Gail Russell: Gone Too Soon

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.voss3 Robert Voss

    Russell, as portrayed in Angel and the Badman, possesses all the qualities men spend their lifetimes seeking. Want to fall in love? Check it out for yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000534988081 Brian Jodrie

    His Kind Of Woman(1951)with Robert Mitchum,Tim Holt,Vincent Price,Raymond Burr,Charles McGraw,etc

    • Ron

      Not Jane Russell…………..Gail Russell.

    • Ed

      What Russell are you thinking of???????

  • Jan R

    A sad end to a beautiful and talented actress. I guess a star that shines that brightly has to burn out quickly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ralph.smithsr.1 Ralph Smith Sr.

    Fell in love with this young lady watching “Angel and The Badman”.
    What a sad life.
    But,
    She brought joy into my life.
    I Pray She found peace.
    May She Rest in Peace.

  • ETB

    If ever there were “bedroom eyes”, this young lady lhad ‘em !!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon Jackson

    Of all ‘screen beauties’, Gail Russell was #1 with Suzan Ball a close second.

  • Tammy

    “The Uninvited” is one of my all time favorite films. Gail Russell’s eyes always had a sadness in them, she will be forever beautiful in film.

  • Grand Old Movies

    Russell was a lovely, underrated actress, with a hauntingly ethereal presence (would have loved to have seen her in a film like PORTRAIT OF JENNIE). Her performance in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW is beautifully done; she brought great depth and feeling to the part. A great loss that her career ended so soon.

  • Albert Shalhoub

    When the Angel And the Badman comes on I have to watch it. She was great.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000993528023 James Morris

    She was a stunning beauty. It’s a shame that The Uninvited is not available on DVD. It’s one of my favorite films.

  • anonymous

    One of Hollywood’s great losses. Gail was one of the lovliest actresses ever to grace the screen.
    Her performances in such films as MOONRISE, ANGEL AND THE BADMAN, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW and THE LAWLESS were the best I have ever seen. She was a treasure and is so missed.

  • bookman

    I first saw Gail Russell in 1949 in Wake of the Red Witch.  I was nine years old and I thought she was the loveliest person I’d seen in films to that point in my life.  Even though I saw new films twice a week for years after that, I can’t recall seeing her again.  But she stayed in my mind because of her eyes and her smile…and her bearing which was simply very ethereal, almost other worldly.

    Then many years later I saw her when The Uninvited was aired.  And I thought, in my late 20s, her presence still affected me in the same way–and in the intervening years I saw many other beautiful film stars.  But there has always been some particular quality about her that I feel makes her remain very special.  I can’t help but think her quiet demeanor and loveliness were a reflection of the person she was off-screen.

    Tonight I saw her in the film Moonrise with Dane Clark and Ethel Barrymore.  Now, at 70,  I still think she remains just as beautiful as I did when I was nine years old.  In all the years in between, when I’m struck by any woman’s appearance I realize that they always in some way resemble Gail Russell.  What a shame for her she was pushed so hard; we were able to enjoy her beauty and talent, but it took her life.  She probably would have been happiest as an artist and perhaps, even, as something of a loner.    

    • Ron

      You are so right. I am 74 and she still remains my favorite actress of all time.

  • bachelorsdaughters

    Breathtaking and heartbreaking…………………..Miss Russell was unique and will be missed forever.

  • Anna

    Just noticed this article. Oh, how it made me realize just how much I miss Gail Russell. She was a one-off, absolutely breath-taking. Those eyes will forever haunt me and the song STELLA BY STARLIGHT will always remind me of the tragic loss of one of Hollywood’s greats.

  • http://www.facebook.com/colin.framwell Colis Framwellgate

    Indeed like many others a tragic tale, though one of the most beautiful women ever to grace Hollywood

  • Midge

    Gail was a one-off. She was so unique. No one has ever come up to her fragile quality.
    her tragic life still haunts me to this day

  • Noel Bjorndahl

    Luminous is the word to describe her. Although her life was tragically short, she left us with some wonderful reminders of her beauty and talent. Top 5 for me: Moonrise, The Uninvited, Angel and the Badman, Seven Men from Now, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (I often wonder how well she got on with that martinet John Farrow).

  • Laurence Almand

    At one time she was married to Hollywood Hunk Guy Madison (Robert Mosley) another of Henry Willson’s creations. It has been said that she was bisexual, and that emotional conflicts over her inability to accept herself lead to her alcoholism. Too bad, for she was strikingly beautiful, and also highly talented – a rare combination even in Hollywood.
    Why didn’t she consult a psychiatrist and get her act together, like Cheryl Crane? Alas, we shall never know. I guess her career is summed up (like so many tragic stars) in the Millay poem:
    “My candle burns at both ends.
    It will not last the night.
    But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
    It gives a lovely light.”
    She was a lovely light, and snuffed out too soon.

  • Raymond Townsend

    Bought the Blu Ray dvds of THE UNINVITED and ANGEL AND THE BADMAN just to be able to watch this beautiful young woman at her best. She was so ethereal and fragile. There will never be anyone like her. I do hope someone does a biography on her. There must be a fascinating story to be told.

  • harry

    She had something that gets your notice, like a starlight night.

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