Ann Rutherford: Actress best known for 'Gone With The Wind' and the Andy Hardy films

 

The most notable of Ann Rutherford's many films was Gone With The Wind (1939), in which she played Scarlett O'Hara's younger sister, Carreen, but for picture-goers with a long memory she will be best remembered as Polly Benedict, the faithful small-town girlfriend of Andy Hardy, in the popular series of films starring Mickey Rooney as the irrepressible teenager, Andy, who romanced a string of beauties in the films (which MGM used as a testing ground for its coming starlets such as Lana Turner and Esther Williams), but invariably returned to neglected Polly.

Spirited and fresh-faced, she purveyed an unpretentious charm and a wide-eyed ingenuousness, and had a career that lasted for over 10 years, though she once stated: "I agree with other cast members that no matter what else we have done, all our obituaries will state that we were in Gone With The Wind, and we'll be proud of it."

The daughter of a former Metropolitan opera tenor and a silent screen actress, she was born in Vancouver in 1917, but raised in California, where she made her stage debut at the age of five when a San Francisco repertory company required children to appear in the play Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. She worked prolifically on stage and radio before being signed by the Mascot Studio (soon to become Republic) in 1934.

She made her screen début top-billed as the sweetheart of a bootlegger (Frank Albertson) in Waterfront Lady (1935), and the same year appeared in a superior serial, The Fighting Marines. She was also leading lady to the cowboy star Gene Autry in two films of 1935, and the following year she made three movies with Mascot's other major western star, John Wayne – The Lawless Nineties, The Lonely Trail and The Oregon Trail. In 1937 she signed with MGM and played small roles in several films including the Joan Crawford vehicle, The Bride Wore Red (1937), before playing James Stewart's sweetheart in one of her finest films, Clarence Brown's moving study of rural life before and during the Civil War, Of Human Hearts (1938).

She then played Polly Benedict in the second film about the Hardy family, You're Only Young Once (1938), a role she played in 12 of the 14 Hardy films, concluding with Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942). Audiences warmed to the idealised view of small-town life and in particular the escapades of Andy, whose romantic scrapes were resolved after worldly advice from his father, a judge (played by Lewis Stone).

In the 1938 A Christmas Carol, Rutherford was the Ghost of Christmas Past, while her 1939 films included two Lana Turner vehicles in which she played a collegiate, These Glamour Girls and Dancing Co-Ed. When David O Selznick asked MGM chief Louis B Mayer to loan him Rutherford to play Carreen in Gone With the Wind, Mayer was about to refuse, calling it a "nothing" part, but when Rutherford broke down in tears in his office, he relented. "I knew it was going to be a film for the ages," she later said. As the youngest of the three O'Hara sisters, she begs to be allowed to go the ball at the Wilkes plantation, pointing out, "I'm 13 now."

After Gone with the Wind she was cast in another film classic, Robert Z Leonard's version of Pride and Prejudice (1940), playing one of the Bennett sisters, Lydia, who scandalises the family by eloping. Moving to 20th Century-Fox she had one of her better roles, as a small-town girl who marries a trumpet player in Orchestra Wives (1941), a showcase for the Glenn Miller orchestra, then she returned to MGM to play the girlfriend of a radio detective (Red Skelton) in three popular comedy-thrillers, Whistling in the Dark (1941), Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), films she recalled with pleasure. "Red would ad lib so much that I would go home in agony because my sides were sore from laughing so much."

In 1942 she married a department store executive, David May. On screen, she was the female lead in several "B" movies, including The Bermuda Mystery (1944) and Two O'Clock Courage (1945), and she was cast against type in Murder in the Music Hall (1946), as an outwardly scatterbrained chorus girl who is actually a cold-blooded killer.

In one of Danny Kaye's most popular comedies, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), she had the thankless role of his humourless, grasping girlfriend, but had a lively cameo as a voluptuous wife seduced by the great lover in The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) with Errol Flynn, after which she retired.

In 1953 she divorced May and married William Dozier, a TV producer formerly married to Joan Fontaine who had success with the Batman series in the mid-'60s. "It was a fun, exciting time," she said. "All the great stars were clamouring to be guests on the show. Tallulah Bankhead once called our house at two in the morning wanting to be on – she did eventually win a spot."

In 1958 Mickey Rooney packaged an ill-advised Andy Hardy Comes Home, and asked her to play Polly Benedict, but her salary demand was too high and she was written out: "It's titillating to do the occasional film, but really, I don't need it. I suppose, if you were a Helen Hayes, it might mean something if you left the business. You'd be depriving the show world of something. I'm depriving that world of nothing."

In 1972 she accepted a small role in MGM's They Only Kill Their Masters, which featured several of the studio's former stars. It was the last film shot on the old Carvel Street set of the Andy Hardy films. "I was appalled to find the once unequalled movie factory no longer boasted the simplest make-up or wardrobe departments. I knew then that this was it for me." She declined to appear in Murder, She Wrote, and to play the role of the older Rose Calvert in Titanic (1997), stating, "I just tell them, 'I'm too old and too rich!"'

Tom Vallance

Ann Rutherford, actress: born Vancouver 2 November 1917; married 1942 David May (divorced 1953; one daughter), 1953 William Dozier (died 1991); died Beverly Hills 11 June 2012.

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