Thursday, October 9, 2008

One of the lost ...

I am a collector of facts. Most of them have no obvious value beyond making it a little more fun to watch Jeopardy! Otherwise they're only squatters in a diminishing number of my brain cells.

I was searching for John Wayne portraits for the last post when I came across a photo of Gail Russell, who was "discovered" by a Paramount Studios talent scout while still attending high school. She was a talented artist, who spent hours alone sketching and painting. When her parents entertained company, the painfully shy girl would hide under the piano. However, during the last of the 1930s and into the first months of World War II, Miss Russell's family had sold the piano and most other furniture to make ends meet. The girl was sleeping on spread-out newspapers at the time Paramount signed her for $50 per week. She graduated from school into Hollywood lights. The photo at left is of her and two other child actors signed by Paramount.

Miss Russell was beautiful to the point Paramount executives overlooked her extreme stage fright and total lack of acting experience. They set out to groom her into a star. Miss Russell was assigned an acting coach. She appeared on screens for the first time in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943).

More than 700 Paramount movies were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution. They were weekend and late-night television staples during my childhood. The Paramount movie I remember the best was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a 1944 film starring Miss Russell and Diana Lynn. She also co-starred in two Republic Pictures movies with John Wayne, The Angel and the Badman (1947) and Wake of the Red Witch (1948). These films capture Gail Russell at the pinnacle of her acting career.

Miss Russell had severe performance anxiety fueled by fears that she just wasn't good enough at her profession. She would become physically sick from fright and could not keep her hands from shaking during filming. So during production of The Uninvited (1944), the first movie in which she was featured, she tried alcohol as a means to relax. It helped her control the trembling, so she continued the practice.

Paramount terminated her contract after a 1950 DUI arrest. It was the first of multiple arrests. Miss Russell fell out of the public eye for a few years as she battled alcoholism. She sought treatment and attended AA meetings. John Wayne's second wife listed her as a contributing factor in a 1953 divorce action, something that both Miss Russell and Wayne denied. This contributed to her deepening emotional turmoil. Her 1949 marriage to actor Guy Madison ended in 1954.

Wayne selected her as the female lead for his 1956 Batjac Productions picture, Seven Men from Now. He did this despite being told Miss Russell looked 20 years too old to portray her 26-year-old character. Wayne's gamble worked. The movie, also starring Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin, is still viewed as a Western classic.

She had minor roles in two films, The Tattered Dress and No Place to Land, in the wake of Seven Men. But on July 4, 1957, she was arrested once again following a 4 a.m. accident. The intoxicated actress was charged with a felony after she drove a new convertible through a restaurant wall. A janitor was pinned underneath her car. After failing to appear in court the following summer, she was found passed out in her home by police officers. She was admitted to General Hospital's prison ward.

She said, "Everything happened so fast. I was a sad character. I was sad because of myself. I didn't have any self-confidence. I didn't believe I had any talent. I didn't know how to have fun. I was afraid. I don't exactly know of what--of life, I guess."

Miss Russell did not appear in another movie until 1961, The Silent Call. A few months later, she died alone surrounded by empty liquor bottles and her sketches. The cause of death was ruled as an alcohol-induced heart attack. Miss Russell was 36.

1 comment:

phlegmfatale said...

What a gorgeous creature she was, and what a sad story she had, poor lamb. Pity.