Gail Russell was one of the most hauntingly beautiful women ever to appear in the movies. She was also a sensitive actress who was used to great effect in some wonderful movies. Unfortunately that touching sensitivity was a factor offscreen as well; Russell waged a long battle against shyness and stage fright. She “steadied her nerves” with alcohol, leading to a decline in her appearance and an early death at the age of 36.
Russell was born in Chicago on September 21, 1924. Her family moved to California and in her late teens she signed with Paramount Pictures. She appeared in her first film, the programmer Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943), at the age of 18.
Russell’s star rose quickly; after a small role in Lady in the Dark (1944) she was given the plum role of Stella in the classic “haunted house” thriller The Uninvited (1944). Stella is gently romanced by a dashing older man (Ray Milland) who tries to understand the odd connection between Stella and the spooky home he’s recently purchased.
The score for The Uninvited introduced a song named for Russell’s character which became an American standard, the haunting “Stella By Starlight”:
Russell’s ethereal beauty was used to good effect in additional films with an other wordly quality, including The Unseen (1945) with Joel McCrea, Night Has a Thousand Eyes(1948) with John Lund and Edward G. Robinson, and Wake of the Red Witch (1948) with John Wayne.
Russell was well matched with Alan Ladd in Salty O’Rourke (1945) and Calcutta (1947), and she appeared opposite John Payne in El Paso (1949) and Captain China (1950).
Among the other memorable titles in Russell’s relatively short but impressive career were Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944), in which she starred as Cornelia Otis Skinner, and its sequel, Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946). The Bachleor’s Daughters (1946) was a particularly well-made and original romantic comedy-drama, and Moonrise (1948) is a very highly regarded film noir which also starred Dane Clark.
My favorite Russell film has long been Angel and the Badman (1947), in which Russell and John Wayne played the title roles. Russell’s Penny is a Quaker girl who is disarmingly direct about her feelings for Wayne’s gunslinger, and in due course he can’t stop from falling in love with the lovely Penny.
After Air Cadet (1951) Russell’s career hit the skids due to her problems with alcohol. She was off the screen for several years when her good friend John Wayne invited her to appear in a Randolph Scott Western he was producing. The film happened to be Seven Men from Now (1956), now recognized as one of several classics made by Scott with director Budd Boetticher.
Laura G. is a proofreader and homeschooling parent who is a lifelong film enthusiast. Laura’s thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005. Visit her website at http://www.laurasmiscmusings.blogspot.com.