She wasn’t one of the biggest stars, or one of the brightest, but Rosalind Russell was one of the stalwart movie stars of the 1940s and 50s.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, back at the old stand with a few tid-bits about one of the Golden Age’s most versatile actresses (or, as the gender-neutral coinage of the day requires, “actors”).
See her in 1940’s His Girl Friday and 1939’s The Women and watch a comedy genius. But Russell also did drama, sometimes as lead (1948’s The Velvet Touch) and sometimes in support (1956’s Picnic).
She’s best remembered for 1957’s Auntie Mame. She created the role on Broadway (and won a Tony) then recreated it on film (but lost in the Oscar race that year). The movie was nominated in the best picture category but was eclipsed by the Vincente Minnelli musical Gigi costarring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. Fair enough.
But, in our view, Russell should have walked off with the best actress Oscar. Instead, the winner was Susan Hayward for the melodrama, I Want To Live. The Academy may well have gotten it wrong that time.
If you see only one Russell film, however, make it Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. This reworking of The Front Page with the brilliant idea of casting Hildy Johnson as a woman and making her the ex-wife of nemesis Walter Burns (played exuberantly by Cary Grant) is as funny today as it was 73 years ago.
The fast talking patter and overlapping dialogue was inventive for it’s time. And this film set the tone for all future Russell vehicles. That was a good thing since Russell had been criticized for her overplaying in some of her movies.
Our go-to critic, British author David Thomson, for example, wrote this: You only realize how good a film ‘His Girl Friday’ is when you remember that Rosalind Russell is in it. Top-speed comedy and the unyielding aggression of Cary Grant actually managed to control the loudness, bossiness and over emphasis that have spoiled most of her films.
We don’t agree fully with that harsh assessment but Thomson does make a valid point. An added bonus of costarring with Grant was that it was he who introduced Russell to her one and only husband (their marriage lasted for 35 years), Frederick Brisson. The couple lived in elegant Hollywood splendor in a mansion sporting white and gold, designs that even caught the eye of a dyspeptic George Sanders.
Russell also received Oscar nominations for 1942’s My Sister Eileen and for 1946’s Sister Kenny. Confirming that she could handle heavier dramatic material, she was nominated (as was her costar Michael Redgrave) for her performance in a 1947 edition of Eugene O’Neill’s play, Mourning Becomes Electra.
Born in Connecticult in 1907, Russell was a lifelong Roman Catholic. She died in 1976 at the age of 69 of breast cancer. We salute her memory.