Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                          Page 143-150

Interview with Ann Rutherford (Lydia), Marsha Hunt (Mary) and Karen Morley (Charlotte Lucas)


Interview by Kenneth Turan with Marsha Hunt (Mary Bennet),  Karen Morley (Charlotte Lucas), and Ann Rutherford (Lydia Bennet).  Recorded in front of audience who had just watched the 1940 motion picture version of Pride and Prejudice at annual JASNA meeting at Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Friday night, October 13, 1989, in Anasazi Ballroom in the Eldorado Hotel. 

Transcribed and edited by Gene Koppel (Significant omissions are indicated by four periods….  Significant pauses or changes of direction are indicated by three periods.  I have eliminated and corrected normal conversational hesitations, repetitions and errors without ellipses). 

K.T.     The first thing that we’re all curious about is that you probably have not seen this film for quite a while.  What goes through your mind now that you’ve seen it? 

M.H.    I think that what comes back to me (I’m not sure of the others) … it evokes the shooting of those scenes.  Certain ones come back to memory very strongly, and it’s as if we’re all on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer back lot once again.  And it’s a strange feeling.  We’re talking half a century ago. 

A.R.     I said to Vivian [Hall, who was in charge of the conference] … She asked me if I had spoken to Karen.  I said I haven’t spoken to Karen in fifty years!  I heard myself saying fifty years!  But all I can think of is pride in the company we were working with.  These marvellous people – Mary Boland [Mrs. Bennet], Melville Cooper [Mr. Collins].  At that time we knew they were brilliant actors, and that they were very important.  But we sort of took everything for granted, because we were working in the “White House” – that was what Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was called.  And we became very accustomed to walking out of a sound stage and running into Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer – the legends of the world were there.  And to work with them – you just took it as a matter of course. 

K.M.    Well, I didn’t.  (Laughter)  I was pretty thrilled. 

A.R.     What blew me away was Laurence Olivier, because I had just … I fell over when I saw Wuthering Heights.  I would walk through streets in the dark hearing, “Caaathy!”  And when I found that I was to work with him I nearly lost my mind.  I spent most of my time closing my mouth.  He was so beautiful! 

K.M.    We did it and I’m glad! 

A.R.     That’s the best part, too.  And he called me by my first name!  (Laughter) 

M.H.    There’s a real Olivier cult sitting here on the stage.  I even predate Ann in crushes on … Lord Olivier?  Isn’t that what he wound up being?  I saw him in the lower half of a double bill in the mid-thirties and was never the same again!  I stayed through the main feature in order to see those half-masked lids one more time.  I had no idea what the movie might be, but I meant to find out, and from then on I watched and waited, quite certain that things would happen.  And it was years before I found out the name of that film, which I am sure was quite bad (and he said in his book that he was bad in it).  I think it was called Moscow Nights.  So it’s an Olivier cult here…. 

K.T.     What was he like to work with once he showed up? 

A.R.     It was like oiled silk.  He didn’t even require rehearsals.  This man could do no wrong.  To think that we all wound up in a picture with him!  Our cup runneth over! 

K.M.    Except that we didn’t have a single scene with him! 

A.R.     But they [Olivier and Garson] talked about all of us a lot! 

M.H.    Ann, as you mentioned, before the screening, his mind was so on Romeo and Juliet!  I don’t know if any of you noticed a slight change in his profile?  This was a man who loved noses!  And he would make, at any excuse, a slight deviation in the shape of his nose.  He was preparing Romeo.  And for that he rather fancied the idea of approaching the old Greek profile, almost poured straight out from forehead to tip of nose. 

K.M.    Like Paul Newman. 

M.H.    He didn’t go quite that far, but he was breaking in a nose for the part of Romeo.  (Laughter)  And I think he wore it in Pride and Prejudice so he could look at the rushes and say, “A little too much here….”  He was a nose man.  (Laughter) 

K.T.     There aren’t many of those left.  Did any of you have a say on being in the film, or were you all contract people at M-G-M and they called you in and told you that you were doing it? 

K.M.    I was no longer under contract.  I had left Metro several years before. 


