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Gail Russell: Life, Films, and Tragic Death

Updated on February 08, 2017
DS Dollman profile image

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 38 years combined experience as a journalist, photographer, and editor.

Gail Russell

Trailer screenshot from "Wake of the Red Witch," public domain.
Trailer screenshot from "Wake of the Red Witch," public domain. | Source

Gail Russell was a hauntingly beautiful, yet emotionally fragile Hollywood actress with large blue eyes and a shy smile. She starred with some of the most popular leading men in films, including John Wayne, Joel McCrae, and Alan Ladd. In spite of her success, she was tortured by extreme shyness and stage fright and used alcohol to calm her nerves. She eventually lost both her career and her life to the devastating effects of alcoholism.

A Truly "Painful" Shy Childhood

Gail Russell was born Elizabeth L. Russell in Chicago, Illinois on September 21, 1924 to George and Gladys Russell. After she became famous she told reporters that her shyness was so severe that she hid beneath her parent’s piano when they entertained, but the reporters and the public adored her. No one seemed to listen to her cries for help.

Gail was also interested in art and started sketching at age five. This was more than a hobby for Russell. Her dream was to become an artist, but even in the 1920s a woman was expected to follow the dreams of her family.

Gail's mother was the driving force behind Gail Russel's career. According to the actress, Gail would have been perfectly content to stay at home and work on her art, but her mother convinced her to audition at Paramount Studios. The Russell family moved to Los Angeles when Gail was fourteen.


Gail Russell, Richard Lyon and Nona Griffith

Young Paramount stars posing for a public domain publicity still after their contracts were approved.
Young Paramount stars posing for a public domain publicity still after their contracts were approved. | Source

Young and Naive

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Russell told the story of when her parents asked her to wear an evening gown and try to look glamorous, a task she found challenging considering she had never worn makeup and still attended public school, but she did as she was told.

Apparently it was wise career advice. Gail Russell was offered a standard seven year contract and $50 a week, and signed with Paramount as soon as she graduated from Santa Monica High School. It must have been a terribly painful decision for the young woman who wanted nothing more than to sit in a window and create her works of art, but she signed.

Gail Russell

Dell Publishing, 1946, public domain.
Dell Publishing, 1946, public domain. | Source

Stage Fright

Although the studio hired an acting coach, Russell’s stage fright was a problem from the start and discussed often by her costars and the crews on the set as it interfered with filming. Nevertheless, she started her career with an explosion of films.

Gail Russell made her first film appearance at nineteen in the 1943 film Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour. The following year she appeared in Lady in the Dark, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. Although Russell’s role was hardly noteworthy, the film was nominated for three Oscars, which boosted Russell's career.

Critics compared Russell's great beauty to Hollywood favorite Hedy Lamarr and Paramount acted quickly, casting Russell in two more films in 1944. Russell quickly discovered she was expected to appear in two to three films each year, which would be a challenging task for anyone, especially someone whose fear of appearing in public consumed her every thought.

Early Beginnings of a Deadly Disease

Her raven hair and enigmatic beauty was particularly suited to the ghost story plot of The Uninvited, her second film of 1944. Russell was again cast with Ray Milland, this time as his love interest.

During filming, Russell’s stage fright was so great that one of her co-stars suggested she use alcohol to calm her nerves. More than one biographer repeats the rumors that the suggestion came from actor John Wayne, but Wayne heard these rumors as well and adamantly denied having anything to do with Russell's struggles with alcohol. In fact, he insisted that the suspicious amount of time he spent in Russell's dressing room was an attempt to help her calm her nerves.

Russell completed The Uninvited, but lost twenty pounds. She later suffered a nervous breakdown.

This film was also nominated for an Oscar, drawing even more attention to the young star, but her use of alcohol to calm her fears continued and was clearly the beginning of the end for Gail Russell.

