Movie legend Ann Rutherford died this week. She was the cute, dark-haired ingénue who played Mickey Rooney's sweetheart in the Andy Hardy movies. But it's more likely you know her as Carreen O'Hara, one of Scarlett's sisters, in Gone with the Wind, a movie that has still been seen by more cinema goers than Avatar.
So far, fortunately, only a few people have called it a "tragedy" (she was 94, and lived a good life) or, even worse, the "end of an era" -- a common phrase, trotted out whenever we lose a leading lady or leading man from the golden years of Hollywood. Few phrases are so overused in movie tributes, apart from "last of the greats." (I'm not sure how "greats" are defined, but we've had dozens of "last of the greats" leave us over the years.)
However, Rutherford's death did make me consider: how many stars of the 1930s are still with us? I was asking a similar question a few years ago, about silent film stars. In 1996, I wrote an obituary for The Australian (Australia's national newspaper) of silent star Brigitte Helm (who, as the robot woman in Metropolis, was probably the cinema's first sci-fi geek pin-up). "The last of the great silent film stars," I called her. For the life of me, I couldn't think of anyone else who was still alive. After all, it had been nearly 70 years since the silent film era.
Naturally, I was wrong. A year later, I was writing an obituary of Billie Dove. In her prime, circa 1928, Dove received more fan mail than any other star in Hollywood apart from the top box-office star, Clara Bow. Dove's fans included a young singer named Eleanora Holiday, who named herself after her idol. Unlike Billie Holiday, Billie Dove was mostly forgotten when she died at 97.
I didn't dare to suggest that Dove's passing meant the "end of an era," or that she was "last of the greats." Just as well, because a few silent film stars were still alive, including a few child stars. It's 85 years since the silent era, but a handful of them are still with us.
But now we're rapidly losing the stars of the 1930s, when Great Depression audiences would queue to see glamorous stars at classy movie houses. Ann Rutherford's passing could not be called the "end of an era," as she reminds us of Gone with the Wind, the biggest film of 1939.
Gone with the Wind has proven to be the anti-Poltergeist. You know the curse of Poltergeist, in which some of the cast met with terrible fates? Gone with the Wind, by contrast, might have brought good fortune upon its cast -- though the less fortunate fates of Vivien Leigh (died of tuberculosis at 53), Leslie Howard (shot down during World War II) and George Reeves (a victim of that other Hollywood hex, the curse of Superman) might suggest otherwise.
But look at it another way: the film is 73 years old, yet many of the actors only died in recent years, and four of the (credited) cast are still with us. The oldest is Alicia Rhett, 97, who played India Wilkes. (Yes, the surname is noted. Very amusing.) After this, Rhett was offered other movie roles, but turned them all down. On average, she possibly had one of the most successful acting careers in Hollywood history.
Mary Anderson, 92, who played Maybelle Merriwether, and Mickey Kuhn (who, admittedly, was only six when he played Ashley and Melanie's son) are also still around.
Of course, none of their deaths will get nearly as much coverage as Olivia de Havilland's. She no longer gives interviews (and her chats in the 1990s were very unreliable), but as she approaches 96, movie buffs can cheer that a bona fide star from the 1930s is still with us. When she dies, we can safely assume that at least a few tributes will wax lyrical about "the last of the greats" or "the end of an era."
A few other stars of the 1930s are still alive - though time is running out. Even Shirley Temple, who was only six at her peak, is now 84. Deanna Durbin, the epitome of the wholesome teenager (though the word hadn't yet been coined), is 90. Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford's occasional on-screen boyfriend, is 91 -- and was singing with the Muppets just a few months ago.
Olivia de Havilland's sister Joan Fontaine, 95, is also still alive. Indeed, the feuding sisters are perhaps competing to see who can survive the longest. Maureen O'Hara, 95, is still kicking, 73 years after starring in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
A few years ago, researchers with too much time on their hands discovered that Oscar winners, on the whole, live longer than those actors who are snubbed or ignored by the Academy. Hence, it should come as no surprise that Luise Rainer, the first actress to win two Oscars (both, it so happens, in the 1930s) is now 102 years old.
A few stars of 1930s French cinema have also survived, with the elegant Danielle Darrieux now 95 (80 years since her first film, but only a decade after singing and sort-of-dancing in 8 Femmes), Michèle Morgan now 92 (though as she was born on February 29, perhaps she is only 23), and Louis Jourdan (who just squeezes in to 1930s cinema, making his first film in 1939) now 91.
Only when we've said goodbye to all of the above should we even consider using corny phrases like "the last of the greats" or "end of an era." But I'd prefer it if we did no such thing. Even if we only include the true stars, the household names, there's bound to be someone I missed.