M.H.    You [Ann Rutherford] were under contract by then?  [AR answered, “Yes.”]  Karen had been, but was no longer.  And I was not yet under contract.  This was my second or third film at M-G-M.  I think I did half a dozen before they decided to put me under contract.  But on many fronts this was a great, significant joy for me.  There was Olivier, I think he came first.  And then, just to be around the smell of a major – the major studio!  You see, I’d been on the skids.  I was a has-been at twenty.  Paramount had burned me up as an ingénue, and I had gone right down what was known as “Poverty Row,” with those quickies that took six days to shoot.  And to be asked to come to M-G-M … was the most rewarding thing in the world.  I was working among my heroes and heroines.  Edna May Oliver [Lady Catherine de Bourgh] was somebody I hoped to grow up to be one day.  I adored that woman.  Oh, Karen, tell them what you were reminding me about. 

K.M.    She used to swim in the ocean every single morning before work.  About six o’clock she’d go to the sea.  She had a companion who had to go into the Pacific with her … rain, shine, storm!  And the shooting schedule was arranged to allow Edna May her morning dip in the ocean. 

A.R.            Wonderful! 

K.T.     Did any of you want to play any of the other sisters?  When you got your assignments did you say,  “Gosh, I wish I was …”? 

A.R.     Oh, no! I was so sick of being good! (Laughter)  Just the idea of running away without benefit of clergy [as Lydia did] was so great!  I nearly lost my mind! … But I must say, that when the studio, in its infinite wisdom, when they changed the wardrobe from the wet-nightgown look, that empire look, to the ship-in-full-sail [Victorian] – they did such a wise thing.  Because the sight of Mary Boland [Mrs. Bennet] bustling down the street with all of her little goslings behind her in their huge voluminous skirts, and all of them chattering at once – it wouldn’t have been nearly as delightful a sight-gag if we had all been in little, skinny wet-night-gown-type things.  And the only error they made was that they neglected to consult Cedric Gibbons, who had spent the prior two years combing England for choice little bits of furniture from around 1810 or 1812, when people dressed very sparely and they had marvellous little tabernacle tables and very slender things.  And they used all of those on the set.  So when they got all five sisters and Mary Boland moving around with all of our petticoats, we would naturally bump into those small tables.  The studios were so profligate!  They would have marvellous little Meissen pieces on them.  Wonderful things that I would kill to get my hands on now!  And it we would knock them over, I noticed, to my horror, that the prop man would just come with his dustpan on a stick and a broom and he’d sweep it up and then I’d hear a clink and he would throw it over into the trash barrel.  There was no effort made to salvage it.  And then I became very cunning.  I would give up my lunch break and take my costume off and stand on my head in the trash barrel and fish out those pieces.  I knew I was doing the right thing when I would find little crossed-sword Meissen signs on the bottom.  Some of them weren’t broken too badly;  they just didn’t bother to do anything [about repairing them].  And that began a life-long love of Spode, Meissen, antiques, whatever!  (Laughter)  The studios in those days …!  If a chair was a little bit too tall, they would saw the legs off.  The chair could be fourteenth century, it did not matter.  Time was money.  They would check their watches, and “Hurry up, get the saw, get the carpenter over here!” 

Was it you [Ken Turan] who was asking me why they decided to assign Bob Leonard – “Pop” Leonard? 

K.T.     I’m curious about that. 

A.R.     It was no contest.  He was cast for the director, and he was wonderful!  He was wonderful with all of us.  He listened.  And he would turn us sort of loose at rehearsals.  And if any of us came up with a silly bit of business – like Marsha [Mary Bennet] looking down her little glasses, and all these little gestures with her little curls bobbing …  He was delighted at any input that anyone had.  Meanwhile, he wanted to make so sure that we were true to the period.  Remember when we sat there like idiots, rolling “spills”? … I made a mistake.  I told you they were spindles.  They weren’t.  That lightbulb over my head came up.  They were spills. 

K.T.     What are spills? 