Diana Lynn

Trailer screenshot from "Every Girl Should be Married." Public domain.
Trailer screenshot from "Every Girl Should be Married." Public domain. | Source

The Stress of a Hollywood Starlet

In her next film, Russell starred in the well-received 1944 comedy Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, also starring Diana Lynn.The film is based on a book with the same name written by actress Cornelia Otis Skinner and journalist Emily Kimbrough. The book describes their jaunt through Europe in the 1920s, when they were fresh out of college. Russell played Skinner and Lynn played Kimbrough, roles that seemed to be written for both of these talented young women.

The following year, Russell starred as a school teacher opposite Alan Ladd in Salty O'Rouke, another Oscar-nominated film. She then appeared with Joel McCrae in the supernatural tale, The Unseen. Although both Russell and McCrae were established actors by this time the film failed to attract the same attention as The Uninvited.

In 1946, Gail Russell and Diana Lynn revived their roles in Our Hearts Were Growing Up, the sequel to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. This film was also well-received by audiences and reviewers. Before the year was over Russell would complete yet another movie, The Bachelor’s Daughters, with Adolphe Menjou. Added to this grueling schedule was Russell’s tortuous ordeal with stage fright, which she continued to treat with a liberal dose of alcohol.

Gail Russell and John Wayne

Trailer screenshot from "Angel and the Badman," 1947.
Trailer screenshot from "Angel and the Badman," 1947. | Source

"Angel and the Badman"

In 1947, Russell performed one of her most famous roles as the innocent Quaker love interest of John Wayne in Angel and the Badman.

It was during the filming of Angel and the Badman that John Wayne first noticed Russell's struggle with alcohol outweighed her problems with shyness. As mentioned before, Wayne offered to help his costar with her fears and panic and spent what many biographers referred to as a suspicious amount of time with Russell, which did not go unnoticed by the Hollywood gossips.

"Angel and the Badman"

The Damaging Effects of Gossip

Wayne's wife, actress Esperanze "Chata" Bauer, was convinced that her husband was having an affair with Russell, though Wayne and Russell both denied anything more than friendship.

The film was well-received by reviewers, though. The New York Times review stated: "John Wayne makes a grim and laconic, converted renegade, who is torn by love, a new faith and the desire for revenge on an arch enemy. Gail Russell, a stranger to Westerns, is convincing as the lady who makes him see the light."

Angel and the Badman was an important film for Russell as a vehicle to attract the attention of fans. Her soft, innocent looks combined with the naivete of her character appealed to audiences.

Gail Russell and John Wayne

Trailer screenshot from "Wake of the Red Witch."
Trailer screenshot from "Wake of the Red Witch." | Source

"Wake of the Red Witch"

In 1947, Russell performed one of her most famous roles as the innocent Quaker love interest of John Wayne in The Angel and the Badman. Wayne's wife, actress Esperanze "Chata" Bauer, was convinced that her husband was having an affair with Russell. Ronald L. Davis discusses the situation in his biography of John Wayne titled Duke. Although John Wayne had openly admitted to affairs in the past, both Wayne and Russell firmly denied anything more than friendship.

In 1949, Russell once again starred as John Wayne's love interest in Wake of the Red Witch. Wayne received 10% of the gross from the movie, which entitled him to help choose the cast, and he chose Gail.


The Dangers of Friendship

When Wayne's wife, actress Esperanza "Chata" Bauer, learned that her husband had chosen Russell for this role she exploded in an alcoholic, jealous rage. In her (reluctant) defense, she was not only trying to cope with the rumors and gossip. Bauer knew that Wayne had open, public affairs while married to his first wife.

Wayne returned home late from the cast party for Wake of the Red Witch and Bauer was waiting at the door with her mother. Bauer aimed a gun at her husband and pulled the trigger. The bullet barely missed Wayne’s head.

Russell was called upon to testify at the divorce trial of John Wayne and Chata Bauer, which turned into a humiliating and painful drama for Russell, but she insisted throughout the trial that she was friends with Wayne, and nothing more.

