,'" Rutherford quoted Mayer as saying. "'We can't put your name above the titles in our pictures with a leading role in it, and then lend you to someone and let them do just nothing.' I said, 'There is no nothing part for anybody!' I said, 'I'll carry a tray. I'll open a gate. I'll do anything.'"

The movie's production was legendarily troubled, with Selznick burning through numerous directors and screenwriters. "None of us ever had a full script," Rutherford remembered. "We had rainbow pages. Every day we would get a page. And we didn't even have sense enough to save those pages. At the end of the day, you would crumple it up and toss it in the wastebasket. Who knew?"

Rutherford, who still lives in Beverly Hills, would continue to act steadily through the late '50s, and came back to do a handful of roles in the '70s, the last being a cameo as a studio secretary in 1976's "Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood."

But she's never stopped working, hopping the globe for speaking and promotional engagements tied to reissues and tributes to "Gone with the Wind."

"This 'nothing part' has taken me to Paris. It has taken me to London. It's taken me on ships just to talk to people about 'Gone with the Wind,'" Rutherford said. "It has enriched my life. It has given me an interest. I don't do any of this for money. I'm not paid for it. I'll just go any place that they are having a hoo-ha. Any kind of a celebration for 'Gone with the Wind.' I'll be there."

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