A.R.     …. They would give us strips of paper, and we would roll the paper up until they were long, like sticks.  There was one scene when you saw the butler come in and light the candles with one.  As dutiful daughters we made them for our father; he kept them in a jar and he would light his pipe with them.  And there was one scene (I think it was cut out), where we were all sitting, licking our fingers, rolling spills.  [Leonard] was very thorough. 

K.T.     Do either of you, Karen, or you, Marsha. have any comment about the director?  I’m curious about how he seemed to you.  Was he a good director?  You’ve both had an enormous amount of experience. 

K.M.    He was an old-time [director] … you know, “Do it the way it feels good … keep it pleasant.”  He was easy.  Very easy.  And he had his property man keep a huge box of the dirtiest paper flowers you have ever seen.  And wherever the virgins went, everything bloomed.  (Laughter)  It didn’t matter …  It was spring all the time in a Leonard picture! … 

M.H.    I was so grateful to Bob Leonard, because I had never had a whiff of comedy until then.  And I’d had a surfeit of sweet-nothing ingénues.  All alike, but with a change of wardrobe and leading man – that was really the main difference.  But to get to play something a little eccentric, a little bit colourful and interesting – and he kind of said,  “Go!”  I remember that he would place me in the very back of scenes, so that I could do my near-sighted squint through my glasses.  And that made Mary Boland very nervous.  For Mary, as we well know, was a mistress of comedy, and she was uncomfortable …  “What’s she doing back there?  Get her up front where I can see her.  I don’t trust her!”  And that was the highest compliment one could have. 

K.T.     Karen, do you … go ahead. 

K.M.    I was going to surprise people by telling them that Aldous Huxley had been assigned to the movie, but I see that he got credit …  He wrote a scene for Greer Garson and me in which we discuss polyandry in Tibet.  (Laughter)  When Greer suggested that she have a little more to say, [Leonard] just nodded … with that look (which I knew well from other directors) that meant, “This is never going to get on the screen.” 


It [when the picture was being made] was a terrible time.  That’s one of the reasons the picture is … strange in my memory.  Very, very strange.  Hitler had begun to march through Europe.  We’d come in, and one day it would be Belgium, and then the Netherlands ….  We would corner Karl Freund, that marvellous cinematographer, because he was a German, and say,  “How could it have happened?”  You know, what was it …  How could the Germans have been taken in by this little Charlie Chaplin mustache …  This jerk!  You know, anybody looking at him could see he was a fool.   And then [Karl] would talk about after World War I, when there was not enough milk for the children, and women outnumbered men about five to one.  Not that that’s any excuse, but there was an hysteria … frightful suffering, and a frightful feeling that it [World War I] had all been for nothing.  And then we’d get into our stays, and, you know … the paper flowers, and we’d go back to being “ladies,” and to that more brittle, charming period.  But … Greer who was (as she said), from the north of Ireland –  “We’re loyal, you know … I’m very worried about the anti-British feeling in America.  I don’t know what they expect of us.  We’re only a little island!”  So it was really a fascinating time. 


M.H.    … A curious thing happened, I think, to all of us.  We came to work in pants and bathrobes.  Before daylight we’d report for work.  It was chilly, and we wore sweaters, sneakers … it didn’t matter what we came to work in.  But once in those costumes, everything changed – the way we stood, sat, even spoke to each other.  We became different people.  Not that each wasn’t enacting her own character that she was assigned in the film.  But it really does transpose you, in a curious way. 

A.R.     That’s why schools should have dress codes!  (Laughter and applause) 

M.H.    Oh, I must add, that the only harrowing part of wearing those costumes – if you remember, the wingspan of one of those skirts is about five feet – [ was] the ladies’ room booths.  Now, you have to work that out … (Laughter) 

K.T.     I wondered about the relation that the three of you had with the original novel before the movie.  Had you read it?  Were you fans of it?  What was your relationship to it (it you had one)? 

