Discovering the Films of Rosalind Russell

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Rosalind Russell, a favorite actress of mine, was born today in 1907.  To celebrate, she is the subject of this month’s Discovery post.  This turned out a bit longer than some other Discovery posts, as Russell’s career was quite long and varied, and I wanted to give it a proper tribute.

The Discovery

Studio publicity still of Rosalind Russell (public domain) - via Wikimedia Commons

Studio publicity still of Rosalind Russell (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

I quite honestly discovered the genius of Rosalind Russell by accident.  On my odyssey through the films of Olivia de Havilland, I stumbled across the little screwball comedy Four’s A Crowd, with Errol Flynn, Russell, and Patric Knowles.  I didn’t think much of Russell.  I vaguely knew she was the woman from His Girl Friday (which would have been my first Roz film had the public domain copy I downloaded from the Internet Archive to bring with me on a summer trip not had a bad audio problem), but then I watched The Women – and the rest is history.  Russell’s character in The Women is the zaniest person I’ve seen in a movie, and Russell’s off-the-walls performance hooked me from the first frame she was in.  After that, I knew I had to see all there was of Russell’s comic genius.  Along the way, I learned that she was quite a good dramatic actress, too.

Thoughts on the Body of Work

Like with my other discoveries, I began by watching whatever Rosalind Russell films I could get my hands on.  A few months into my discovery, I noticed that I had both Mrs. Pollifax – Spy, Russell’s last film, and Evelyn Prentice, Russell’s first film, sitting on my DVR.  I thought it would be fun to watch them back-to-back, which proved quite illuminating.

At the end of her career, Russell was a respected performer and thus had more creative control over her projects.  She apparently penned the adaptation of Mrs. Pollifax – Spy herself (under the moniker C.A. McKnight), and her husband Frederick Brisson produced it.  While Mrs. Pollifax – Spy (made in 1969 and released in 1971) is certainly no masterpiece, it’s a fun movie, one that has Russell channeling Murder, She Wrote and even getting to do some action-adventure scenes.  Not bad for a star in her early sixties.

The contrast with Evelyn Prentice (from 1934), in which Russell has a few minutes of screen time as a woman having a dalliance with a married man, was striking.  As the film demonstrates, MGM clearly didn’t know what to do with Russell when they signed her on.  Many of Russell’s early roles involve the so-called “Lady Mary” types (such as in China Seas and Trouble For Two), in which MGM decided to make Russell a stately Englishwoman, or rather uninspired comedies (including Forsaking All Others and Rendezvous).  A few films, like Night Must Fall and The Citadel, both allowed Russell to show some dramatic qualities.

Still from the trailer for The Women (public domain) - via Wikimedia Commons

Still from the trailer for The Women (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

For me, at least, things became more interesting with the aforementioned Four’s A Crowd and The Women.  As I’ve said, The Women was the film that turned me into a Roz Russell fan.  There are periods in which she disappears for long stretches of time, and even after so many viewings, I’m always just waiting for her to come back on screen.  A quick glance at this conglomeration of her best scenes shows why.

While The Women is (rightly) considered Russell’s breakout comedic role, I find that Four’s A Crowd, in which she plays a journalist, is like a preview of things to come, particularly His Girl Friday, which forever changed Russell’s career.  If The Women showed people that Russell could do comedy, His Girl Friday cemented her status as a comedienne.

From there, Russell made a slew of the so-called “career comedies” (including Design for Scandal, My Sister Eileen, She Wouldn’t Say Yes, and Tell It to the Judge).  Russell’s aptitude for playing the likes of journalists, judges, and doctors made her typecast as the “career woman.”  Russell also made other comedies during the 1940s (including The Feminine Touch and They Met in Bombay), but I usually found the career comedies to be better – with the exception of the comedy/drama Roughly Speaking, a truly wonderful and uplifting film that has Russell playing a woman who exemplifies the can-do spirit.

The 1940s also saw Russell taking a number of plum dramatic roles, including Sister Kenny, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Guilt of Janet Ames.  I consider Sister Kenny arguably Russell’s greatest dramatic performance and one of her most important films, as the clip below shows.

The 1950s saw Russell venturing more into television and theater and thus only made a handful of films.  There’s a charming if forgettable army comedy (Never Wave at a WAC) and a musical comedy with a song-and-dance number that simply must be seen to be believed (The Girl Rush).  It’s after watching The Girl Rush that I really understood that Russell never appeared afraid to look ridiculous on camera; it was all part of making the audience laugh.  She wrote in her autobiography, “I’ve never minded being a clown.  Clowns make people laugh, and that was something I loved to do” (29).  And as Russell explains in this clip from behinds the scenes of Mrs. Pollifax – Spy, she was very aware that laughter is an important part of life.

