As my beloved aging MacBook seems to be having an issue with the internet lately, I was relegated to hold off on the Star of the Week post until today. Sorry for the delay–I am currently using my mom’s PC to make this post. I don’t know PCs very well and I hate using them, so I beg you to bear with me–please forgive any typos or emotional outbursts that may occur.
I am very excited for this week’s Star of the Week, because I have chosen to profile one of my all-time favorite ladies, the divine and incomparable Rosalind Russell. The star of such comedy favorites as The Women and His Girl Friday, Russell’s later career saw her early screwball roles gracefully evolve into chic fabulosity, as evidenced in Gypsy and Auntie Mame. She is truly one of film’s comedic treasures, and a magnificent star who remains one of my personal idols!
She was born in Waterbury, Connecticut on June 4, 1907, one of 7 children born to wealthy parents Clara and James Russell. Her father was a trial lawyer and her mother was a fashion editor for Vogue magazine. She had a comfortable and happy childhood in Waterbury and departed for the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts after a brief college stint at Marymount College. She then became a fashion model and appeared as such in a number of shows on Broadway, before moving to the west coast to try her luck in Hollywood.
She first signed a contract with Universal Studios in the early 1930s, but after a bad experience with the studio she managed to get out of her Universal contract in favor of MGM Studios. Her big break with MGM came in 1935 when she costarred with Robert Young in West Point of the Air, and quickly rose to stardom. By 1939 she was sharing top billing with MGM veterans Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford in The Women.
In 1940 she starred in what may be her best-known and best-loved film, His Girl Friday. The story of Hildy Johnson (Russell) and Walter Burns (Cary Grant), a formerly married couple working together at a newspaper company is, in my opinion, one of the best comedies ever made. The script contains over 190 pages of dialogue, enough for a 3-hour film, but the dialogue is so rapid fire that the film runs at exactly 92 minutes.
These roles cemented her status as a comedienne, and throughout the 1940’s she continued to act in mostly comedic roles. In the early 1950’s she began a successful stage career when she appeared in Wonderful Town, the stage version of her hit film My Sister Eileen, which had earned her an Academy Award nomination. Wonderful Town, in turn, earned Russell the Tony Award for Best Actress at the 1953 ceremonies.
“Ohio,” from Wonderful Town.
Over the span of her movie career she was nominated 4 times for an Academy Award, for her roles in My Sister Eileen (1942) Sister Kenny (1946) Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) and Auntie Mame (1958). Her role in Auntie Mame came about after a very successful Broadway run of the play, which led to her being cast in the same role in the film. Of Auntie Mame, Russell recalls in her autobiography Life is a Banquet that the role was very easy for her to play, as Auntie Mame was basically the incarnation of her older sister Clara, whom she called “The Duchess.” She writes that when she first read the Patrick Dennis novel, on which the play was based, she became entranced with it because “someone has written The Duchess.” Along with her Academy Award nomination for the film, Russell also received a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play. On a personal note, Auntie Mame is in the top 10 list of my all-time favorite movies.
Russell’s marriage to producer Freddie Brisson is one of the great Hollywood marriage success stories. They married in 1941 and their marriage lasted for 35 years, ending only with Russell’s death in 1976. Her autobiography was published a year after her death from breast cancer, and Brisson wrote a beautiful foreword to the book, showing just how much they meant to each other. They had a son, Lance Brisson, in 1943, to whom Russell was devoted.
To close, here is what I consider to be one of the all-time best guest contestant spots on the TV show “What’s My Line,” done during Russell’s rehearsals for Wonderful Town in 1953.
Stay tuned for more Rosalind Russell posts this week! Thanks for reading!