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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Gail Russell

Gail Russell’s fate was sealed when friends from school told a Paramount talent scout about the Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica High, which was Gail alright, only she couldn’t act and didn’t much want to. This girl had as much business being a movie star as I would being an astronaut. The price she paid in showing up for that audition was a lifetime’s damnation, for no one got less joy out of celebrity-dom than Gail Russell. Nineteen when she walked through the gates, Gail’s looks got the pass others would have waited years to earn, but then, most of them would had have more experience, if not talent. Gail had neither. She knew it and so did Paramount, but they had departments to fix all that, and the girl was nothing if not pliable. Terrified might be a better word, for she was beset with stage fright approaching paralysis, and crying fits, then vomiting, would often as not conclude each take. She’d become a joke among producers in the know as to her limitations, but they were committed to the packaging and sale of Gail Russell, and toward that end, thrust her almost immediately into leads. Veterans such as Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland were patient with her --- perhaps they a saw a mirror of their own youthful fears in her doe-eyes, but directors like The Uninvited’s Lewis Allen were charged with getting a performance out of her, and that sometimes took hours, if not days, of blown takes and gentle guidance. Allen later said whatever useful footage they got out of Russell had to be cobbled together from brief takes and single line readings, but the camera showed mercy, and that perfect face would pull her through --- but how long could she keep such a face sneaking drinks to fortify her for the next shot?

I suspect the alcohol was there to salve a lot more than fear of a camera. Girls like Gail, that is to say fantastically beautiful girls with no confidence or protection, were fair game on Paramount preserves, as they would have been anywhere on that west coast Sodom, and I’ve no doubt she endured far worse things than the mere rigors of movie-making. If Golden Age actresses, particularly ones bereft of genuine ability or self-esteem (and that takes in a lot of them) ever told the truth about the price they really paid for stardom, we’d have a much better understanding of why so many lives ended tragically. As it is, most of them took secrets of studio abuse to (early) graves, but judging by oft-torturous paths in getting there, it must have been some really heavy baggage they were carrying. Gail reached a point where she didn’t make friends with anybody (maybe because those executives were all too anxious to make friends with her), and the work never really got any easier. She was congenial enough with Diana Lynn on Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (with her in this shot), but then Diana got her through with off-set coaching and relentless bucking-up. Gail’s temperament was well matched with Alan Ladd’s --- both crippled by insecurity, but their teamings didn’t click like Ladd’s with Lake (Veronica
, that is). Fan magazine’s aptitude for invention really went into high gear with Russell --- she gave them just nothing to build from. Home life wasn’t something she’d talk about. Her parents favored a brother and made little pretense to the contrary. Playing the marquee lure off-screen was quite beyond her, since she never understood that game and couldn’t play it if she did.

John Wayne used Gail in two for Republic --- Angel and The Badman and Wake Of The Red Witch --- and gladly ponied up the loaner fee of $125,000 for her services. Of course, Paramount got the best of that deal. Some allege Russell herself was getting an appalling $125 per week. That’s probably low, but I’ll bet not by much. The one time she got credit for stirring up some dish was ironically a lot of fuss over probably nothing --- an alleged affair with her married co-star Wayne that was more likely a product of misunderstanding and a maniacally jealous wife poised to clean Wayne’s clock in a divorce court. That she did, using Gail as a battering ram, but by this time (1953), Russell’s star was in rapid descent, having been dropped by Paramount (for the drinking as much as public apathy). The work she got (practically none) plus the marriage she’d had (Guy Madison, with whom she’s beaching and nightclubbing here) were adding up to has-been status from which she’d never recover. Gail may have imagined she’d do better as an independent, but the reputation preceded her, and now without Paramount running interference, those DUI stops were landing on front pages all over town. In one particularly frightful incident, she ran her new Cadillac convertible through the front window of a coffee shop and injured the janitor on duty. It was 1957, and she was just 32. Here’s the photo taken right after it happened. Gail’s trying to find her driver’s license. Chances are she didn’t have one, as she’d racked up so many suspensions.