M.H.    To Pride and Prejudice?  I simply read it and loved it in school, without – I blush to tell this audience – making an enormous discovery.  I found it full of style that I enjoyed and appreciated.  Grace of language was a treat even then, and, of course, now …!  (Laughter) 

A.R.     I had not read Jane Austen before I read the script, and then, of course, I immediately bought the book.  Up to that time, I was Charles Dickens to the max!  I remember when I was a youngster they discovered parts of a manuscript that was unpublished.  And they published it in the Los Angeles Evening Herald.  I remember saving it for months until I had the whole book (it was not published in America yet).  But after reading Jane Austen, discovering the simplicity, the directness … It would take Charles Dickens five pages to get somebody out the door.  And Jane Austen [has] such ease.  And the people … her descriptive passages are so absolutely lovely.  I’ll never get over it … absolutely never. 

And the wild thing, in my life, is the connections that I formed with some of these people …  My stepdaughter lives in Santa Fe, she and her husband, and “Auntie Maureen,” her godmother, is Maureen O’Sullivan [Jane Bennet].  I had worked with Vivian Leigh, and, of course, met Laurence Olivier in the picture.  We became friends, and my husband and I would see them when we would go to London, and go backstage after the theatre.  And so they came into our circle of friends.  Marsha, I’ve known forever.  We had worked together before …. 

One thing I can say about this glorious business that we’ve been privileged to be a part of.  Some people’s past rises to haunt them.  Our past has risen to bless us, and to bring us to places like this, to dear, warm people such as you.  As far as I’m concerned, this business has been a passport to the world, for all of us.  No matter where we go, there is some soul lurking who will come up and say, “Aren’t you …?  And didn’t you used to be …?  And you say yes, and you’ve found a friend.  And this can happen anywhere, thanks to the late, late show on television!  And to wonderful people with very long memories.  We bless you all!  (Applause) 

M.H.    You know, it just occurred to me, with Ann’s appreciation of some of those lovely period pieces that were props at M-G-M – I believe something officially becomes an antique when it’s a hundred years old …. 

K.M.    Well, we’re almost there.  (Laughter) 

M.H.    It seems to me that humans become antiques of great value after fifty years … of working visibly in some field.  And here we are, we’re about fifty-year veterans.  Suddenly it’s appreciation time. We had no idea when we were cranking out those movies, working day and night on those dark soundstages, that the world was going to be looking at the outcome.  You didn’t think about that.  You were too focused on the next take and the needs of the moment.  And now all these years later, we’re being … disinterred. 

A.R.     We’re being dug up, propped up, and wheeled out.  (Laughter) 

M.H.    And fondled, and appreciated.  And it’s pretty astonishing!  And very touching. 

A.R.     And this is the only thing that I hope Ted Turner will please colourize. 

M.H.    And it’s true.  Adrian and his helpers, we were told, designed over five hundred costumes.  And if you consider all those balls, those dance scenes and all, you can see how it would add up to five hundred.  And imagine, they are having to be seen only in shades of grey and white into black.  This is one to colourize.  (Turning to the audience.)  How do you all feel about it?  Do you prefer black and white? 

K.M.    Greer’s glorious, glowing, head of hair – all turned into dark colours! 

M.H.    I think Ted Turner would like to know! 

K.T.     (To audience) Who likes the black-and-white version and doesn’t want colour?  (The audience indicates that they prefer the black-and-white version.) 

K.M.            (Surprised)  Oh, my God! 

M.H.    Really!  (A member of the audience calls out: “Siskel and Ebert have intimidated us!”) 

K.T.     I’m curious about one of the things that obviously is of interest to this group.  I wonder if it came up at all during the filming.  The film does diverge from the book.  Did this come up during the filming?  Did people care?  Did anyone mention it? 

M.H.    I can’t recall if it did.  I don’t really know. 

K.M.    I don’t think anybody really cared if we changed the story.  It was a business, you know.  It’s only now that we talk about it as an art.  (Laughter and applause) 

They were always fighting light.  “Fighting light” means that there were many scenes shot out of doors.  All they wanted to do was to finish whatever was being done on that location before the sun went down.  So they didn’t quibble too much about little details like, “Is it based on Jane Austen’s novel?” 

