Her first role was a small one in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943) with Jimmy Lydon. She next appeared in the Ginger Rogers vehicle Lady in the Dark (1944). Her first starring role was The Uninvited a Cornish ghost story with Ray Milland, and a film with a rather endearing 'atmosphere.' She played a girl apparently possessed: not a role which required much emotional depth. The film was very successful, and she was regarded as Paramount's next big female star. With another Paramount hopeful, Diana Lynn, she was paired in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a comedy about two flappers coping with Europe in the 20s, from a best-seller by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. After a few more roles she landed the plumb role of John Wayne's love interest in the Western, The Angel and the Badman , (1947).
John Wayne had been made a producer at Republic. This was how Herbert Yates, head of the studio, placated his superstar as he watched him being courted by the other studios. James Edward Grant, who now began a long association with Wayne, was to write the screenplay of the first John Wayne production for Republic, he was also to direct it. Gail Russell, a voluptuous young actress with dark hair and an aura of powerful grace played the Quaker girl who converts John Wayne, a gunfighter and criminal, to a peaceable life. She may or may not have converted him to other activities as well. Wayne did not want to play Quirt Evans. He tried to get Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott but they had other commitments, so he had to do it himself.
During the filming of Angel and the Badman , Duke's young co-star developed a full-blown crash on her leading man. Duke tried to help her as he had helped other novices, by being gentle, patient, and kind. He loaned her the down payment on a car while she waited to collect her first check. When he realized she'd fallen in love with him, he asked his secretary, Mary St. John to "set Gail straight. Make sure she understands how I feel, but do it gently," he said. "The poor kid's having a tough time." Within a few months she had recovered from her school girl crush and married someone else. She and Duke remained friends and they co-starred in Wake of the Red Witch in 1949. She was a raven-haired beauty whose fragile appearance mirrored an even more fragile psyche. She started every day's shooting weak with terror, throwing up in her dressing room before appearing on the set. Like many other performers over-whelmed by stage fright, Russell began to find courage in a bottle.
John Wayne's wife at the time was, Esperanza "Chata" Bauer, a former Mexican actress. She convinced herself that Duke and Russell were having an affair. The night the film Angel and the Badman wrapped there was the usual party for cast and crew, and Duke came home very late. Chata was in a drunken rage by the time he arrived, and she attempted to shoot him as he walked through the front door. As the bullet whizzed past his head he suddenly saw Chata as she really was, not as he'd hoped she'd be. Instead of marrying the heroine of his romantic fantasies, he realized he'd married the woman whom Ray Milland had labeled, "a Mexican whore."
The next day Chata begged him to forgive her. She swore she would change, stop drinking, and start acting like a real wife. She spent the following week weeping and moping around the house. Duke was helpless in the face of all those tears, so he agreed to a reconciliation. Chata kept her promise as long as she could. Then her old habits reasserted themselves and she began to drink heavily with her mother, who lived with them. Duke banished Chata's mother to Mexico, sobered his wife up, and asked for a divorce. Chata turned on the tears again. Now the marriage had a pattern, one Duke couldn't seem to break. Chata would go on a binge, she and Duke would fight, they'd make up, and Chata would celebrate their reconciliation by having a few drinks and then a few more, and the whole cycle would begin again.
Like so many of his pictures Wake of the Red Witch had off-screen implications even more dramatic than the film story. When Chata found out that his co-star was once again to be Gail Russell, one can imagine that the stormy seas on the home front matched or exceeded those threatening the ship Red Witch on the screen. Looking at Miss Russell's delicate beauty, it is easy to believe that in the story she becomes fatally ill and welcomes death as a release from a tormented marriage. It is not as easy to accept that, in real life, she was even then caught in the throes of personal uncertainties and demons that would lead to her death from alcoholism in 1961.
After a series of unspectacular roles, Paramount did not renew her contract, because, for one thing, Russell was drinking heavily, a habit begun as early as The Uninvited , when she found that alcohol stilled her nerves. It was hoped that she might stabilize when she married Guy Madison, a young actor of strictly pin-up boy appeal. After a long courtship they were married in 1949. A year later she was convicted on drunk driving charges.
Universal took a chance on her and let her play Stephen McNally's estranged wife in Air Cadet (1951), but she didn't make Flaming Feather for Paramount as announced, nor Loan Shark (1952), opposite George Raft; the latter was to have been her 'comeback' film but she suffered nervous shock when her brother was in a car crash and withdrew. She was out of the news until John Wayne's wife named her in her divorce suit (1953); both Wayne and Russell denied this, but the flurry of scandal sent Russell into a sanatorium. In 1954 she and Madison were divorced. She was in and out of sanatoriums, and now when she was on a drunk driving charge (one in 1955 was said to be the sixth in two years) there was no studio to cover up the fact that she was drunk. Hollywood tried to help, a cure was said to be effected, and then Wayne gave Russell a part in Seven Men From Now (1956), starring Lee Marvin and Randolph Scott, in a film that Wayne produced with his Batjac Productions. At this time she was struggling to make a film comeback after battling a string of mental and physical problems, she looked old. But Duke never loved Gail Russell, and he swore they'd never been more than friends.
Universal used her now rather dramatic appearance in a full-blooded role, in The Tattered Dress (1957), where she lied under oath and shot her lover (Jack Carson) on the courthouse steps. For Republic she did an incredible flying story, No Place to Land (1958), with Mari Blanchard and John Ireland. As these films went the rounds she was fined again for drunken driving and given a suspended jail sentence. In an occasional interview she spoke humbly of her alcoholism, saying it was caused because "everything happened so fast." In 1961 Twentieth Century Fox gave her top-billing in a B film, The Silent Call , a boy and dog picture (she was the boy's mother). In the August of that year, she was discovered dead in her one-room apartment, surrounded by empty bottles. She had died some days earlier, from natural causes. She was 36.
Angel and the
Dan Patch (1949)
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