In September 1974, Joan Crawford hosted a party for her old friend Rosalind Russell at Manhattan's Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. When a photo of the 69-year-old hostess and her 67-year-old guest of honor appeared in the papers the next day, Crawford said, "If that's the way I look, they won't see me anymore," and promptly retired from public life, secluding herself until her death in 1977. That no such comment was uttered by Russell, whose face was heavily bloated from the cortisone she took for rheumatoid arthritis, is indicative of the kind of actress and star she was. Although she could project an air of glamour when called for, Russell's career was not based on it, and she had no compunction about sacrificing vanity to the outsized characterizations for which she was best known. "Taking joy in life is a woman's best cosmetic," she once said, and the joy she took was apparent, whether you met her in person or watched her on screen. Quite contrary to retiring into solitude after that infamous photo, Russell continued to make public appearances, past her working years and despite the debilitating illnesses from which she suffered, tireless in her efforts to encourage arthritis research, until breast cancer claimed her life in 1976.
She was born in Waterbury, Conn., in 1907 (some sources list 1908 or 1911 - Russell's lack of vanity didn't prevent her, and studio publicity departments, from shaving a year or more off her age). The middle of seven children, she was named after a ship on which her parents had traveled, the S.S. Rosalind, at the suggestion of her father, a successful lawyer. She received a Catholic education befitting the daughter of an Irish-American family, and went on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts after convincing her mother she merely wanted to teach acting. Stage work followed, but it was not long before she was tested and signed to a Hollywood contract with Universal. The studio, having descended from its loftier position in the silent era to the place where popular horror films were made, had no idea what to do with her, and when MGM (then the biggest and grandest of all studios) showed some interest in her, she knew she had to cut herself free from Universal. She secured a meeting with boss Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal's founder and chief executive, then reportedly showed up in a hodgepodge of ugly, ill-fitting clothing and slicked-down hair. Shortly after, she was at MGM.
For her debut, she was given a significant part as the "Other Woman" in a William Powell-Myrna Loy mystery melodrama, Evelyn Prentice (1934). Decent parts in prestige pictures followed, although Russell herself later described this phase of her career as being made up chiefly of "Lady Mary" roles, young women of patrician stature and bearing, brought to life by Russell's cool persona, toney diction, and lanky elegance in soigne 30s fashions. Still, she was grateful to be learning the ropes and making a name for herself in such films as The President Vanishes (1934), on loan to Paramount; The Night Is Young (1935), a Sigmund Romberg-Oscar® Hammerstein operetta in which she did not have to sing but was forced to trot around with the character name "Countess Zarika Rafay"; and The Casino Murder Case (1935), an entry in the popular Philo Vance mystery series.
After playing second-fiddle to top female stars at MGM - Joan Crawford in Forsaking All Others (1934), Jean Harlow in Reckless (1935) and China Seas (1935) - Russell began to see just what her position was at the studio. "At MGM there was a first wave of top stars, and a second wave to replace them in case they got difficult," she later noted. "I was second in line of defence, behind Myrna Loy."
Nevertheless, the studio began to recognize her worth and elevated her to leading lady status opposite such male stars as William Powell and Robert Montgomery (a frequent co-star and another actor typecast in debonair upper-crust roles). Then she got her first real break in Craig's Wife (1936), the remake of a 1928 silent based on George Kelly's play, in which Russell (in a role reprised by Crawford in 1950) received some good notices as a coldly manipulative and domineering woman. Still, the part did little to change her high-toned lady image, and for the next three years she struggled along, unable to break through to top stardom in major films. She tried contemporary romantic comedy on loan to Warner Brothers in Four's a Crowd (1938), but the picture didn't click with audiences who preferred to see its star, Errol Flynn, in tights and wielding a sword. She returned to Metro to appear with Montgomery in the film adaptation of Emlyn Williams's suspense playNight Must Fall (1937). Despite playing against type as a repressed young woman who falls for psychotic murderer Montgomery even as she fears him, the picture did little to change either of their career tracks. They were teamed again in Fast and Loose (1939), a sequel to Fast Company (1938), in which they played husband and wife roles first created by Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. The mystery-comedy was a hit, but as something of a knock-off of the far more popular Thin Man series, it was a reminder for Russell that she was still in Loy's shadow. It did, however, display her flair for comedy, leading to her next picture, still a supporting role to bigger female stars but exactly the breakthrough she needed.
