Tuesday, November 13

A Sad Hollywood Story

If on one of my quizzes you were asked to come up with an actress whose last name was Russell, you might very well say Rosalind or Jane.  That would be on the mark but what if I asked you to name a third?  For a short time in the 1940s and 1950s there was Gail Russell.  She is virtually forgotten today... only the most hard core among us know that name.  All through her brief acting career she was crippling shy.  If she were alive today and still largely forgotten, she would be quite happy about that.  On that note, we shall begin our sad Hollywood story.

She never wanted to be an actress.  She never studied to be one, never considered it, was never all that happy after she became one. She wanted to be a painter.  She only signed the Paramount contract because it guaranteed her $50/week.  It would have served her better to be alone sitting at an easel, making beauty, only having to occasionally talk to a friend or a family member.  She wouldn't have had to dress up or apply makeup or have someone fuss over her hair.  She couldn't bare someone fussing over her.  She wouldn't have had to carry on animated conversations or ask people questions when she was uninterested in the answers and unskilled in how to obtain them.  She could just be alone... with her easel... making beauty.

She and I had a number of things in common.  We both moved from Illinois to California.  We both graduated from Santa Monica High School and we both lived on Veteran Avenue in West Los Angeles.  In every instance, she did it first. 

It's usually said that she was a great beauty but I confess to not really seeing that.  Nonetheless, her beauty is said to have attracted the folks at Paramount and they put her under contract.  They provided acting lessons and taught her many other things that would serve her well in future roles.  That was certainly one of the best things about the old studio system.  What you didn't know they would teach you.  Without it, Russell would have run back out through the gates and never returned.  She would not have had enough confidence in herself to fake it... or to what?  Act?

I don't think she ever made a classic movie, one that we hold up  today as something to treasure.  Nor do I think that she was ever anything more than a competent actress.  Arguably one of her earliest films may be her best in terms of how the film is regarded rather than her acting.  It is The Uninvited.  She and Paramount super employee Ray Milland, along with Ruth Hussey, enjoy the atmospheric mystery of an old house (a well-worn plot device to be sure).  She worked twice with another Paramount superstar, Alan Ladd, in Salty O'Rourke and Calcutta.  Ladd was immensely popular and anyone appearing in a flick with him was bound to get noticed by the public.  When she was stopped on the street and asked for an autograph, she wanted to run and hide.  And she wanted to shrink from sight when she was asked to do cheesecake photos or most any photos.

Actress Cornelia Otis Skinner also worked with Russell in The Uninvited and Russell would actually play Skinner in two subsequent films, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and its sequel Our Hearts Were Growing Up.  Costarring with her in both was another Paramount contractee, Diana Lynn, who, like Russell, would die young.  Both films were popular at the time but they have no legs.

In 1947 she made the first of two films with John Wayne, The Angel and the Badman.  Mrs. Wayne didn't think Russell was an angel and named her in the divorce complaint.  It was all very public and very messy.  Not that most people would handle such scrutiny well, but Russell really crumbled.  She had always had a little drinky-poo to ease her stage fright but by the time of the Wayne affair and its demise, she was really knocking them back.

After the Wayne kiss-off, she met handsome young stud muffin, Guy Madison.  Before they married in 1949 and for awhile afterwards, Russell was probably as happy as she'd ever been or ever would be again.  Not much has ever been written about their courtship or marriage or divorce but one thing was clear... Russell was over the moon for Madison.

Guy Madison was one of a long line of gorgeous men who were discovered, groomed and, occasionally with some, bedded by flamboyantly gay Hollywood agent Henry Willson.  Some of the young, wannabe actors were gay themselves and some were straight but would have done anything to get into the movies.  Willson changed their names into ones like Rock and Tab and Troy.  Most were marginally talented.  Some of his clients, like Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun, enjoyed a number of trysts together. 

What Russell knew about Madison's sexuality before she married him is unknown to me.  Had she known, it may not have mattered anyway, to either of them.  She may have felt more beautiful on the arm of so handsome a man.  She might have found a measure of security.  He may have needed the camouflage of a husband and wife relationship, certainly so if he wanted to have a movie career.  But it is quite likely that she became more aware of his other life as time went by and that brought about whatever complications it did.  Five years later the union was over.  It would be her only marriage and it's been said she never really recovered from the parting.

By this time of her life, the drunk driving citations and accidents were piling up, every one, of course, making the papers.  The humiliation would cause her to drink more and draw up within herself.  Paramount did not renew her contract.  At one point she drove her vehicle into the front of a coffee shop and pinned the janitor underneath it.

The newspapers asked her for a quote about her latest mishap and she blithely offered... I had a few drinks.  I had two.  No, four.  Oh, I don't know how many I had.  It's nobody's business anyway.  Booze ripped away at whatever attractiveness she had.  She holed away in her apartment with the vodka.

She also, of course, hadn't worked much.  Her old pal Wayne, now producing a Randolph Scott western, Seven Men from Now (1956), hired her.  The public liked Scott's westerns but I don't think Hollywood ever paid a lot of attention to them.  The following year she made, along with The Uninvited, my favorite Russell film, The Tattered Dress.  She was billed after the three JC's... Jeff Chandler, Jeanne Crain and Jack Carson in a tawdry little murder story.  She looked 10 years older than she was.

It's been said she went for treatment several times but she was in the grips of alcoholism.  As for working, her stage fright was still there and her insecurities of acting as desperate as ever.

I have seen it written that she died in Brentwood, California, and also on Bentley Ave., off Santa Monica Blvd.  Neither was true.  It was off Santa Monica Blvd alright but on Veteran Ave.  One hot August day in 1961 I was washing my car out on the street when I heard sirens.  I looked up to see an ambulance and a police car arrive at a white apartment building a few doors away on the same side of my street.  I had walked by that building dozens of times, and was always struck by one or two things.  The blinds or shades or drapes of that front right ground floor apartment were always closed and more often than not, something was piled up at the front door.  I had no idea who lived there.

It wasn't until the next day that my mother asked me if I knew who actress Gail Russell was.  (Oh duh, Mom.)  And she said that not only had Gail Russell died, but she was the woman who lived in that white apartment that was always closed up.  So she was the one covered and carried to the ambulance I had watched from a distance.

The papers reported that she was found among her paintings and empty booze bottles.  They said she died of a heart attack at least a day before being found.  She was 36. 

I think we often scoff at those who have acting careers and yet maintain how shy they really are.  They usually say that when they disappear into the character, they are not themselves and therefore not shy.  I buy that but Gail Russell remains as the poster child for the truly shy person who acted.  Maybe the one thing that separates her from the other shy actors is that she never really wanted to be one.  She never wanted to disappear into a character.  She just wanted to disappear.  It's a sad Hollywood story.

Review of Lincoln


  1. Love reading your stories! We have one more thing in common. I lived on Veteran Ave. too! Just off Wilshire while in grad school. :) Looking forward to the Lincoln review.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Lori. Boy, you and I have shared a love of movies forever and ever, haven't we? I actually often think of you as I am writing. So glad you are enjoying.