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A quiet 75th anniversary for 'Gone With the Wind' and one of its last surviving actors

December 17, 2014 12:46 PM
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The 75th anniversary on Monday of Gone with the Wind is shaping up to be a fairly quiet one, but at least Mickey Kuhn is celebrating.

A die-hard band of "Windies" is hosting a small gathering in Gadsden, Alabama, said the former actor, now 82, and "I was fortunate enough to be invited."

Well, of course Kuhn was invited. At age seven, he played little Beau Wilkes in the 1939 Civil War epic, and today, he is perhaps the last, best link to a high-water mark for Hollywood grandeur. If there's a major GWTW remembrance, Kuhn is probably there.

He's not Gone with the Wind's last surviving star: Kuhn's role was tiny, and he remains outranked by screen legend Olivia de Havilland, now 98, who played his mother. But she lives in Paris and rarely travels. ("She doesn't like to talk too much about the movie," said Kuhn, who visited her a few years ago. "She likes to talk about current events.") And the other surviving "actors" were a couple of uncredited infants with no memory of life on set.

But Kuhn remembers how he kept messing up his big scene with Clark Gable. "My line was, 'Hello, Uncle Rhett.' I kept saying, 'Hello, Uncle Clark.'" Cut!

Gable pulled him aside between takes, Kuhn recalls. He explained gently that while, yes, his name was Clark, for the purpose of the movie, he was Uncle Rhett. "I said, 'OK, Mr Gable.' And I finally got it on the fourth time."

Stories like that are catnip for Windies. Earlier this year, Kuhn unpacked his memories for fans at anniversary celebrations at the Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta, Georgia, and in Gable's hometown of Cadiz, Ohio. The movie premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.

But compared with past cycles, the 75th hasn't received as much hoopla. "A good many of the people in charge, they have no earthly idea what Gone With the Wind was," Kuhn said. Warner Brothers sent him a new Blu-Ray, "but that was about it," he said. "They don't have anything planned. We thought perhaps Ted Turner might have something planned, but he didn't."

This is how it goes with anniversaries. The grander the milestone, the fewer the folks who remember the original event. Last week's memorial for the attack on Pearl Harbourwas noteworthy for how many fewer veterans of that day are left to mark the 73rd anniversary. If it seemed there was a disproportionate fuss made over Watergate's 40th recently - well, who knows how many players will still be around for the 50th.

The year 1939 has long been acclaimed as Hollywood's greatest, with the release of classics like The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men and Ninotchka. The 50th anniversary was marked by a barrage of books, symposiums and celebrations. Atlanta hosted an elaborate week-long festival for Gone With the Wind in 1989, and Jimmy Stewart turned out that year to see Mr Smith honoured at the Virginia Film Festival.

And then, the commemorations quickly got smaller. Actress Claire Trevor gave interviews to promote Stagecoach's 60th; she died the following year. A dwindling group of Munchkins made the rounds of Oz conventions; the last surviving one, Jerry Maren, now 94, stopped making appearances a couple of years ago.

Kuhn, who left show business shortly after a stint in the navy, ended up in airport management, working for many years at both Reagan National and Washington Dulles airports before moving to Massachusetts. Despite youthful roles in a number of high-profile films - Red River, Juarez, A Streetcar Named Desire - his contributions were largely overlooked until Gone With the Wind's 50th. Which, in fairness, is when it first began to dawn on him what a big thing he had been a part of. His wife read about the big 1989 Atlanta celebration and urged him to get involved, so Kuhn cold-called the organisers at Turner Broadcasting and told them who he was. He was one of 10 actors present at the celebration that year, and from then on, he was part of the Windie circuit.

As recently as the 70th anniversary, there were still some bigger names on the circuit. At a 2009 Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences screening for the 70th anniversary, Kuhn was joined by Ann Rutherford, who played one of Scarlett O'Hara's sisters, and Cammie King, the former child actress with the pivotal role of Scarlett's daughter Bonnie. King died the following year at 76; Rutherford in 2012 at 94. This year also saw the deaths of two other vivid supporting players: Alicia Rhett, who played the embittered India Wilkes, at 98; and Mary Anderson, who played Maybelle Merriwether, at 96.

Kuhn is proud of his role in Gone with the Wind and the other films, small as they may have been. He's part of history now. "It doesn't mean a hill of beans to a lot of people, but to me it does," he said.

So, how many times has he seen the four-hour epic by now? Actually, for all the celebrations he's attended ... only twice.

"We go on stage, we introduce the movie," he said, "and then we go to dinner."


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