Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Late Great Ann Rutherford

Film star Ann Rutherford, star of films ranging from Pride and Prejudice (1940) to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) , passed yesterday, 11 June 2012, at the age of 94.

Ann Rutherford was born 2 November 1917 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her father, John Rutherford had been a tenor at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Her mother, Lucille Mansfield, had been a silent film actress. The family moved to California, first to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles. On her way home from school each day Miss Rutherford would stop by the radio stations in Los Angeles to watch the actors in radio dramas perform. It was after she was criticised by her English teacher that she decided she would become an actress. Within a month of her decision Miss Rutherford was employed at Los Angeles station KFAC in the radio drama Nancy and Dick: The Spirit of 76.

Ann Rutherford made her film debut in 1935 in Waterfront Lady at Mascot Pictures (soon to become Republic). For the next few years she would star in B Westerns featuring such actors as John Wayne and Gene Autry, including Melody Trail (1935), The Oregon Trail (1936), The Lawless Nineties (1936), The Lonely Trail (1936), and Public Cowboy No. 1 (1936).  She then moved from Republic to MGM. Her first movie shot at MGM would be The Bride Wore Red (1937), in which she had a small, uncredited role. It was in 1937 that she made a debut as Polly Benedict, Andy Hardy's girlfriend, in You're Only Young Once. From 1938 to 1942 Miss Rutherford would appear in twelve more movies in the popular "Andy Hardy" series, which starred Mickey Rooney. She also appeared in Of Human Hearts (1938), Dramatic School (1938), A Christmas Carol (1938--as the Ghost of Christmas Past), and These Glamour Girls (1939).

It would be in 1939 that Ann Rutherford would appear in what could be her most famous role, that of Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister, Carreen, in Gone With the Wind (1939). She very nearly did not get the role. Miss Rutherford was under contract to MGM, the head of which was Louis B. Mayer, who also happened to be the father in law of David O. Selznick (the producer of Gone With the Wind). Mr. Selznick had approached Mr. Mayer about borrowing Ann Rutherford for Gone With the Wind, but Mr. Mayer told Miss Rutherford that it was a "nothing part" and he intended to refuse to loan her to Mr. Selznick. Ann Rutherford was a huge fan of the novel and wanted to be in the film so badly that she broke down in tears, something highly unusual for her. Louis B. Mayer then relented and loaned her to David O. Selznick.

Following Gone with the Wind, Ann Rutherford appeared in such films as Pride and Prejudice (1940), Whistling in the Dark (1941), Whistling in Dixie (1942), Happy Land (1943), Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), Bedside Manner (1945), Inside Job (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948).   She would take over the title role in the radio show Blondie in the late Forties.

Miss Rutherford would retire from film in 1950, but she had a healthy career in television ahead of her. In the Fifties she guest starred in such shows as Suspense, Robert Montgomery Presents, General Electric Theatre, Climax, Playhouse 90, The Donna Reed Show, and Perry Mason. Except for a guest appearance on Perry Mason in 1964, Ann Rutherford would not appear on screen again until 1969 in a guest appearance on Love American Style. She would guest star twice more on Love American Style, and she would guest star on The Bob Newhart Show, playing the mother of Emily Hartley (Suzanne Pleshette). She also appeared in the films They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) and Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). Her later years Ann Rutherford spent attending many special screenings and conventions for Gone With the Wind. Aside from Olivia de Havilland, she was the final surviving major cast member from the film.

The first thing that anyone would notice about Ann Rutherford is that she was beautiful. I have often said my first classic film crush was Vivien Leigh, an event which occurred when I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time. That having been said, my crush on Ann Rutherford was not far behind. I always thought she was incredibly beautiful, whether in the B Westerns I watched when I was young or the major feature films she made in the Forties. Indeed, I could never understand why Polly Benedict remained faithful to Andy Hardy in all those films when his head was constantly being turned by other girls (Judy Garland and Lana Turner among them). As a lad I always thought that as pretty as Polly was she could easily find another boyfriend who wouldn't even look at another girl!

Of course, as I got older I learned that Ann Rutherford was not just beautiful, but she was also a very good actress. More often than not she played girl friends and fiancées in her movies, but she endowed them with life and character that a less talented actress might not be able to. When she did receive a role that worth her talent, Miss Rutherford showed just how good of an actress she really was. Indeed, despite being on screen for what is actually only a few minutes, Ann Rutherford made a big impression as Carreen O'Hara, Scarlett's overly optimistic, younger sister. She was also quite good as the impulsive and headstrong Lydia Bennett in the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. One of her best roles was also one of her less sympathetic. She was impressive in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as Walter's none too bright, yet still nagging fiancée Gertrude. 

Not only was Ann Rutherford one of Hollywood's great beauties and a very fine actress, but from my fellow Gone With the Wind fans who had the opportunity to speak to her, even briefly, I have heard that she was one of the sweetest women one could meet, a true lady. She always made time for her fans and always had kind words for them. Not only did she frequently appear at various Gone With the Wind events, but she also donated many things to the Gone With the Wind museum in Atlanta, Georgia, including an original script. She was known for her generosity and was always helping others. In the end Ann Rutheford was not simply a talented and glamorous actress, she was a woman who was a beautiful on the inside as she was on the out.


Laura said...

A lovely tribute! Ann was one of a kind, and she'll be greatly missed.

Best wishes,

Pearl Catlin said...

Never given the credit she deserved. I always thought she was one of Hollywood's finest acresses. She will be missed. We should all really be thankful for the wonderful times of early movies that we lived through.