Guy Madison, Actor

Actor Guy Madison, Russell's husband, from the television series "Climax." Photo is in public domain.
Actor Guy Madison, Russell's husband, from the television series "Climax." Photo is in public domain. | Source

Russell is Arrested

Contrary to what the gossips implied, Russell married her long-time boyfriend, television actor Guy Madison. According to biographers their marriage was "on the rocks" from the start, and as always for Russell, shockingly public. The couple were often seen drunk and fighting in restaurants and bars.

In 1953, Russell was called to testify in John Wayne’s divorce trial, which greatly increased her stress. Once again, Russell and Wayne both denied having an affair, but the damage from the stress of the trial was apparent to everyone who knew Russell, as well as those who didn't as her personal problems became more public.

Two weeks after the Wayne divorce trial Russell was arrested for drunk driving. The arrest fueled even more rumors about an affair with John Wayne and caused serious damage to her marriage to Guy Madison.

Russell's alcoholic reputation troubled Paramount executives and they refused to renew her contract.

Gail Russell and defense lawyer Harvey Silbert

Gail Russell pleads "not guilty" to drunk driving in 1953.
Gail Russell pleads "not guilty" to drunk driving in 1953. | Source

A Quick Divorce and Short-Lived Hope for the Future

Russell and Madison divorced in 1955, adding to her feelings of despair. Shortly after the divorce, Russell left the scene of the crime after rear-ending another vehicle while intoxicated.

In 1957, Russell drove her new convertible through the glass windows of Jan's Restaurant in Beverly Hills and the janitor was pinned beneath her vehicle. There was very little more she could have done to destroy her career.

Remarkably, Russell was picked up by Universal Studios and continued to star with some of the most famous names in Hollywood, including Randolph Scott in Seven Men from Now, but she also continued to drink. In August of 1957, when she failed to appear in court for the incident at Jan's Restaurant, officers were sent to Russell's home and found her drunk and unconscious. The hearing was held at General Hospital where she was bedridden with severe effects from the alcoholism.

Then, for the first time in her adult life, Russell made a move to try and salvage her life, career, and reputation. Russell joined Alcoholics Anonymous while she was staying at the hospital. She continued to attend AA meetings for an entire year, giving hope to her family and friends that she would finally be able to fight the demons in her life.

One year later Russell returned to her alcoholic habits of before.

Hollywood's Walk of Fame

Photo by Owen Lloyd in public domain.
Photo by Owen Lloyd in public domain. | Source

A Great Beauty Succumbs to a Deadly Disease

In 1961, Russell starred in her last movie, The Silent Call. When filming was completed, she locked herself in her Los Angeles studio apartment, sketching and drinking.

On August 26, 1961, 35-year-old Gail Russell died from an alcohol-induced heart attack. She wasn't found until the next day, and the certificate lists August 27 as her date of death. Russell is buried in Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in Hollywood, California.

Russell continues to have a fan following, based mainly on her role in the popular John Wayne film The Angel and the Badman. Actress Jane Fonda also modeled her Oscar-nominated role in the 1986 film The Morning After on the life of Gail Russell.

Gail Russell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6933 Hollywood Blvd.

Irene Rich, Gail Russell and John Wayne

Trailer screenshot from "Angel and the Badman," public domain.
Trailer screenshot from "Angel and the Badman," public domain. | Source

List of Roles Performed by Actress Gail Russell

In 1943 Russell played Virgina Lowry in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour.

In 1944, the year she appeared in three films, Russell played Barbara in Lady in the Dark.

Again in 1944 Russell performed her now-famous role as Sheila Meredith in The Uninvited.

And also in 1944 Russell starred as Cornelia Otis Skinner in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

In 1945, another stressful year, Russell played Barbara Brooks in Salty O'Rourke,

Also in 1945, Russell played Elizabeth Howard in another suspense film, The Unseen.

And again in 1945 Russell joined many famous actors of her time in Duffy's Tavern.

In 1946 Russell appear in both The Bachelor's Daughters (as Eileen Macfarland) and reprised her role as Cornelia Otis Skinner for the popular Our Hearts Were Growing Up.