Nothing came harder than work for a discarded actress of a certain age in the fifties. Once they hung the dipso label on you, it became well nigh impossible. Director Joseph Losey told a sad story in which days (and nights) were spent trying to get one sustained take out of Gail. She finally confessed that anything beyond a line or two was out of the question --- unless she had a drink. Losey had been warned about that, of course, but left without a choice, he let her tank up and do the scene half-lit. This time he got what he needed (and by the way, Russell received excellent reviews for The Lawless), though she’d tearfully confess the real problem was that ongoing distaste for acting. With no other livelihood a viable option, Gail had to go on, but her road was filled with disappointment and false starts. A sanitarium layover in Seattle didn’t help --- how could she overcome the demons when there wasn’t any work? Once again, John Wayne lent a hand, casting her in a 1956 Randolph Scott western he produced, Seven Men From Now. That one didn’t get a lot of attention then, but now it’s a seminal fifties classic, and may prove to be her best remembered film. She’s good in it too, but wan, tired, and not at all what her fans expected to see after so long a wait. The final years found Russell vying for crumbs with other actresses who’d gotten the studio go-by --- a Perry Mason guest spot came down to the wire, but Martha Vickers took that dubious prize. They finally found Gail after several days quiet in her one-room apartment --- dead of a heart attack at 36. Bottles were all over the place. That was 1961, and columnists were reminded again of the sad afterlife of Paramount luminaries when Alan Ladd showed up at Gail’s funeral, drunk and muttering incoherently through the service. Maybe he was reflecting upon the fate of this sad girl, or anticipating his own, for he would die three years later under similar circumstances.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

But here is what I always wonder: Did EVERY young actress in Hollywood have to do the casting-couch thing? I mean, weren't there some who got by on talent and were respected as people by those in a position to hire them?

10:06 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Even when she's smiling, she looks sad. It's amazing that "stars" today get away with so much more, and still the movie roles (and big paydays)keep on coming.

2:22 PM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

My what a sad story. I had never heard of Gail Russell before this blog, I will watch out for her from no on. Thank you once again for such a great blog.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or does she look like a female Peter Lorre? Especially in the first pic at the top. That's the first thing I thought when I saw her in The Uninvited...when she made her first entrance in close-up. Peter Lorre in drag! It's something about the bulging eyes, I think. I honestly don't think she's very attractive. Or a good actress - at least, not in The Uninvited. She was trying SO hard to be earnest and innocent, and her mannerisms and diction just made me want to... well...punch her. I know, I'm a big meanie.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. I should add, after reading the blog post... well, at least Gail knew she had no business being an actress. I guess I feel a little sorry for her - although I still resent her mucking up an otherwise great film, The she RUINS that film for me! But I suppose I should really be blaming the studio who hired her when they should've given someone more experienced/accomplished the role.

P.P.S. It sounds like you're only speculating about the casting couch stuff... did Gail or anyone close to her ever allude to it happening?

6:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Actually, I did read in several places that Gail got used pretty badly by studio execs. She always felt that she just couldn't say no to them. That's one of the things that upset John Wayne about her.

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, okay. That's very sad, of course. But I wonder why she felt like she *had* to stay in the movie business when it was making her so miserable. If I were in her shoes, with no talent or ambition to be a movie star, and had major stage-fright to the point of vomiting after each take, *and* studio execs being sexually abusive, I'd quit. I mean, couldn't she try to find some other job? I'd feel sorrier for Gail Russell, except she sounds terribly weak-willed. Just going along with things instead of determining her own fate. Girl should've had more gumption, and sense enough to get out of a bad situation.

12:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's kind of harsh to say she wasn't an actress, when she turned in some fine performances.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Annonymous said...

A female Peter Lorre? It's just you. She was beautiful, and she was a good actress. She obviously had demons that sabotaged much of her life. She also lacked the confidence, I would say narcissism, it takes to have a career as an actress in Hollywood. Finally, it is easily forgotten how extremely limited the world of work was for women prior to the 1970s.

2:08 AM  

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