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Wild Women of the West: Gayle Russell

Republic Pictures Leading Cowgirl Actresses

August 06, 2019

There were many talented, female contract players at Republic Pictures.  In the mid-1940s the studio had more than a hundred-twenty actors in its’ stable of gifted individuals.  Some of those actresses became household names because of their work in front of the camera and others rose to fame as a result of their off-screen exploits.  The following is a look at a few of the studio’s most recognizable and popular women thespians, their careers, and the roles that made them stars.

One of Republic Pictures most popular actresses was one of the motion picture industries most troubled.  Her name was Gail Russell. Russell, a beautiful brunette with dark, blue eyes, was a gifted talent who dreamed of becoming a commercial artist.  She was born Elizabeth L. Russell in Chicago on September 21, 1924. Throughout her childhood she was painfully shy and often hid under her parent’s piano whenever guests came to their home.  The young girl only felt completely comfortable when she was sketching various people and places in her sphere of influence. She began drawing at the age of five years old and was considered exceptional by most that saw her sketches and paintings.

When she was in her late teens, her mother, Gladys Russell, encouraged her to set aside her drawing pencils and venture into films.  Russell was fourteen when her parents moved to Los Angeles so their daughter could pursue their dream of her becoming a star. She attended Santa Monica High School and as soon as she graduated, she auditioned for Paramount Pictures and signed a contract with the studio for $50 a week.

Russell’s shyness followed her as she began her career.  Acting instructors were hired to help her overcome her timidity, but it never completely subsided.  It did add to her haunting persona and she was cast in roles where that part of her personality could be highlighted.  As her star rose in the industry her fear of performing became more pronounced. With each film it took more effort to overcome her lack of self-confidence and commit to the part.  While filming The Uninvited in 1944, Russell chose to deal with her paralyzing self-doubt by drinking.  Alcohol did not quiet her nerves it merely made her more anxious. By the end of the production she had become dependent liquor and was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  The Uninvited was a critical success and the film was nominated for an Academy Award.  Russell became even more popular by the film. She went on to work with such stars as Alan Ladd and Joel McCrae, Jane Wyatt and Adolphe Menjou.  The work was continuous and the pace grueling. Russell dealt with the frantic scheduled the same way she did with her shyness, by drinking.

In 1946 Russell starred in the first of four films she made for Republic Pictures.  John Wayne coproduced The Angel and the Badman and specifically requested Gail Russell to play opposite him in the western written and directed by James Edward Grant.  Wayne was moved by her quiet, unassuming personality. He treated her with the respect and kindness she’d not known from many other leading men or producers.  The two became good friends while working on the film. Wayne was protective of Russell. He recognized vulnerability in the actress some could have taken advantage of.  He was a father figure to Russell and she considered him to be a fiercely honest individual.

Wayne’s second wife, Esperanza “Chata” Baur was less than enthusiastic with the bond the shy actress and her husband had forged.  Wayne and Chata’s marriage was strained at this point and Russell’s presence made matters worse. The pair was nothing more than friends, but Chata often accused Wayne of feeling more for Russell than he did.

When filming for The Angel and the Badman was complete the cast and crew of the picture celebrated the progress at a restaurant across the street from Republic Studios.  The party graduated from the restaurant to a bar. Wayne offered to escort Russell, who had been drinking, to her family’s apartment.  He drove her car with plans to take a cab back to his home after dropping her off. Along the way Russell and Wayne stopped to have something to eat.  It was late by the time they arrived at the Russell’s home. Russell’s parents invited Wayne to come in and visit a while. Not wanting to be impolite he accepted their invitation.  It was one in the morning when Russell’s brother called a cab for Wayne and even later when Wayne returned to his own home. Chata was furious and not long afterwards filed for divorce.

While Wayne’s domestic issues were being covered in various West Coast newspapers, The Angel and the Badman was released in theatres across the country.  The movie was well received. Russell’s performance was praised by film critics.  A review in the March 3, 1947 edition of the New York Times noted that her portrayal of the soft-spoken, Quaker Penny Worth was a “haunting mixture of sweetness and sex appeal.”  Russell was thrilled with the positive response for her work and she was looking forward to the other film projects that were lined up.

Shortly after the release of The Angel and the Badman, Russell began work on another Republic Picture vehicle, a crime drama entitled Moonrise.  Acting opposite Dane Clark, Ethel Barrymore, and Lloyd Bridges, the story involves a man who is despised because of a murder his father committed.  Russell portrays the tortured man’s love interest. Audiences again applauded her talent and made it known through ticket sales they wanted to see her perform more.

