Yes, yes, we realize that with all that’s going on in the world today — from Ebola to Benghazi not to mention Robert Downey Jr.’s movie earnings — the above question is hardly one of the more pressing. But for fans of Forties films, which we definitely are, it has its potential.
We know that you know who John Wayne is. Gail Russell? Perhaps not so much.
The former Elizabeth Russell was born in Chicago in 1924. She moved with her parents to Los Angeles when she was 14, and found herself making her onscreen debut (in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour) just five years later. She impressed Paramount and later the Republic Pictures front office with her combination winsome yet sultry good looks, perfect for film noir and westerns.
Her career wasn’t lengthy — covering some 25 movies over an 18-year span — and it was during her Republic Pictures period when her liaision with Wayne (who worked like a dog at Republic) flourished in the late Forties a year or two before her one and only marriage to beefcake actor Guy Madison (it lasted five years).
Russell costarred with Wayne in the 1947 western Angel and the Bad Man. It became obvious that Wayne, who was unusually proper with his leading women — and who took each of his three marriages seriously — harbored a very big soft spot for Russell.
Nine years later, Wayne pushed very hard to have Russell cast in Seven Men From Now, a western starring Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin, produced by Wayne’s Batjac Productions outfit. This despite her not working for several years and a dustup with the law.
The Wayne-Russell relationship came up in the legal proceedings prefiguring Wayne’s bitter divorce from his spitfire second wife, Esperanza (“Chata”) Baur. She said she nearly shot her husband with the .45 she owned “when he had staggered (home) after a night with Russell, according to author Scott Eyman’s new biography, JOHN WAYNE The Life and the Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Both Russell and Wayne denied the affair.
By this time Russell was laid claim to a reputation as a strong actress in film noir, particularly in director Frank Borzage’s little known 1948 drama Moonrise for Republic Pictures. Her performance as a beautiful school teacher drew praise from noir critic, Eddie Muller. Gail Russell comes off as one of the true Dark Angels of fim noir, writes Muller.
Interestingly, she also had a substantial part in 1950′s The Lawless, directed by Joseph Losey, no less, which also marked the film debut of someone by the name of Tab Hunter.
Russell was psychotically gripped by stagefright and turned to alcohol to settle her nerves — a lot of alcohol. By the mid-Fifties things got really out of control, and she wound up driving her convertible through the front of Jan’s coffee shop in Los Angeles, nearly killing a janitor.
The end came in 1961, and it wasn’t pretty. According to author Eyman, Russell died in a Los Angeles apartment surrounded by empty liquor bottles… her stomach was so swollen it looked like she had swallowed a football. She was all of 36 years old.
Recalled Budd Boetticher, director of Seven Men From Now, (Wayne) was more fond of Gail Russell than any of them. And I think Duke had a crush on her. I think she was the one leading lady that he really cared about in anything but a professional way.