This of course brings me to Auntie Mame, whose central thesis about living life to its fullest seems to exemplify this point.  A crowning achievement in comedy, Russell’s performance in as the rambunctious Mame bubbles with joy.  And how can we forget the film’s most famous line, voted #93 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes?

Alongside Auntie Mame as one of Russell’s best performances is Picnic; legend has it that had Russell consented to being nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she may have won the Oscar that year.  Either Picnic or Auntie Mame is often cited as Russell’s best performance, yet they couldn’t be more different.  While Russell is most commonly known as a comedienne, you only have to look at the likes of Picnic to see that she could do a lot more.

In the 1960s, Russell truly showed that she could do more, taking a number of interesting character roles.  There’s tender romantic drama (A Majority of One), two in which she plays overbearing matriarchs (Five Finger Exercise and Gypsy), and two nun movies (The Trouble with Angels and its sequel Where Angels Go…Trouble Follows!).  There’s not one of these I didn’t like.

And thus we return to Mrs. Pollifax – Spy.  As I said earlier, it’s hardly a great film, but there’s just something fun about it.  And that’s what I love about Rosalind Russell’s films: this sense of immense joy that Roz radiates on screen in her comedies.  There’s that distinctive way she says, “Wonderful!” and “Darling!” in more than just Auntie Mame.  There are those hilarious facial expressions and zany physical comedy, particularly in The Women.  There’s the way she can talk at a mile a minute.  I know that if I ever need a good laugh, I can pop in one of her comedies and all will seem well for a couple of hours.

It’s this sense of positivity that I find so wonderful about Rosalind Russell and her movies.  I just finished reading her lovely autobiography, and there’s a laugh or two on about every page.  But more importantly, I loved how positively it ended.  At the end of her life, when she was working on her autobiography, Russell was battling rheumatoid arthritis as well as breast cancer.  While she skims over the cancer, she devotes a chapter to her struggle with arthritis and her decision to go public about it in order to increase awareness.  As she wrote in her autobiography, “I had a feeling that when something like arthritis happens to you, you either let it defeat you, or you defeat it” (235).  Russell evidently chose the latter, and if that’s the philosophy with which she led her life, it’s no wonder that her greatest films have an immense sense of joy.  I will forever be grateful that she shared that joy with the world.

Favorites

I’ve divided this section into three parts: The Cream of the Crop, The Next Tier, and Other Recommendations.  Within each part, the films are listen chronologically, as I simply can’t decide which I prefer.

The Cream of the Crop:

I’ve seen all three on the big screen, and I would recommend them to anyone.

Publicity Still for His Girl Friday (public domain) - via Wikimedia Commons

Publicity Still for His Girl Friday (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

  • The Women (1939): I’ve written about The Women so many times before, but it is one of the funniest movies ever made.  And Russell’s kooky sense of humor is played to a zenith.
  • His Girl Friday (1940): Perfection in every frame, this is arguably the greatest of the films Russell made, and her Hildy Johnson is one of the most important female characters ever put on celluloid.
  • Auntie Mame (1958): Russell at the height of her eccentricity in a joyful performance that is full of life and laughter.

The Next Tier:

Lesser known than the previous ones, but these are each wonderful in their own way.

  • My Sister Eileen (1942): One of the career comedies but a lot less formulaic.  Look for the conga scene, which had me in stitches.
  • Roughly Speaking (1945): Russell as real-life Louise Randall Pierson is practically a conglomeration of all the best Roz characters, making it a personal favorite of mine.
  • Sister Kenny (1946): Russell’s top dramatic leading role.  And a truly important story about standing up to the bigshots.
  • Picnic (1955): Russell provides support, and like in The Women, she practically steals the film from the leads.  But this time, it’s without her trademark humor.

Other Recommendations:

Because I have to throw in a few more…

  • Night Must Fall (1937): Great little psychological drama with Robert Montgomery.
  • Four’s A Crowd (1938): Screwball comedy with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Patric Knowles (who was later in Auntie Mame).  And Russell as a journalist before Hildy!
  • A Majority of One (1961): Russell as a Jewish widow and Alec Guinness as a Japanese businessman, but these pros make it work.
  • Five Finger Exercise (1962): Russell as an overbearing matriarch of a family full of secrets.  A different role for her, but she pulls it off admirably.

Will I continue the discovery?

Thirty films in, and there’s still so much to see.  I am particularly interested in Craig’s Wife, The Velvet Touch, and A Woman of Distinction.  I’ve seen the vast majority of Russell’s later work, but I feel like I’m woefully behind on her early work at MGM before she achieved genuine star status.  Any recommendations for some of these would be much appreciated!

What are your favorite Rosalind Russell films and performances?

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