Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Shrewd, "Street Smart" Ann Rutherford

Noah called her back sooner than we expected.

I am referencing a running joke that the late actress, and my friend, Ann Rutherford always made about her incredible vitality and longevity.  She often joked that she came over with Noah on the Ark and that, until Noah called for her to come home, she intended to live life to the fullest, but that she didn't expect him to come calling for her for another 30 years, at least!  Unfortunately, for the rest of us, 30 years came too quickly.  She passed away on Monday at age 91. 

As you may have already read from most of her obituaries, Ann Rutherford was a contract player at MGM and 20th Century-Fox in the 1930s and 1940s.  She was best known for playing Polly Benedict in a dozen entries of the “Andy Hardy” series opposite Mickey Rooney, as well as playing Careen O’Hara, Scarlett’s kind and level-headed younger sister, in “Gone with the Wind” (1939).  I became friends with Ann while researching  a book I am still working on about the Hollywood Canteen during WWII.  It was a servicemen's nightclub where the movie stars of the era entertained and danced with military personnel who were in Los Angeles before being deployed overseas.  Ann was listed on Wikipedia as one of the movie stars who entertained there.  So I wrote to her to ask if I could interview her about it.  She called me on the phone after she received my letter.  It turns out Wikipedia was wrong (surprise, surprise!), she did not volunteer at the Canteen.  But she did extensively tour the country selling War bonds and visiting military installations to entertain the troops.  I still interviewed her because I felt her anecdotes about selling War bonds and visiting military installations would be relevant, and they were.  She had great anecdotes and insights about WWII and how Hollywood responded to the war effort.  We stayed good friends as a result.  She introduced me to her friends such as Anne Jeffreys, Joan Leslie, and Faye McKenzie who I also interviewed about their WWII memories volunteering at the Canteen.  I would look her up when I visited Los Angeles, and I spent time with her when she was visiting the Williamsburg Film Festival in the Spring of 2011, and we talked on the phone frequently.  When I think of it now, it amazes me how we became fast friends and she was just an incredibly positive, encouraging person.

Many of the write-ups and obituaries, I am happy to say, are very respectful, but only one managed to capture what I feel was the essence of Ann Rutherford.  In Adam Bernstein’s well-researched and well-written essay on Ann in the June 13, 2012 issue of the  Washington Post, Bernstein cites her business acumen and shrewdness in dealing with the studio bosses at MGM.  Bernstein hits the nail right on the head.  She was an incredibly intelligent and shrewd person, and her native street smarts allowed her to survive and thrive in the jungle known as Hollywood.  She never suffered fools gladly and knew how to take care of herself and her finances (which many actors and actresses, I am sorry to say, do not know how to do).  I learned a lot from her about being a business professional, and how one must diligently explore all opportunities that are presented to them in life.  She told me how, between making movies at MGM, she would do magazine and newspaper interviews and radio shows because she realized that doing publicity was important in helping to maintain a career.  She felt networking was as important, if not more so, than the actual work as an actress because she realized that, if people don't know who you are, they won't pay money to see you in a movie. 

She was never pretentious and never copped an "artsy" attitude as an actress, even though she did a lot of fine work and was as accomplished an actress as any of her peers—she worked in theatre, movies, radio and television during her career.  She had no patience for pretentious “thespians” who thought they were too good for Hollywood or the responsibilities that came with working in the movies.  (Believe you me, there are plenty of them and I can think of one particular pretentious actress, for example…but I’ll save that for another time!)  I think Ann lacked any sort of pretentions because she knew how fortunate she was to have broken into the business and she wasn’t hindered by false pride and false humility the way other actors and actresses, who openly disdained the dictates of the classic Hollywood studio system, were.  Having been brought up during the Great Depression and living through WWII, Ann never had a sense of entitlement or elitism.  She knew that striving for success was what regular people hoped to achieve for themselves, and was nothing to be ashamed of.  I think she felt that everybody owed it to themselves to fulfill their goals and aspirations, no matter what it was.  This had to do with the fact that she never lost touch with the "common man."  As far as she was concerned, she was part of the "common folk" and never pretended to be better than they were. 

There's a story she told that took place when she was a young teenager.  She and a bunch of kids in the neighborhood built a boat and sailed to Catalina.  She had packed sandwiches for lunch and when they were far from shore, the calking of the boat came loose because it hadn't dried, and the boat started sinking and capsized.  She remembered seeing her sandwiches unwrapping from their paper and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.  She and her friends clung to the side of the boat until she saw a ship from far in the distance.  It was the USS Arizona, and its crew spotted her and her friends and rescued them and later, towed their little boat back to shore.  Years later, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, she was deeply affected because that ship had saved her life.  But she told the story very matter-of-factly, with very little drama or emotion, and I think her calm reaction to that day reflects her survival instincts were already intact from an early age.

Ann appreciated the fan letters and interest in her career, especially when it came to discussing "Gone with the Wind."  She was indeed deeply proud of "The Wind," as she would call it, and felt like she was both the book and the movie's cultural ambassador at times.  But, even though she had a healthy appreciation for her past, she lived very much in the present.  She was always active, going out to social events, seeing friends, traveling, staying engaged in the world.  (Ann would always joke about “going dancing in the streets together!” whenever she described planning a get-together with any of her friends.)  At her home, there were no mementos from her career displayed anywhere, just photos of her family and friends in the living room.  She valued the close relationship she had with her daughter Gloria, her grandsons, and her stepdaughter Debbie.  She told me once that she got married and started a family after Louis B. Mayer sold her MGM contract to 20th Century-Fox, where she was miserable.  She found the atmosphere at Fox to be oppressive, and studio head Darryl Zanuck did nothing for her career—he cast her in thankless roles in B movies, and loaned her out constantly to other studios.  She decided that, since she had little control over the direction of her movie career, it was time for her to focus on her personal life.  This was a woman who always made proactive choices in her life. 

Her best friend was actress Anne Jeffreys.  The two were inseparable and were great fun to be around.  They often traveled together, went to shows and premieres in town together, and always made sure they were color-coordinated in the elegant clothes and fashions they wore to events.  But, most importantly, they really looked out for each other and cared deeply for one another.  It is appropriate that Jeffreys was the one who was by Ann’s bedside when she passed away at home on Monday.  I am glad Jeffreys was there for Ann at the end. 

Turner Classic Movies plans to honor Ann on July 3rd with a 10-movie marathon that day.  It climaxes that evening with an airing of “Gone with the Wind.”  I think Ann would have appreciated that.  She once told me that all she ever wanted was to work in this wonderful industry—Hollywood--that had allowed her to be a part of it, and not take anything away from anybody.  The evidence indicates she accomplished all of that and much, much more.