From its opening night gala in Atlanta, “Gone with the Wind” became for many an instantaneous legend. An epic of the Old South, filled with romance, tragedy and high melodrama, this movie evokes as much love and passion now as it did those many years ago.
If this world has now exploded into indifference and mediocrity then that has only made our whimsical notions of nostalgia and the good old days all the more enticing. In those days the handsome strength of Clark Gable, the glamour of Vivien Leigh and the unmatched charm of Leslie Howard left an indelible mark upon movie goers. And what is more the film was loved by all classes, from the women who worked 60 hours a week providing for their families while living in the industrial wastelands of Pittsburgh to the debutantes on 5th Avenue, this movie touched the hearts of them all. It still does; a good story lives forever.
And within a legend lives its many parts. Not just the stars, but the writers, the camera operators, directors and the supporting cast. Whereas a film like “Citizen Kane” was dominated by one man, Orson Welles, Gone with the Wind was dominated more by its sheer grandeur and the publicity of its own creation. Indeed, just the hunt for Miss Scarlett was an epic in itself, never matched before or since.
But let us search a little deeper and find one of the supporting actors who helped make this film so memorable. Let me introduce you to Miss Cammie King, child star, retired by her mother in 1942 after providing Faline’s voice in the classic animation, Bambi. Only two films in 3 years, but by age 8, Miss King would forever live within the legend of the greatest movie of all time.
In the intervening years, Miss King has been a great success in the business world. Armed with a BA from USC, Cammie worked for CBS, ABC, became an editor of a California magazine, worked in a large S & L firm where she created a magazine, and has numerous executive jobs across California. And through all of this Cammie enjoyed two marriages and brought up two great children; much of this in the days when white collar women were often stymied by the “men’s club” mentality. It’s only now after nearly 45 years in the workforce that Cammie has decided to slow down a little and smell the sweet memories of her past.
Yes, it is now, when Cammie finds herself asked more questions about her role in GWTW than just about any time in her life. Her life is constantly kept busy with people corresponding with her, seeking her signed photos showing her as Bonnie Blue Butler or attending her talks. And Miss King does all this with a wonderfully understated aplomb that shows this lady as both vivacious and yet so very down to earth.
Join me now as I ask her about her short, but brilliant career and the effect it has had on her life. And know that with every word you read that there is a devilish smile lurking below Miss Cammie’s lovely face.
David: It’s always a great pleasure to talk to a screen legend, Miss King, but a little strange when one considers that you had retired from the screen at an age when other people haven’t even contemplated primary school let alone thought about giving up a burgeoning film career. Could you tell us the circumstances that led you to becoming a child actor, and who or what decided you against continuing in this career?
Miss Cammie: I certainly don’t consider myself a screen legend, David, but I definitely know I am part of a film legend. For thousands of movie goers, Gone with the Wind is considered the film classic. Despite the published story that my older sister was originally cast as Bonnie, and that when she outgrew the role, I got the part – despite that, the truth is that my mother brought me to the studio to be auditioned. I tested against two other little girls, and I got the part. Most mothers in America wanted their little girls to be Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter, and I guess my mother wasn’t any exception. However, after filming was completed, and she saw the kind of life a child actor led, she decided I would not be in the movies; she opted for a “normal” childhood. So one can see, I peaked at age five.
David: Life’s decisions are often easy in retrospect, but if you had it all to do again, would you have persevered with acting? Considering that you obviously had talent to burn and seemed to love your role in GWTW from what we cam see on the screen, you must have had some ambivalence over the years? Not necessarily as a 5 year old, but later as you reached adulthood and viewed the successes of contemporary actors. And did the fact that actors like Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper tended to struggle with adolescent roles have any meaning for you? Had you contemplated coming back to film at any time after the war ended and if so what changed your mind?
Miss Cammie: When I was growing up, I did want to be in the movies. I spent every Saturday at the local theatre, watching the double features. I really didn’t remember much about all the things I did in GWTW, and I glamorized the movies and the movie stars. I didn’t want to do any work to become an actress, I just wanted to be discovered, just like Lana Turner. I don’t think I was much different from every other girl living around Hollywood.
I never gave former child actors much attention until I reached adulthood. Shirley Temple, Jackie Cooper, Kurt Russell and Ron Howard – all healthy, successful adults – are the exceptions. There are so many miserable onetime child actors.
My late husband, Mike Conlon would tease me about, “Shirley Temple Black, a child star who made it!”
David: What was the story behind you getting the part of Bonnie Blue? And is it true that you spent 6 months learning how to ride a horse?
Miss Cammie: I touched on this in question 1. My mother didn’t want my sister to resent all the attentions I was getting, so she made up the story that Diane was cast at eight, and that six months later, when filming was to begin, she had shot up and looked too old, so they hauled me in for the part. The story worked. I discovered the truth in 1980; I never told my mother or Diane that I knew it was a story, and my sister who died in 1991, never knew that she wasn’t the original Bonnie.
David: What, for you, were the highlights of working on the film? What was the funniest moment that you remember? Who did you like talking to or seeing the most on the set? Are there any standout moments that have stayed with you these many years later that you would care to share with our readers?
Miss Cammie: I have about a dozen snapshot memories of being on the set. Much of what I know came from someone else. The funniest moment would have been on the day I ran over to my mother and cried, “mother, mother, there’s a little girl over there dressed just like me in my riding habit and she’s smoking a cigarette!” The ‘little girl’ was a 35-year-old little person who was my stunt double for my big fall.
The cast member I do remember is Clark Gable who acted like a daddy to me. He was very kind, thoughtful and solicitous.
