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Fort Bragg resident Cammie King Conlon played Bonnie Blue Butler opposite Clark Gable in as a 5-year-old in 1939's epic Gone with the Wind.

Fort Bragg's Cammie King Conlon among last survivors of 'Gone With the Wind' cast

For Cammie Conlon, it was quite literally, the role of a lifetime.

She played one part in one live-action movie when she was 4 years old. As she frequently chortles, ?I was washed up at 5.? But the film proved so iconic that even 70 years later, Conlon is forever frozen in celluloid as little Bonnie Blue.

It?s a good thing the 75-year-old Fort Bragg resident has a sense of humor and a certain perspective. After all, if it weren?t for Bonnie, Conlon would never would have been kissed by Clark Gable.

As a preschooler, Cammie King was cast as the cherubic Bonnie Blue Butler, daughter of Rhett and Scarlett in the film classic ?Gone With the Wind.? Bonnie?s death after a fall from her pony ultimately leads to one of the silver screen?s most famous parting shots, ?Frankly my dear, I don?t give a damn.?

She earned $1,000 for her few scenes and a lifetime membership in a vaunted Hollywood fraternity. The Civil War epic has raked in $1.5 billion, making it the biggest blockbuster in history, adjusted for inflation. The American Film Institute ranked ?Gone With the Wind? No. 4 in its Top 10 Film Epics of all time.

Warner Home Video on Nov. 17 will release a DVD and Blu-ray 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector?s Edition of ?Gone With the Wind,? restored, remastered and including three new documentaries.

As one the youngest members of a huge cast that included 50 speaking parts and 2,4000 extras, Conlon has found herself one of only a handful of the film?s credited players still alive. This small circle of survivors is regularly called upon to serve as emissaries at retrospectives, reunions, award events and commemorations.

It?s a role Conlon has assumed with good humor and an appreciation that only grows with time.

?As the years have gone by, I realize it?s an honor, and it?s so humbling,? she said. ?I had nothing to do with it. I was 5. They said ?Stand here. Do this.? And yet it?s resulted in this incredible experience.?

Next weekend, Conlon will join Ann Rutherford, who played Scarlett?s sister Carreen, Mary Anderson (Maybelle Merriweather) and the three men who played Ashley Wilkes? son Beau at various ages, for a 70th anniversary celebration at the ?Gone With the Wind? museum outside Atlanta. Olivia de Havilland, who played the saintly Melanie and outlived her other three leads by decades, is 93 and lives in Paris.

In June, Conlon and her extended ?GWTW? family attended a Hollywood screening of the film as part of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences summer series honoring the best picture nominees of 1939, regarded by many film historians as the greatest movie year in history.

Conlon, who worked for the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce for many years and now does promotions for The Little River Inn, attends as many events as she can. Her first reunion was the 15th anniversary back in 1954, when she assembled an all blue wardrobe and made appearances in Atlanta and on ?The Ed Sullivan Show.?

But even at that time, her film experience seemed far in her past.

Conlon did one other role after ?GWTW? ? the voice of the fawn Faline in Walt Disney?s ?Bambi? (1942). She was cast in MGM?s ?Three Men in White? (1944) but came down with chickenpox the day shooting was to start. Her film career was over.

Conlon?s parents split around the time of ?GWTW.? Her mother, Eleanor, a Rosalind Russell look-alike, became more focused on making her own career than marketing her two young daughters to the movies. A charm coach, she wrote three books and a syndicated column and had her own weekly network radio show. In the late ?40s Eleanor King met and married Herbert Kalmus, the phycisist who co-founded and headed The Technicolor Corp., catapulting the teenage Cammie from central L.A. into a mansion in posh Bel Air.

Even after decades, Conlon gamely shows up at events to share her few memories of those four weeks she spent on set during the summer of 1939, and to press the flesh and pose for pictures with the film?s most ardent fans, affectionately called ?Windies? and whom she describes as ?lovely, lovely people.?

On some level, Conlon, who got a degree in communications from USC and spent years working in publishing and public relations, understands that people?s need to reach out is not really personal. They?re reaching out to touch something both historic and profoundly significant to American popular culture.

?It?s about Bonnie,? she says, ?I just tangentially get to be there because I played her. It?s so bizarre. It?s hard to describe to people and yet it?s so genuine, the love people have for the film.?

Her memories are vignettes. She recalls the shock of seeing her ?twin,? the adult male dwarf hired as her double to take the fall from the pony, wearing her identical riding habit and smoking a cigarette. She also remembers Gable?s cape and scratchy mustache, and being shamed in front of the cast and crew by director Victor Fleming for flubbing her lines.

Some 10,000 people a year make their way to the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum, which pays homage to both the film and the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Atlantan Margaret Mitchell.

Museum director Connie Sutherland said Conlon is always a crowd pleaser.

?If anyone ever met Cammie and didn?t fall in love with her ? I don?t know about them,? Sutherland said. ?She?s funny and she?s caring and she?s willing. And she still looks like Bonnie Blue. She still has that cute face.?

She is also self-effacing, and finds the idea of being tethered for her entire life to something she did before she started kindergarten kind of a hoot.

Conlon makes light of the fact that she was no Shirley Temple. Studio memos have also been unearthed discussing special lighting to make her brown eyes blue and suggesting that the studio was at least considering hiring someone else to dub her lines.

?From the distance of these many years I have to feel kind of sorry for Mr. Selznick. His Bonnie has brown eyes and stick-straight hair,? she writes in ?Bonnie Blue Butler: A Gone With the Wind Memoir? (available for $19.95 by e-mailing Scarlettsbaby@gmail.com.), which she self-published this year. ?She?s not much of an actress and she?s very tall. And now we can?t use her voice.?

Molly Haskell, a film critic and historian and author of ?Frankly My Dear: ?Gone With the Wind? Revisited? (Yale University Press), said the enduring appeal of ?GWTW? ? both the book and movie ? makes for a ?complicated phenomenon.?

?There are so many people who just hate it for its politics. Most film critics didn?t like it as an overblown Hollywood extravaganza and retrograde racially,? said Haskell. And yet, she, like many astute film scholars, also found herself coming around again.

?When you look at this film, it shouldn?t have worked. It had 15 screenwriters, one got credit. Five directors and (David O.) Selznick running roughshod over everybody. It?s too grandiose. But it is an underappreciated epic and it?s our national epic.?

Conlon understands the film?s larger-than-life appeal, and soldiers on as its goodwill ambassador.

She occasionally does ?Tea with Bonnie Butler? for fans and put together her memories in book form assembled from a series of small essays she did for a creative writing class with Suzanne Byerley at College of the Redwoods.

Conlon long ago gave in to her fate as Bonnie Blue and has decided to simply have fun with it.

?I?m a very lucky person,? she says. ?It has added dimension to my life. Of all the little girls, they picked me.?

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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