The following year, 1947, Russell costarred with John Wayne in Angel and the Badman playing the role that made her famous, Penelope Worth.

This was another three-film year for Russell who also played Virginia Moore in Calcutta and appeared as herself in Variety Girl.

And again, in 1948, Russell was required to perform in three films. Imagine the effect this must have had on a young woman tortured with stage fright and the debilitating disease of alcoholism. First she played Gilly Johnson in Moonrise, then Jean Courtland in Night has a Thousand Eyes. Then Russell played Angelique Desaix in yet another controversial appearance with John Wayne for Wake of the Red Witch.

In 1949 Russell played Princess Tara in Song of India, Susan Jeffers in El Paso, and Cissy Lathrop in The Great Dan Patch.

In 1950 Russell appeared as Sunny Garcia in Captain China and Kim Mitchell in The Lawless.

In 1951 Russell starred as Janet Page in Air Cadet.

In spite of her tarnished reputation, Russell made a comeback in 1956 with a stellar performance as Annie Greer in Seven Men from Now. She also appeared in the episode "Time, Tide and a Woman" on the television series Studio 57.

In 1958 Russell played Carol Morrow in The Tattered Dress.

In 1959 she played Lynn Dillon in No Place to Land.

In 1960, the year before she died, Gail Russell played Cassandra Bannister in the episode "Noblesse Oblige" of the television series The Rebel and Mrs. Clark in the episode "Matinee Monster" for the series Manhunt.

Gail Russell's final appearance was as Flore Brancato in a film eerily titled The Silent Call. She finally succumbed to acute alcoholism in 1961,

Gail Russell in "The Great Dan Patch"

Trailer screenshot, public domain.
Trailer screenshot, public domain. | Source

"The Great Dan Patch"

Sources:

  • "Angel and the Bad Man" with John Wayne and Gail Russell called Superior to Usual Western." The New York Times. March 3, 1947. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  • Davis, Ronald L. Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma: 1998.
  • “Gail Russell.” Turner Classic Movies Online Database: Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  • Harnisch, Larry. “Gail Russell-In Memorium.” Los Angeles Times/The Daily Mirror: July 5, 2007. Retrieved on January 19, 2016.

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    • profile image

      Marcia @ Menopausal Mother 14 months ago

      Such a sad tale. She really was a beauty and quite the actress.

    • DS Dollman profile image
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      Darla Sue Dollman 14 months ago from Loveland, Colorado

      It is sad. When I think of her, I rarely think of her films. I think of a shy woman hiding in her apartment with her bottle and her sketch pad. She probably had no idea she was killing herself--our knowledge of the effects of alcoholism is surprisingly new--and the thought that it so long for anyone to realize she had died is heart-wrenching. She seemed to hesitate in her early films and I think you can sense her reluctance, but that is apparent in the first films of many actors. In her later films she is wonderful. I noticed the same about Queen Latifah. When she first appeared in a television sitcom she was terrible. Now she is fantastic!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 13 months ago from USA

      what a tragic life for someone who wanted to live so quietly but who was forced to become someone she was not. Well written.

    • DS Dollman profile image
      Author

      Darla Sue Dollman 13 months ago from Loveland, Colorado

      Thank you. I was trying to emphasize that point--she made it clear from the start that she wanted a quiet, solitary life. Writers and artists work alone. In the end, she was alone.

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      Natalie Frank 6 weeks ago

      It's so sad when a parent pushes a child to do something they don't want. It seems like Russell was a reluctant star her entire career. Is there anything that says she came to love being a film star or is the social anxiety, stage fright and alcoholism all evidence of her never enjoying it and to the contrary finding it stressful. (Welcome back by the way. You were missed).

    • profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 6 weeks ago

      I agree, and the problem seems to be much worse in Hollywood, although they did start passing laws to force parents to back off a bit. I think a few major lawsuits changed the way parents behaved, as well.

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