Friday, January 18, 2013

From my collection: Gail Russell (1925-1961) Angel and the Badman


Viewing Angel and the Badman (1947) again, and in the restored version, one cannot help thinking that Gail Russell, had she been able to conquer her demons, would have been one of the great stars of the 1950s. A more introverted Susan Hayward, perhaps. It was not to be, alas.

Poor Gail Russell. The adjective has almost become part of her name, as in poorgailrussell, and she is usually only mentioned whenever the more destructive aspects of fame are discussed, her movies a mere afterthought to her well-reported neuroses. Discovered by a Paramount scout while still in high school, she was considered a mix between a young Hedy Lamarr and an even younger Kay Francis and garnered quite a bit of attention in The Uninvited (1944), a lyrical ghost story and the finest film she ever made. Her other Paramount pictures are all but forgotten today but her Quaker girl opposite John Wayne’s outlaw in Republic's Angel and the Badman is not. The Western, which has fallen into public domain and is everywhere today, caused a bit of a scandal back in 1947 when a jealous Esperanza Wayne apparently unfairly accused her husband of having an adulterous affair with his costar. Already fortifying her scant confidence with the occasional nip of gin – she is visibly unsteady in both Wake of the Red Witch, another Wayne vehicle, and the western El Paso (1949) – Russell soon took to the bottle in a major way and attempted to escape the negative headlines by entering into a marriage with the possibly homosexual bobbysoxer sensation Guy Madison, a union that lasted a scant five years. For all intent and purposes, Russell's career came to a screeching halt when she was hit with the first of several drunk-driving charges in 1951. She bravely returned for a couple of programmers in the mid-1950s, looking shockingly aged, but had generally become too much of a risk to bother with. There was apparently a somewhat stabilizing romance with a well-known lesbian, the singer Dorothy Shay, but the drinking only continued and in the Summer of 1957 Russell was awarded a 30 day suspended sentence and a fine of $400 for crashing her car into a shop window on Wilshire Blvd., briefly pinning a man under the front wheels, in retrospect a rather lenient sentence for a near-fatal drunk-driving incident. The discovery of her body, literally surrounded by empty liquor bottles, has become part of Hollywood lore; the autopsy read heart attack but smitten film historians advocate the more sentimental verdict of an intelligent girl broken by a heartless industry.

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