My mother told me that I really liked to be on set because the crew would spoil me. There’s a wonderful still of me between scenes playing with a toy dish set, a gift from the crew. The vulnerability of a child being spoiled is why she pulled me from movies.
I remember my absolutely favourite cast member being my pony, Bobby.
David: For me, Leslie Howard was one of those great actors whose early death robbed us of many great performances. Do you recall anything about him that stands out in your mind? The same can be asked of the other stars involved; and what were they like to work with?
Miss Cammie: I only know Leslie Howard as a great actor (we never had any scenes together). Like you, I mourn his early death.
David: You had appeared in an earlier Blondie film, but you must have found it a vastly different experience to the enormous budget and size of the GWTW production. How did you cope with the pressures considering you were such a young actor in such a glamorous, but adult world?
Miss Cammie: I was never in a Blondie film. I know that appeared in the Hollywood Collectors Show once, but I had them pull it.
David: Were you ever asked for your autograph on the set of the film or during the gala premier of the movie? Did you attend the spectacular Atlanta opening or any of the other major cities that followed? If not, when was the very first time you signed your name to a photo or card? Do you remember the circumstances, the year, and the person who first asked you? Also have you ever signed either as a child or later any GWTW photos with any of the lead actors like Mr Gable or Mr Howard. For autograph collectors it’s always of great interest to know whether there are extant examples of multi-signed photos in existence. If, for example, you never ever signed a photo with Mr Gable then it’s nice to know this in case one suddenly turns up at auction. Unfortunately, fake autographs are even more common as the many fake artworks, which plague the world.
Miss Cammie: I do not remember being asked for my autograph during filming, or shortly after, but I have a wonderful still that must have been given out after filming. Someone has printed “Love Cammie” as if a five-year-old had autographed it.
I did not go to Atlanta for the gala premiere, but did attend the one in Los Angeles. I had a lovely new dress and coat, and I remember the big search lights and all the cameras. At intermission, my mother sent me home in a taxicab because it was past my bedtime. So I never saw myself in the movie until it was re-released in 1947 or 48
When I could write, at about seven, there would be occasional requests for autographs, but nothing memorable.
I never signed anything with any of the major stars in the film.
In 1954, during the 15th anniversary, it’s quite possible that Ann Rutherford and I signed some photos/articles together. Since the 50th Anniversary, I've signed lots of photos with Mickey Kuhn and Patrick Curtis (who both played Beau) and some with Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes and Fred Crane. Some time ago, Crane’s late wife was attempting to get all the living cast members to sign a commemorative envelope. She had everyone but Olivia de Havilland; whether she got her signature I don’t know.
About ten years ago, Bill Tomkin, a film archivist, got all the living cast members to sign a large b/w shot of Leigh & Gable. There are only as many in existence as there were cast members (maybe 15) so that is very rare.
David: Although GWTW was a huge success, I doubt anyone can believe the legendary status the film as acquired in the last 64 years. What effect has this had on your personal life? Have you thought the role has brought you luck in life or has weighed you down? And do you get sick of being asked why you never returned to acting?
Miss Cammie: No one could have foretold the phenomenon GWTW was to become. Growing up the film had nothing to do with my life, except to embarrass me when someone was to make a fuss of the fact that I was “little Bonnie Blue.” I just wanted to be like all my friends, non show biz people. When I started being asked to attend anniversary celebrations, it was fun – especially seeing other members of the cast. I really loved Butterfly McQueen. We may have signed something together although late in her life she didn’t give out signatures: only mimeographed copies!
For the last two years since retiring from my real job, I've had a great time travelling the US making personal appearances. My lovely fans should check my website: www.bonnieblue.com So it is very strange that late in my life, I have a career based on GWTW. And that is only because of the power of the film.
David: Over the years, what have been your most interesting experiences regarding signing autographs? Not only the funniest or warmest moments, but also any uncomfortable encounters you’ve had with fans? Moments that you would like other actors and celebrities not to have to go through?
Miss Cammie: An autograph moment I talk about in “Tea with Bonnie Blue Butler” is attending the 40th Anniversary celebrations at the LA County Museum of Art. I was still living in LA at the time. My kids were teenagers, and obnoxious, and didn’t want to go to the celebration. Their grandmother told them that they would go, they would dress up and that they would behave. They only did the first ‘would’ and were just awful. So realise that GWTW is not part of my life; the kids just know that I was in this old movie. But then as we approached the museum a group of fans broke away and started towards us, calling out to me, “there Bonnie,” “Oh, it’s Cammie King,” “Miss King, could we have your autograph? There were about 25 of them. I turned around to look at my kids. They were astounded. That night I got respect!
It takes a while for your radar to pick up on the “fans” who really are collectors and those who ask you for innumerable autographs that they can sell.
David: In closing, Miss King, I always like to find out what the actor’s own feelings are on autograph collecting? For some it is great, for others it is one of the burdens of being famous. How do you feel about it and what thoughts would you like to share with your own fans?
Miss Cammie: When making personal appearances, I am happy to sign as many autographs as requested. I'm not recognizable as a celebrity, so I'm not bothered in my private life with autograph seekers. As you know I sell my autographed photos through Shelley and Pierce at their Website: www.pscelebrities.com where I find that the lovely colour photo that I sign from my part as Faline in “Bambi” is also very popular with collectors.
David: It has been an absolute pleasure to have this chance to share your stories and experiences with your thousands of fans around the world. And I am absolutely certain they all wish you the very best, just as I am sure that you will always be signing your name in memory to the legend that is Bonnie Blue Butler.
(c) David Priol 2004