LOS ANGELES — Ann Rutherford, the demure brunette actress who played the sweetheart in the long-running Andy Hardy series and Scarlett O’Hara’s youngest sister in “Gone With the Wind,” has died. She was 94.
A close friend, Anne Jeffreys, said she was at Rutherford’s side when the actress died Monday evening at home in Beverly Hills. Rutherford died of heart problems and had been ill for several months, Jeffreys said.
“She was a dear person, a very funny lady, wonderful heart, was always trying to do things for people,” said Jeffreys, a leading lady of many films of the 1940s and a star of the 1950s TV sitcom “Topper.”
Rutherford was a frequent guest at “Gone With the Wind” celebrations in Georgia and, as one of the few remaining actors from the movie, continued to attract fans from around the world, Jeffreys said.
“She loved it. It really stimulated the last years of her life, because she got thousands of emails from fans,” Jeffreys said. “She was in great demand.”
She was also known for the Andy Hardy series, a hugely popular string of comical, sentimental films, that starred Lewis Stone as a small-town judge and Mickey Rooney as his spirited teenage son.
Rutherford first appeared in the second film of the series, “You’re Only Young Once,” in 1938, and she went on 11 more. She played Polly Benedict, the ever-faithful girlfriend that Andy always returned to, no matter what other, more glamorous girl had temporarily caught his eye. (Among the other girls: Judy Garland and Lana Turner.)
It was said she won the part of Carreen – the youngest of the three O’Hara sisters in “Gone With the Wind” – because Judy Garland was filming “The Wizard of Oz.”
Rutherford told the Times in 2010 that MGM head Louis B. Mayer was going to refuse her the role, calling it “a nothing part.” But Rutherford, who was a fan of the novel, uncharacteristically burst into tears and he relented.
Rutherford plays the sister who, early in the film, begs to be allowed to go to the ball at Ashley Wilkes’ plantation. “Oh, Mother, can’t I stay up for the ball tomorrow? … I’m 13 now,” she says in a sweet voice.
In 1989, she was one of 10 surviving “GWTW” cast members who gathered in Atlanta for the celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary.
“Anyone who had read the book sensed they were into something that would belong to the ages, and everyone was in a frenzy to read the book,” she said.
“The specialness of this is with each generation of young people who are touched by `Gone With the Wind,’” she said. “As long as there are little children, there will always be a Mickey Mouse. … On an adult version, `Gone With the Wind’ does that.”
Rutherford concurred with other cast members that no matter what else they had done, “Our obituary will say we were in `Gone With the Wind’ and we’ll be proud of it.”
In a 1969 Los Angeles Times interview, she lamented that the “permissive generation” of the 1960s wasn’t getting the old-fashioned parenting that the fictional Andy Hardy got.
“Someday someone will have to sit down with today’s youth and give them a man-to-man talk,” she said.
She also joked that “my life has reached the point where I’m now `camp.’”
Rutherford was born in 1917, according to the voter records reviewed by The Associated Press. Some sources give other dates. The daughter of an opera tenor and an actress, she began performing on the stage as a child.
She launched her movie career in Westerns while still in her teens, often appearing with singing cowboy hero Gene Autry and sometimes with John Wayne.
She joined MGM in 1937, playing a variety of roles for several years before leaving the studio to freelance.
Among her other films: “Whistling in the Dark,” with Red Skelton, 1941, and its two sequels, “Whistling in Dixie” and “Whistling in Brooklyn”; “Orchestra Wives,” with bandleader Glenn Miller, 1942; and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” with Danny Kaye, 1947.
She largely retired from the screen in 1950, but appeared in a couple of films in the 1970s, “They Only Kill Their Masters,” 1972, and “Won Ton Ton – The Dog Who Saved Hollywood,” 1976.
Her first marriage, to David May in 1942, ended in divorce; they had two children. In 1953, she married producer William Dozier, a union that lasted until his death in 1991. He was best known as the producer of the “Batman” TV series.
Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara, died in 1967. Evelyn Keyes, who played the middle O’Hara sister, Suellen, died in July 2008.
Rutherford recalled that the night of the “Gone With the Wind” premiere in Atlanta, author Margaret Mitchell invited the cast, including Leigh and co-star Clark Gable, to her home for scrambled eggs. Gable and Mitchell disappeared.
“Clark Gable and Margaret were hiding in the bathroom, Clark on the edge of the tub and Margaret you know where, just talking,” she chuckled. “They had to get away from the photographers.”
This report includes biographical material written by former AP writer Polly Anderson.