Director George Cukor did not originally want Russell for The Women (1939), MGM's screen version of Clare Booth Luce's all-female play, in which the studio's top women stars (minus Garbo and Loy) were to appear. She won him over, however, with several screen tests in which she showed her versatility by attacking her scenes in widely divergent styles. When filming began, however, Cukor was reportedly dismayed to find her approaching the role of the malicious gossip Sylvia with a heavy villainousness instead of the absurd comic take he had seen in her audition. He wanted an exaggerated, rapid-fire delivery with broad physical gestures and an outrageously silly fashion sense. Russell bridled at the suggestion she give the character a certain freakishness but obediently threw herself into it, turning in a performance that more than held its own against MGM Divas Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Her work was lauded by critics and loved by the public, establishing the strenuous, often raucous comic style she would employ throughout the rest of her career and earning her a legion of fans. She also proved herself adept at the Hollywood game, calling in "sick" until Shearer agreed to share top billing with her and Crawford. She got the billing, and a cover of Life magazine to boot. Rosalind Russell was now a bona fide star.
There was no better evidence of that than her next assignment, His Girl Friday where she was on loan again to Columbia. Her co-star was to be none other than Cary Grant, her director the masterful Howard Hawks, and the script by Charles Lederer an adaptation of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur hit play The Front Page that had been made into a smash screen comedy in 1931. What's more, Russell would receive special attention in a role originally written for a man - that of an ace reporter trying to quite the business but ensnared by the newspaper's editor in a sensational story. Lederer gave it a gender change to add a frisson of romantic tension in her pairing with Grant as editor and ex-husband. The picture crackled with arguably the fastest dialogue delivery in the history of movies, and the two stars played brilliantly off each other, never missing a step in Hawks's wild and darkly cynical comedy.
Besides giving her a major hit and another boost to stardom, His Girl Friday was a boon to Russell in other ways. During production, Grant introduced her to a house guest of his, Frederick Brisson, an agent and son of a Danish actor-singer. Brisson and the still-single Russell hit it off and in 1941 started one of Hollywood's longest and most solid marriages, lasting until her death (he died in 1984). Although he became known primarily as a producer of several Broadway hits such as Damn Yankees, he also helped guide her career (earning the nickname "The Lizard of Roz") and produced a handful of her movies.
Back in 1939, producer Hunt Stromberg initially rejected her for the role in The Women as "a fine dramatic actress but no comedienne." His Girl Friday forever changed that perception, and her home studio, eager to capitalize on her success, quickly put her into such witty, sophisticated fare as No Time for Comedy (1940), from the S.N. Behrman play, and the comic love quadrangle The Feminine Touch (1941), scripted in part by poet Ogden Nash. More importantly, her role in Hawks's film as crack journalist Hildy Johnson - a thorough professional as capable as any man in the business and actually better than most - also established Rosalind Russell's film persona for the decade to follow. Where once she had been typecast as "Lady Mary," she now found herself as the epitome of the career woman in a succession of comedies that ranged from the sentimental to the wacky, all of them, she later claimed, on the same office set. The formula didn't vary much, whether she played a jewel thief (opposite Clark Gable in They Met in Bombay, 1941), an advertising executive (Take a Letter, Darling, 1942), or twice as a judge (in her last film under contract to MGM, Design for Scandal, 1941, and at the far end of the decade in Tell It to the Judge, 1949). "In all those types of films I wore a tan suit, a grey suit, a beige suit and then a negligee for the seventh reel near the end when I would admit to my best friend on the telephone that what I really wanted was to become a little housewife."