The chemistry Wayne and Russell exhibited on screen in The Angel and the Badman would be duplicated in another Republic Pictures’ production The Wake of the Red Witch.  In this seafaring adventure Wayne plays Captain Ralls who fights a Dutch shipping magnate for the woman he loves, Angelique Desaix, played by Russell.  Reviews for the pictures were mixed but all agreed Russell “lent charm and distinction to her role of Angelique.”

Just as the actress was basking in the approval of moviegoers and film critics her name was mentioned in Wayne’s divorce case.  Chata named Russell as a co-respondent and told the court that she and Wayne were having an affair. Wayne vehemently denied the accusation.  Russell was crushed and the publicity from the scandal caused her to have a nervous breakdown.

Russell spent a month in a sanitarium learning to deal with the humiliation and hurt she experienced from the public divorce proceedings.  Once she was released, she resorted to drinking again. On November 26, 1953, Russell was arrested for drunk driving. At her hearing two months later, the troubled actress was placed on two years’ probation with the condition she refrain from intoxicants, stay away from places where liquor was sold, and obtain medical treatment.  She was also ordered to pay a $150 fine.

Russell’s reputation wasn’t the only thing that suffered from her alcoholic tendencies; it had taken a toll on her marriage too.  Five years after she married actor Guy Madison, she filed for divorce citing mental cruelty as the reason. The truth was that Madison couldn’t deal with Russell’s constant drinking.

While the terms of the divorce were being decided Russell appeared in her last project for Republic Pictures, a movie entitled Studio 57.  She portrayed a lone woman aboard an oil tanker that embarks on a dangerous journey.  Shortly after the production was completed Russell was involved in another drunk driving accident.  While traveling in North Hollywood the actress failed to stop in time and rear ended a vehicle in front of her.  Instead of waiting for the police to arrive Russell fled the scene. A day later, accompanied by her attorney, she turned herself into the police.

Russell’s career stalled after the second drunk driving incident.  Studios felt she was too big a risk to hire. In September 1955, John Wayne came to her rescue and offered her a part in a film he was making under his own company’s banner.  The movie was 7 Men from Now.  For a moment it appeared as though the actress was well on her way to a successful come back.  Other film offers began to come in and when she wasn’t working, she spent time painting and practicing archery.  Try as she might she could not overcome the power alcohol had on her.

In the early hours of July 5, 1957, Russell drove her car into a closed coffee shop in West Los Angeles and pinned a janitor under a wheel.  At the scene of the accident she was given a series of sobriety tests, all of which she failed. “I had two drinks. No four. Oh, I don’t know how many I had.  It’s nobody’s business,” she told the arresting officer. Russell was arraigned on felony drunk driving charges and sued for $75,000 damages. She was released on $1,000 bail.

On August 21, 1957, Russell was found unconscious on her bathroom floor by deputies who came to arrest her for failing to appear in court on the felony drunk driving charge she had received a month prior.  According to the August 21, 1957 edition of the Star-Gazette, Sergeants H. W. Trail and G. A. Corbett said Miss Russell’s mother met them at the front door and said: “Gail’s on the bathroom floor.  Will you help me get her up?”

The deputies said the actress, barefooted and clad in pajamas, was unconscious.  They took her to the prison ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, where she was booked on charge of failure to appear for arraignment in Superior Court on the drunk driving accusation.  Russell was later fined $420 and placed on three years’ probation. She was also ordered to surrender her driver’s license for an indefinite period. A thirty-day jail sentence was suspended.

Ashamed of her actions and deeply sorry for the trouble she’d caused, Russell vowed to turn her life around.  “When God is going to do something wonderful, He begins with a difficulty,” she told a reporter with the Los Angeles Times on October 5, 1957.  “If it’s going to be something very wonderful, He begins with an impossibility.”

Producer, director William D. Coates hired Russell to star in a movie entitled Man from Arizona.  She would play the role of the wife of a domineering husband who is a paraplegic.  Gail had also committed to doing a play. She hoped establishing herself as a star again would erase doubts Hollywood had about her.

On August 26, 1961, less than four years after her pledge about setting her life on a new course, Gail was found dead in her apartment.  She had lost her battle with alcohol. Her body was discovered by neighbors that had stopped by to check on her. Russell was lying on the floor next to an empty bottle of Vodka.  There were additional bottles of alcohol strewn about her home.

Gail Russell was thirty-six years old when she passed away.

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