Invited to Hollywood by producer David O. Selznick with the offer of a part in his Technicolor Civil War epic "Gone with the Wind" (1939), theater actress Alicia Rhett could never be said to have overstayed her welcome. Assigned the minor but memorable role of India Wilkes, doe-eyed rival to star Vivien Leigh for the affection of beaus Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy, Rhett fulfilled her contract with Selznick and returned home long before the Academy Award nominations were announced and the Oscars handed out the following year. Uninterested in the trappings of celebrity, Rhett remained bound to her hometown of Savannah, GA for the rest of her long life, excelling as a society portraitist and as a chronicler of its working classes, its school children, domestic servants and of the American serviceman who passed through during World War II. Intensely private, Rhett refused - politely, ever politely - more offers for interviews than she accepted, preferring work and solitude to attention and acclaim. With the eventual deaths of her "Gone with the Wind" co-stars, however, Rhett resigned herself with characteristic Southern grace to the fact that she had become the film's oldest surviving credited cast member - rivaled only by Olivia de Havilland, with whom she had once vied for the more substantial supporting role of Melanie Hamilton - and a living link to one of the greatest achievements in motion picture history.
Mary Alicia Rhett was born on Feb. 1, 1915 in Savannah, GA. The great granddaughter of South Carolina senator Robert Brunwell Rhett, whose anti-Union rhetoric and pro-slavery stance in the years leading up to the American Civil War earned him the sobriquet the Father of Secession, Rhett suffered the loss of her father, Edmund Moore Rhett, to influenza when she was only three years old. Relocating from Delaware, where her father had worked for the DuPont Company, Rhett and her mother, Isobel Murdoch, settled in Charleston, SC, which the Rhett family had helped to establish in the 18th century. Mecca to a thriving artist community, Charleston inspired in Rhett a love of art and she excelled at both painting and performing during her teen years. Following her graduation from Menninger High School, she found employment with the Works Progress Administration and aided in the restoration of the Dock Street Theater. Joining the playhouse's stock company, the Footlight Players, Rhett was acting in a production of George Farquhar's 1706 farce "The Recruiting Officer" when she caught the eye of Hollywood talent scouts.
To add a level of authenticity to his proposed super-production "Gone with the Wind" (1939), a lavish, Technicolor adaptation of the acclaimed historical novel by Margaret Mitchell, producer David O. Selznick dispatched original director George Cukor to South Carolina to research plantation life and to seek out local talent. It was Cukor's scout Kay Brown who first noticed the charismatic, auburn-haired Rhett and encouraged Cukor to see her at the Dock Street Theater. Cukor was sufficiently impressed with Rhett's abilities and brought her to New York for a screen test. Though she had been considered originally for the supporting role of Melanie Wilkes, wife of Leslie Howard's diffident plantation owner Ashley Wilkes, Rhett's lack of camera experience resulted in her being cast instead as the younger India Wilkes, sister to Ashley and romantic rival to Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara for the love of doomed Confederate soldier Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks) and doomed business owner Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye). Rhett traveled to Hollywood with her mother and set up housekeeping in preparation for principle photography, which lasted from December 1938 until November 1939, during which time George Cukor was replaced by director by Victor Fleming, with Sam Woods coming in to shoot for two weeks in the wake of Fleming's nervous breakdown, to speed up the troubled and extremely expensive production.
It was likely Rhett's Southern breeding, with its emphasis on absolute decorum, which kept the fledgling starlet upbeat through principal photography. In interviews with the press corps, Rhett assigned only the highest marks to her co-stars, whom she sketched while off-camera while passing along the results to Charleston's News & Courier. If Rhett enjoyed any backlot romances during the production, they remained entirely private, and when her obligations to "Gone with the Wind" were satisfied Rhett and her mother returned to Charleston. Happy in her privacy, Rhett excelled as a portrait painter, winning commissions from private citizens and from the president of The Citadel military academy while also volunteering to paint public school children, laborers, and citizens who lived outside the inner circle of high society. During World War II, she painted portraits for servicemen and in 1953 helped found the Charleston Artists Guild. For a time, Rhett was an announcer for WTMA, one of the Holy City's oldest radio stations.
Though her contribution was largely peripheral, Rhett's significance to "Gone with the Wind" increased apace with the deaths of the film's principal players - Leslie Howard in 1943, Hattie McDaniel in 1952, Clark Gable in 1960, Thomas Mitchell in 1962, Vivien Leigh in 1967, Butterfly McQueen in 1995, Evelyn Keyes in 2008 and Ann Rutherford in 2012. By 2012, the 97-year-old Rhett was the oldest surviving credited cast member, trailed by the 96-year-old Olivia de Havilland, who had won the role of Melanie Hamilton away from her in 1938, and the 82-year-old Mary Anderson, a contender for the role of Scarlett O'Hara who was cast instead in the minor role of Maybelle Meriwether. With advanced age, Rhett moved from her long-time Tradd Street residence to enter a private nursing facility, from which she continued to grant occasional interviews, preferring the ever-evolving subject of fine art to the fixed nostalgia of her experience of Hollywood gloss and glamour.
By Richard Harland Smith