Russell may have exaggerated a bit in her hindsight critiques of this period, but the pictures do seem to blur together in the mind. There were some notable exceptions. My Sister Eileen (1942) featured her as a struggling author, the older, plainer sibling to perky blonde Janet Blair in an offbeat comedy of two Ohio girls eager to make it in New York and the eccentric characters they meet along the way. Based on the true-life exploits of writer Ruth McKenney and her sister Eileen, the story would prove to be significant later in Russell's career. The movie also earned her the first of four Academy Award nominations (she never won Best Actress but received a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1973 for her charity work). Roughly Speaking (1945) was perhaps too uneven a mix of comedy, tragedy, and sentimentality to succeed with a broad audience, but Russell gives a fascinating account of the real-life Louise Randall Pierson, a liberated woman ahead of her time who weathers financial setbacks, rocky marriages, and historical calamities while struggling to provide for her four children in the period between 1912 and the outbreak of World War II.
During this time, she also undertook some ambitious dramatic roles, most notably Sister Kenny (1946), about the Australian nurse who developed an effective but controversial treatment for polio, and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's lengthy Civil War era retelling of the Greek tragedy. Both films brought her Oscar® nominations (and two Golden Globe Awards) but failed to draw large audiences. She ended the decade back in her tried-and-true comic persona with A Woman of Distinction (1950), as an ice-cold college dean who succumbs to romance, but the formula had worn thin and her career seemed to be in an inescapable nosedive.
Still, Rosalind Russell was not washed up as an actress. She found new success back on her old stomping grounds, the Broadway stage, and in an unexpected genre, the musical. She was no singer, but through sheer force of will and brash energy she could sell a number, and it helped that the role she landed was familiar to her: big sister Ruth in an adaptation of My Sister Eileen retitled (for legal reasons) Wonderful Town. The 1953-54 show ran 559 performances and brought her a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. The theater proved to be a career-saver for her in the 1950s, and although she made the occasional TV appearances and motion pictures (most notably her desperate spinster teacher in Picnic, 1955), it was her stage work that kept her in the public and critical eye. She did not get to reprise her musical role in MGM's film version of the McKenney story (it was not based on Wonderful Town but on the 1942 picture, with new songs), but another Broadway triumph turned out to be her most famous role of all, on both stage and screen.
Patrick Dennis's 1955 novel about the unconventional, free-spirited aunt who raised him from the Roaring '20s through the Great Depression was still on the bestseller list (where it remained for 112 weeks) when it was brought to the stage with Russell in the title role in a performance she said she based on her late sister. It earned her another Tony nomination, and when it was adapted to the screen, no one but Roz Russell could have been Auntie Mame (1958). She earned another Golden Globe, an Oscar® nomination, and several other awards. The role was so identified with the actress that she could use the first part of one its most famous lines, "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death," as the title of her 1977 autobiography.
Russell's career never again reached quite the heights of Mame, although Gypsy (1962) came close, an extravagant performance in an epic role, qualified only by the controversy of her winning the part over its stage creator Ethel Merman and a debate about whether or not she did her own singing (Russell insisted she did, although sources credit Lisa Kirk as the voice in all but a few moments of three of the songs). The picture earned her a fifth Golden Globe, but ill health and changing public taste brought her only five more films over the next ten years. The Trouble with Angels (1966) was probably the biggest boxoffice success of these, with Russell uncharacteristically cast as a Mother Superior in a Catholic girls' school comedy, directed by Ida Lupino. Her final feature film was Mrs. Polifax - Spy (1971), an espionage spoof produced by her husband and based on Dorothy Gilman's novel, with a screenplay written by Russell herself under the pseudonym C.A. McKnight. Her final screen appearance was in a made-for-TV comedy, The Crooked Hearts (1972), opposite fellow veterans Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Maureen O'Sullivan. It was mostly a forgettable production, and she was visibly older and ill, but the familiar zest and bombast were still evident. Her autobiography (written with Chris Chase) was released a year after her death in 1976, garnering glowing reviews and legions of fans for its humor and frankness. It proved Rosalind Russell was a first class trouper to the end.
by Rob Nixon