Fred Crane: Actor in 'Gone with the Wind'

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:30

Fred Crane has a part in cinema history for playing Brent Tarleton, one of the red-headed twins who woo Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Crane utters the first words of the classic movie, still considered by many to be Hollywood's finest drama.

As the camera zooms in on Scarlett, sitting on the front porch of Twelve Oaks being waited on by her beaux, Crane is heard to say, "What do we care if we were expelled from college, Scarlett? The war is going to start any day now, so we'd have left college anyhow." As his brother agrees with him, Scarlett interrupts with her memorable response, "Fiddle-dee-dee, war, war, war. This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring."

Though the New Orleans-born Crane was in Hollywood to seek work as an actor, he won the role by chance. His aunt, Leatrice Joy, had been one of the most elegant of silent screen stars. Credited with popularising bobbed hair, she had once been married to the matinée idol John Gilbert, who became Greta Garbo's lover. When her daughter, Leatrice Gilbert, auditioned at the Selznick studios for the role of Scarlett's sister Suellen, Crane accompanied his cousin.

The casting director, hearing Crane's honeyed Southern accent, introduced him to the producer, David O. Selznick and to the director, George Cukor, the latter declaring his voice "just perfect". Crane was signed to play Brent Tarleton but the role of Suellen went to Evelyn Keyes.

"Selznick handed me a free ticket to a sort of immortality," Crane said in 2007, though he admitted, "I'm just a small shard in a grand mosaic." Oddly, the film's credit titles have the brothers' names reversed, with George Reeves listed as Brent, and when the mistake was discovered it was considered too costly to make a revision.

It has never been determined whether the error cost Crane any offers, but he was to make only one more film, while Reeves went on to find fame in the Fifties as television's Superman. The two men remained friends, with Crane best man at Reeves' wedding, and Crane is among those who was convinced that Reeves' apparent suicide in 1959 was actually murder.

The son of a dentist, Herman Frederick Crane was born in New Orleans in 1918 and attended the universities of Tulane and Loyola, excelling at football and drama. Though his mother hoped that he would be a banker, he wanted to be an actor and performed with local drama groups. In 1938 his mother allegedly gave him $50 and a one-way ticket to Los Angeles to pursue his ambition.

Crane later stated that when cast in Gone With the Wind, he had never heard of its author, Margaret Mitchell, but he knew that many actresses had been tested to play Scarlett O'Hara, "including Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard and, best of all, Lana Turner. I had crushes on all of them, so when Vivien Leigh was cast I was miffed as, like Mitchell, I'd never heard of her either."

As Brent Tarleton, Crane was featured in three scenes vying for the attention of Scarlett. He has a notable moment when Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is telling the assembled gentlemen that the South is unprepared for war ("How many cannon factories does the South have?"), which prompts Brent to declare indignantly, "What difference does that make, sir, to a gentleman?"

After marrying in 1940 the first of his five wives, Crane taught acting, then during the Second World War worked in a munitions factory. While working as a pharmacist and tool machinist, he began to establish himself on radio, and in 1949 he made his only other film, The Gay Amigo (1949), one of the popular "Cisco Kid" series in which Crane played Duke, a bandit. He later acted in television shows – he was the town chemist in Peyton Place, and had parts in Bonanza, Lost in Space and 77 Sunset Strip.

His mellifluous voice was ultimately to lead to a full-time career in radio as a classical music disc jockey on the Los Angeles station KFAC. When, after more than 20 years as a top attraction for the network, he was fired in 1987, he successfully sued for age discrimination. In 2000 he and his fifth wife, Terry, bought an 1846 mansion near Atlanta, Georgia, and turned it into the Twelve Oaks Bed and Breakfast, with a Gone With the Wind museum attached. In 2007, because of ailing health, he auctioned off both the mansion and museum.

Crane was the last surviving male actor who played a credited adult role in Gone with the Wind – Mickey Kuhn, who played Beau Wilkes as a child, and Patrick Curtis, who was Melanie's baby, are still alive.

Tom Vallance

Herman Frederick Crane, actor: born New Orleans 22 March 1918; five times married (two sons, two daughters and one step-daughter); died Atlanta, Georgia 21 August 2008.

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