M.H.    But I think Aldous Huxley’s quote that you [Ken Turan] gave us before the screening really has validity.  I don’t know that this very special group would agree, but Huxley said (if I remember correctly) that he was torn between wanting to do justice to Jane Austen and be faithful to her work, and at the same time to make her work cinematic – visual in terms of movement and the things that work on the screen.  I think he succeeded.  Each deviation may drive you perfectionists – you students and scholars – up a wall.  But you’re a very special group, and one we are so delighted to be invited to join tonight. 

K.T.     Did you film your scenes in sequence, or were they all bunched up? 

M.H.    Nothing is done in sequence except by accident.  They shoot by sets.  They use up the living room, and then they go on to another [set]. 

K.M.    They also get rid of the expensive actors.  If they have hired someone who isn’t under contract, they get him in and out as fast as possible. 

A.R.     They would do all the expensive actor’s scenes at one time and get him off salary.  But in general I think what they do is shoot everything that takes place in the dining room, or in the garden, or wherever, so that it only has to be lit once.  That is what takes the time, that “loving-lighting” that M-G-M was so famous for. 

K.M.    And they don’t lovingly light any more.  They do not do it.  We would be on the set at nine o’clock in our robes, and walk through the scene, whatever it was.  The cameraman would look at it with his little eye-finder, and talk to his best boy and a couple of the lighting men, and then we would go away and our stand-ins would come on.  Now the stand-ins would be in duplicate-type costumes – not exactly, but close enough in colour.  Meanwhile, we would he able to go to our dressing rooms, have our hair recombed, sit there and knit a sweater, or call home.  By about ten-thirty it would be time to shoot the scene ….  You don’t see that in the lighting that goes on in today’s pictures.  Today they start shooting at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s “hurry right back”!  If  you get all the words in, they say, “Print it.” 

K.T.     When you saw the film, did any scenes bring back special memories of when they were shot? 

M.H.    Yes, yes.   Certain ones do, and I’m sure it’s different in each of our cases ….  Outside the bookstore in the village square – that was in the back lot ….  And, of course, I loved my singing.  (Laughter)  That made me happier than anything I’d done in years, and it took weeks – because I’m the daughter of musicians, and I have pitch!  I had to learn to sing in the crack, just between two tones – just enough to hurt the ears.  It look weeks …. 

I remember Karl Freund called me “turkey neck,” which was almost true.  They had discovered that I had a neck longer than anybody’s, and, of course, Sidney Guilaross, who was a fairly unsung genius of hair styling, had these beautifully becoming coifs on all the ladies.  With me he started a part right in the middle of the forehead and it was like a cleaver had cut clear to the nape of the neck – the hair was pulled off to the side. and then these little sausages bobbing … I was in love with the whole thing!  And that of course accentuated the great long neck! 

[Karl] was a fine cameraman, a good man.  My goodness!  He was at the helm of some of the really great things that Metro turned out. 

K.M.    Those cameramen were worth their weight in … rhinestones.  You see, what he was doing in this case was making Greer and me look twenty instead of thirty.  And these kids were looking in their teens instead of in their twenties – and all of us were trying desperately to remember what it was like to be a virgin! (Laughter) 

K.T.     Any more special scenes that brought back memories! 

A.R.     I loved coming home!  With the bugles ringing, and the servants standing up in their second-hand finery!  Oh, I just loved that entrance!  It was fun doing it. 

K.T.     Karen, is there anything that stands out for you after just seeing the picture again? 

K.M.    I had forgotten how good Marsha was.  I’m sorry … I’m ashamed to say that at the time, when we were rehearsing it, I remember thinking. “She’s surely hitting that plenty hard!”  Because I personally like very light comedy.  And I didn’t remember how good she was.  So there 

 During the question period afterwards, a member of the audience asked why Greer Garson, who had been asked to the conference, had not attended.  It was explained that Miss Garson had had major heart surgery and was very ill.  Asked what she was like to work with, all three actresses recalled and praised Miss Garson’s talent, her professionalism, and her wit (Marsha Hunt said that Greer Garson is one of the few actresses she has ever known who can speak as well without a script as with one.  She gave as an example Miss Garson’s quip when she was informed that she was the movie industry’s number one box-office draw: “I guess I’m Metro’s golden mare!”).

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