Rosalind Russell and the Agony of “Almost”

For someone with such a large legend, Rosalind Russell (1907-1976) left a suprisingly small footprint: 55 screen credits (ten or a dozen of them in supporting parts) over four decades, averaging only a little over a film a year. When an ordinary person says, “Ooh, I love Rosalind Russell”, one suspects they are talking chiefly about just a few tent poles: the chic gossip-monger in The Women (1939), the excitment-addicted reporter in His Girl Friday (1940), the flamboyant colorful title character in Auntie Mame (1958), the stage mother from hell in Gypsy (1962), and perhaps her Mother Superior role in the the Trouble with Angels films (1966-68). Russell is chiefly remembered as a kind of scenery chewing steamroller, who often played smartly dressed professional women in an era when there were few of those in real life. She came frustratingly close to being a top star, but circumstances (including chronically ill health and a relatively early death) prevented her from reaching the upper echelon.

A point of interest is the coincidental fact that nearly all of Russell’s major roles were ones also associated with other actresses. One of her first starring parts (and one of my favorite of her performances), the title character in George Kelly’s Craig’s Wife (1936), had previously been played by Irene Rich, and would be played a few years later by Joan Crawford. His Girl Friday was of course based on The Front Page, and her part, originally male, had been played on stage by Lee Tracy and on film by Pat O’Brien. Another of her key roles was the title character in My Sister Eileen (1942), which she recreated on radio in 1946, as well as in the Broadway musical version Wonderful Town in 1953, which was then produced as a TV special in 1958. But in the 1955 film version the part went to Janet Leigh (in justice, Russell was nearly 50 years old by that year). In 1956 she created the role of Auntie Mame on Broadway, reprising the character in the 1958 film. But though she was the natural person to play the part in the 1966 Broadway musical version Mame, ill health forbade. Angela Lansbury played the part on stage; Lucille Ball played it in the 1974 movie. If this was a rather unthinkable heresy, it seems almost like fitting retribution for her getting the part of Mama Rose in the 1962 screen version of Gypsy, since the part was so closely associated with its Broadway originator Ethel Merman.

Russell’s two major Oscar shots had also been in roles associated with others. Lavinia in Eugene O’Neill‘s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) had originally been played on Broadway by Alice Brady. Rosemary in William Inge’s Picnic (1955) had been played in the Broadway production by Eileen Heckert. The former is particularly heartbreaking. originally 173 minutes (nearly three hours) long, it was cut down to 107 minutes by RKO for its American release. It was a major box office disappointment; if the studio had trusted the original version, it might have fared better and have been better remembered. Nonetheless Russell was nominated for Best Actress, and was so sure of winning that she began to stand before Loretta Young’s name was called out (she’d won for The Farmer’s Daughter, a preposterous injustice). The original cut of Mourning Becomes Electra may be regarded as a lost film, although the British release, at 159 minutes, may come close to the original vision. As for Picnic, the producers wanted to submit her for Best Supporting Actress but Russell demurred, thinking she deserved to win in the Best Actress catageory. The long and the short of it is that, despite having been nominated several times, she won no Oscars, and unlike many of her luckier (but not more talented) contemporaries, like Stanwyck, Crawford, Hepburn, Davis, and the like, major meaty roles and the respect that goes with them always eluded her.

The injustice of that was that Russell really had the goods. She had studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was a trained singer, had acted with stock companies, and had Broadway experience before she began her film career. Her appearance in the 1930 edition of the Garrick Gaieties, with Imogene Coca, Sterling Holloway, and Albert Carroll, I believe is as close as she ever got to vaudeville. Comedy however was to be her stock in trade. In addition to the aforementioned ones, she starred in S.N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy (1940), as well as such outings as This Thing Called Love (1940), The Feminine Touch (1941), Design for Scandal (1941), Take a Letter Darling (1942), What a Woman! (1943), Roughly Speaking (1945), She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945). Tell it to the Judge (1949), A Woman of Distinction (1950), Never Wave at a WAC (1953), The Girl Rush (1955), and A Majority of One (1961). In the singularly weird year of 1967 she starred in the black comedy Rosie and Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad Poor Dad Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, directed by Richard Quine.

Russell’s last two projects are very interesting. She actually wrote the screenplay for Mrs. Polifax-Spy (1971), using the pseudonym “C.A. McKnight” (the surname was her mother’s maiden name). Her final role was in a TV movie called The Crooked Hearts (1972) costarring Douglas Fairbanks Jr (the plot, concerning an elderly con man bilking rich old ladies sounds similar to the Fred AstaireJennifer Jones subplot in Towering Inferno. It’s sad that she was too unwell to star in Mame — it would have been a nice note for her out to go on!

Russell was only 69 when she died of breast cancer in 1976. Her background is worth noting, for it informs her career I think. She was Irish-Catholic and a conservative Republican, from the once flourishing New England city of Waterbury Connecticut, which remains proud of the association. Her father was an affluent trial lawyer, her mother a fashion editor at Vogue. Russell remained married to the same man for 35 years. She played some wild characters, but offscreen she was a very old-fashoned gal.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,