From elegant ingenues to determined, tart-tongued career women to brassy eccentrics, this tall, winsome New England brunette rendered an indelible gallery of characterizations during her nearly four-decade run in Hollywood. Born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1907 to a successful New England trial lawyer, Rosalind Russell was well into her teens when she turned her career focus toward the stage; her parents, leery of such ambitions, only approved her entry to the American Academy of Dramatic Art in the belief she intended to teach acting. She began working in regional stock, and made her first Broadway appearance in 1930′s Garrick Gaieties.
After years of East Coast stage work, Russell moved west and, in 1934, procured a contract with Universal Pictures, Unhappy with her treatment there, she managed to get out of the deal and arrange a successful test with MGM in short order. She made her screen debut with an other-woman role in the ’34 Myrna Loy-William Powell vehicle, Evelyn Prentice. Remembering the studio’s pecking order in those early days she said, “At MGM there was a first wave of top stars, and a second wave to replace them in case they got difficult. I was second in line of defense, behind Myrna Loy.”
Roz’s workload over the next few years would be, by and large, similarly decorative supporting assignments: Forsaking All Others (1934), a drama starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford; the costume romance The Night Is Young (1934); a Philo Vance whodunit, The Casino Murder Case (1935), and China Seas (also ’35), playing the second lead opposite Gable and Jean Harlow. After playing under Harlow and William Powell in 1935′s Reckless, she landed the lead with Powell later that year in Rendezvous; both of these roles allowed her to flex her comedic muscles as well as her dramatic ability. Critical attention began to snowball from her loan-out to Columbia in 1936 to play the materialistic, shrewish Craig’s Wife, and MGM thereafter showcased her in such diverse projects as 1937′s Night Must Fall, with Robert Montgomery; The Citadel (1938), where she helped Robert Donat discover life’s important meaning; and opposite Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Four’s a Crowd (also ’38).
With the decade’s end she landed two defining roles; conniving and catty Sylvia Fowler in MGM’s all-female farce The Women (1939), and take-no-prisoners reporter Hildy Johnson of His Girl Friday (1940), giving editor/ex-husband Cary Grant a run for his money. Russell thereafter settled into a career groove predominated by screwball comedy–1940′s Hired Wife, No Time for Comedy and This Thing Called Love; They Met in Bombay (’41), again opposite Gable; and 1942′s Design for Scandal, co-starring Walter Pidgeon, and Take a Letter, Darling, with Fred MacMurray. A highpoint of this period came with Columbia’s 1942 film version of the stage play My Sister Eileen. Adapted from Ruth McKenney’s memoir of Greenwich Village life and co-starring Janet Blair as Roz’s title sibling, the audience favorite landed the performer her first Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Through the remainder of the ’40s, her Hollywood slate was still significantly marked by comedies, such as Warner Bros.’ Roughly Speaking in 1945, which remained one of the actress’s personal favorites. That same year she was a psychiatrist with no time for romance–until she’s charmed by cartoonist Lee Bowman–in She Wouldn’t Say Yes. Chances to show off her dramatic chops came courtesy of the moving 1946 biopic Sister Kenny, about the Australian nurse who revolutionized the treatment of polio patients, and 1947′s film translation of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra; both of these performances garnered Russell Academy Award nominations. She was a WWII widow in the poignant drama The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), and–after impressing in a 1948 thriller, The Velvet Touch–got back in touch with her lighter side in the fun-filled Tell It to the Judge (1949), co-starring Robert Cummings and Gig Young.
The early ’50s found the maturing actress directing her energies back toward the stage, touring with Bell, Book and Candle and returning to Broadway for her Tony-winning run in Wonderful Town, the musical adaptation of My Sister Eileen. Back on the big screen, Roz shone in the service comedy Never Wave at a WAC (1953) and won rave reviews as the bitter spinster schoolteacher in William Inge’s Picnic (1955), alongside top-billed William Holden and Kim Novak. She knew it was a good role and praised the author when she said, “William Inge has sisters who were schoolteachers. That helped him in writing Rosemary so perceptively.” Oddly, the actress did not let Columbia push her for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, which many people thought she stood a good chance of winning that year.
It was then back to New York for perhaps her most identified characterization, the irrepressible, free-spirited socialite who brings her orphaned nephew into her unconventional orbit in Auntie Mame. She’d get another Tony nomination for her efforts, and the play’s 1958 screen adaptation resulted in her last Best Actress Oscar nod as well. Maybe she was still in Mame mode when she quipped, “Taste. You cannot buy such a rare and wonderful thing. You can’t send away for it in a catalog. And I’m afraid it’s becoming obsolete!”
Roz would return to film intermittently through the ’60s, with several of those career-winter roles echoing the bigger-than-life aspects of Mame: A Majority of One (1961), as a Brooklyn widow (a role originally played on Broadway by Tony Award winner Gertrude Berg) romanced by a Japanese businessman (Alec Guinness); Five Finger Exercise (1962), as a wife and mother whose snobbish ways kept her out of touch with reality; and in a tour-de-force performance as archetypal stage mother Mama Rose in 1962′s bouncy musical Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood in the title role. Trivia buffs out there may know that Russell worked with the two actresses–June Havoc in My Sister Eileen and Gypsy Rose Lee in The Trouble with Angels (see below)–whose mother she played in Gypsy.
Donning a nun’s habit led to a pair of successful comedies for Russell, 1966′s The Trouble with Angels (co-starring Hayley Mills and the aforementioned Gypsy Rose Lee) and its ’68 follow-up, Where Angels Go…Trouble Follows. She didn’t fare as well, however, with the dark farce Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad in 1967, while another movie that year, the seriocomedy Rosie!, was unfortunately not well received by the public. Declining health led her to pass on Broadway’s musicalized Mame in the mid-’60s. Russell’s final big-screen turn came in 1971′s self-scripted Mrs. Pollifax-Spy, and her last performance would come in the telefilm The Crooked Hearts the following year.
Perhaps her crowning moment arrived when she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 45th Oscar Ceremony in 1973, presented to her by longtime friend Frank Sinatra. She once said about Frank, “Ohhhh, he is quite a guy! Frank is a remarkable human being. Very colorful. He is several people, all interesting. He is a man with concern for people – not only his friends, but people he doesn’t know.”
The actress’ final years were marked by a prolonged struggle with breast cancer, to which she finally succumbed in 1976 at the age of 69. Before that, though, the vibrant and beloved Russell left some expert advice for Hollywood newcomers when she confided, “It’s fine to have talent, but talent is the last of it. In an acting career, as in an acting performance, you’ve got to have vitality. The secret of successful acting is identical with a woman’s beauty secret: joy in living.”
Miss Russell’s talent was evident to millions of fans. Now discover for yourself her inimitable style in the 1958 theatrical trailer for Auntie Mame: