Day Eleven of Noirvember: The Tragic Life and Times of Gail Russell

Of all the noir femmes I can think of, Gail Russell had the saddest eyes.

There was a reason for that.

Russell appeared in four noirs during her career – Calcutta (1947), opposite Alan Ladd; Moonrise (1948), with Dane Clark and Lloyd Bridges; Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), starring Edward G. Robinson; and The Tattered Dress (1957), with Jeff Chandler and Jack Carson. Sadly, she’s known more for her tragic life off-screen than for her cinematic contributions.

Born in my hometown of Chicago, Russell entered the world on September 21, 1924. As a child, she was rather shy and self-conscious, and would rather spend her time painting or going to the movies than just about anything else. When Gail was 14, her family moved to California, where her fateful course to movie stardom began.

As the story goes, a high school classmate of Gail’s hitched a ride to Balboa, California, one day, telling the driver about the beautiful girl he knew who looked just like Hedy Lamarr. Turns out that the driver was a Paramount executive, William Meiklejohn, who promptly dispatched a talent scout to track Gail down and offer her a screen test. Although Gail wasn’t in favor of the idea, and later said that her mother “practically dragged me there,” the test resulted in a contract and she made her film debut in 1943 in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour. From the start, Gail was uncomfortable in front of the camera: “They’d tell me what to do and I simply couldn’t hear,” she later recalled. “I’d try desperately to listen and all I did was wish I were dead.”

With Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland in The Uninvited.

Russell rose to prominence with her third feature, The Uninvited (1944), an atmospheric ghost story starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. Although she successfully mastered the British accent that was called for by her role, Russell was stymied by her continued on-set fears. She was greatly helped by Milland, who would sometimes flub his own lines to put her at ease, but she found even more help from another source;  according to the 1987 autobiography of actress Yvonne DeCarlo, fellow Paramount contract player Helen Walker introduced Gail to the “tranquilizing benefits of vodka.” Within a year, Russell was reportedly drinking during scene breaks and keeping a bottle of vodka in her dressing room. Even though execs at Paramount knew about her growing problem, they merely closed her sets and kept her away from the press. By the late 1940s, Paramount had begun loaning Russell to other studios for a series for forgettable features; the word around town was that this was because Russell was becoming increasingly hard to handle.

After driving through the cafe window.

In 1953, John Wayne’s wife, Esperanza Baur, sued him for divorce and named Russell in the suit, claiming that Russell had spent the night with her husband and that Wayne had given her a car for “services rendered.” Around the same time, Russell entered a sanitarium, but shortly after her release, she was arrested for drunk driving. It was the first of many such incidents. Two years later, she was involved in a hit-and-run accident and admitted publicly that she had a drinking problem. “I’ll have to use the word ‘alcoholic,’” she said, “because that’s what I am.” She was also arrested for drunk driving in 1957 when she drove her car through a café window, pinning the night janitor under the wheels. During a hearing, when asked by the judge how many drinks she’d had, Russell replied, “Maybe two. Maybe four. I don’t know how many. It’s no one’s business but my own.”

After the latter incident, Russell announced that she’d stopped drinking, but on August 27, 1961, she was found dead in her West Los Angeles apartment. It was just a few weeks before her 37th birthday. Empty vodka bottles were found beside her and throughout the room. Afterward, a neighbor of Russell’s told reporters that the actress had genuinely wanted to stop drinking, but she simply couldn’t.

Perhaps it was Russell herself who offered the best insight into the demons she faced. “I was a sad character. I was sad because of myself,” she said. “I didn’t have any self-confidence. I didn’t believe I had any talent. I didn’t know how to have fun. I was afraid. I don’t exactly know of what – of life, I guess.”

Join me for Day Twelve of Noirvember tomorrow . . . and offer up a kind thought for Gail Russell today.

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~ by shadowsandsatin on November 11, 2018.

15 Responses to “Day Eleven of Noirvember: The Tragic Life and Times of Gail Russell”

  1. 🙏🏻

  2. The bottom line on alcoholism is “don’t or die”- don’t continue drinking and live or do continue drinking and die. Many an alcoholic’s ‘bottom’ is death. The demise of good friends attests to this fact. My decision to stop drinking was truly a Life or Death choice.
    I haven’t read Yvonne DeCarlo’s autobio, so I don’t know why she mentions the Helen Walker story. We now know that there is a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism. Considering this fact, I fail to see why you propagate this story. It serves no purpose whatsoever. It disracts from the science of genetic predisposition. And unkindly and unnecessarily smears Helen Walker in a CONFIDENTIAL way. I would think that you know the tragedy of Helen’s life. She deserves a Noirvember day mention, if only for her magnificent work in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Sadly, an address shared by Gail and Helen.

    • I’m sorry, Mr. Patrick, but I’m not certain that I understand what you are referring to. The information regarding Helen Walker was taken from Yvonne DeCarlo’s 1987 biography and was a direct quote from that book.

      Also, I definitely do know the tragedy of Helen Walker’s life. I wrote about her on this blog seven years ago. You can find it under “My Favorite Helens” if you’d care to read it.

  3. Gail suffered from extreme anxiety, and alcohol became her refuge. Sadly, she was unable to sustain sobriety, even after numerous attempts (“There are such unfortunates”, it states in the AA Big Book). Wayne always denied any affair with Gail; he felt sorry for her and was more of a protector. Her performance in “Angel and the Badman” opposite him always remains my favorite. Thank you for spotlighting her. A true Hollywood tragedy.

  4. Oh my goodness, what an absolutely tragic, short life

  5. What a beautiful and talented lady. I hope she is happy in heaven.

  6. Thank you for your post on Gail. You expanded my knowledge base on a performer I am not very familiar with. I look forward to watching her films, and I’m sorry to read that she had such a difficult and tragic life.

  7. […] Day Eleven of Noirvember: The Tragic Life and Times of Gail Russell […]

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