Monday, June 04, 2007
Centennial Tributes: Rosalind Russell
By Josh R
The casting of the female lead in His Girl Friday represented a compromise, and one which director Howard Hawks was initially loath to make. Everyone on the filmmaker’s wish list was either uninterested or unavailable — Jean Arthur was the first choice, followed by Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Ginger Rogers. Rosalind Russell would have been well at the bottom of the list — that is, if it had even occurred to Hawks to put her there in the first place. The actress had made a modest name for herself playing elegant ladies and frigid bitches in turgid melodramas — usually in support of another female star. The Women, another film the actress had to fight to be cast in and the first to challenge the industry’s perception of her, was still awaiting release, and there was little indication from her other work that she had the chops to meet the demands of screwball comedy.
Needless to say, Hawks was in a bad temper when filming commenced in the summer of 1939, and regarded his leading lady, who’d been forced upon him by the studio in a last ditch effort to get the film made on schedule, with no small amount of resentment. Picking up on his hostility, Russell took the director aside and told him, “I know you didn’t want me, but we’re stuck with each other.” The tension was alleviated, and Hawks would later insist that no one — not Hepburn, Lombard or any of the others — could have brought as much verve, style and wit to the part as Russell did. Viewing the finished product, no one would challenge that appraisal.
Hawks can hardly be blamed for harboring some early doubts — from the very beginning, Rosalind Russell was an unlikely candidate for stardom. The Connecticut-bred lawyer’s daughter, the product of a scrupulous Catholic upbringing, was a tall, almost ungainly woman with a raspy contralto voice and plain, sensible features. Her no-nonsense appearance, which was smart and well-tailored without being austere, suggested both a practical outlook and a bemused sense of irony. No one would ever mistake her for an ingénue or a sex goddess — which probably suited Russell just fine. Never beautiful in the conventional sense, she could generate more heat with an arched eyebrow and a deadpan retort than any of the glamour girls could with smoldering looks and coy displays of their natural assets. She could be side-splittingly funny in films that tapped into the zanier side of her nature, but made surprisingly few comedies during her four decades as a cinema fixture. It’s a testament to the impact she had in the handful of films that allowed her to cut loose that she is remembered first and foremost as a comedienne.
After making her film debut in 1934’s Evelyn Prentice, the next five years of her career proceeded without incident. Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what it had on its hands, or exactly what to do with her — she didn’t fit comfortably into any easy category, and seemed slightly embarrassed as a result. More often than not, she wound up playing patrician ladies in fussy costumes which tried to minimize her height. Typical of the period was China Seas, where she was cast as a romantic rival to Jean Harlow for the affections of Clark Gable. The cool brunette didn’t stand a chance — Harlow’s curvy, hip-swinging brashness made the lanky interloper seem like even more of a stiff than she actually was.
When the actress graduated to leads, the results were initially less than rewarding. As the title character in Craig’s Wife, she was a domestic dictator and an evil oppressor of men — somewhat surprisingly, this study in misogyny was the work of a female director, Dorothy Arzner. From an acting standpoint, Russell failed conspicuously in a role that, as thinly conceived as it was, would seem to call for an element of shamelessness — Joan Crawford, never one to shy away from playing brass-knuckled bitches, did much better by the same material in Harriet Craig 14 years later. To be fair, no one could have brought much in the way of human dimension to the character, a soulless martinet with an only slightly more complex pathology than The Wicked Witch of the West. As someone less interested in the subtleties of film acting, Crawford probably responded to something in the material Russell didn’t — Mommie Dearest’s late-career philosophy might be best described as “when in doubt, bare fangs.” Russell fared somewhat better in her next two films, Night Must Fall and The Citadel — box office hits which helped to solidify her position, but not affording her the opportunity to do much more than adopt a reactive stance while her male co-stars delivered star turns. Roberts Montgomery and Donat were nominated for Oscars, while their leading lady remained largely an afterthought — in both outings, she affected an earnest wholesomeness which gave little indication of an arresting personality.
If her prospects looked dim, the actress remained undaunted — she had some of Hepburn’s can-do Yankee feistiness, and an intelligence to match. She lobbied for the role of Sylvia Fowler, the loose-lipped socialite who views the dissemination of gossip as something akin to a higher calling, in George Cukor’s star-studded screen adaptation of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. It was apparent that after years of playing it safe and fading into the scenery, she’d learned her lesson — the deliriously uninhibited comic brio that she exhibited in the role gave lie to the presumption that refinement and restraint were her salient characteristics as a performer. With her peerless talent for physical and verbal slapstick, she stole the film right out from under Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard and a gallery of others. It was as if someone had let loose a fox in a henhouse — untrammeled malice has never been more sublimely ridiculous.
Having finally broken out of her shell, she hit her stride. The role of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday was originally written for a man, and in its transmogrified incarnation could have easily come across as a shrill, insulting parody of the tough-minded career woman as a masculine (or worse still, asexual) entity, but Russell was much too smart, and far too inventive, to fall into that trap — her Hildy was one of the boys, alright, but more woman than ever. For the first time in motion pictures, here was a truly modern woman — not only the professional equal of her male counterparts, but with a quickness and creativity that left them in the dust. The pride of The Morning Star is an ace reporter who can outtalk, outthink and out-maneuver every man in the room, and rather than resent her for it, her colleagues can only peer out from under their porkpie hats and newsman’s visors with a mixture of awe and respect as she runs circles around the rest of them. The actress was a whirling dervish of energy, sprinting through entire pages of dialogue at warp speed without missing a beat, and her inflections throughout were priceless. She threw herself into the part with the same kind of edgy, go-for-broke tenacity that the character exhibited when chasing headlines, and made it clear that, for Hildy Johnson, no other kind of life is possible. She needs the thrill of the chase, and a guy like Walter Burns who can not only keep up with her, but is only too happy to let her run with the wolves. That’s why nice, bland Ralph Bellamy had to be sent packing at the end of the picture — there’s no way he could avoid being blown away by this sonic boom in heels.
Her resounding success in the Hawks entry dramatically altered her career trajectory, and the next five years saw her playing a series of variations on the same character. She was very good in Take a Letter, Darling opposite Fred MacMurray — one of the few leading men, other than Cary Grant, with whom she managed a genuine chemistry — but My Sister Eileen was a bigger hit with audiences. Her neophyte journalist braving the wilds of the urban jungle was sort of a country cousin to Hildy Johnson, and showed how fully she’d come into her own in the realm of screwball comedy. If the film itself was an inferior showcase, it nonetheless provided her with a welcome opportunity to hone her talent for slapstick — she earned the first of her four Oscar nominations for her efforts. Her best vehicle of the 1940s, after His Girl Friday, was the comedy-drama Roughly Speaking, which revealed an element of defensiveness as a component of the super-competent, overachieving persona. Wary of being typecast, she shifted her focus to drama, to somewhat disappointing effect. Sister Kenny, concerning the heroics of an Australian bush nurse who pioneers a revolutionary treatment for polio, was a Greer Garson film with crippled children standing in for illegitimate babies and the isolation of radium. She carried the film with dignity, but no amount of solid professionalism could keep it from seeming like a step backward. The marathon theatrics of Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s Civil-War-era riff on the precepts of Greek Tragedy, made for a creaky, ponderous affair — the play was not an ideal candidate for cinematic adaptation, especially at a time when its Oedipal undertones had to be tiptoed around in order to pass muster with the censors. Russell was rather badly miscast in a role that required more volatile nervous energy than she could muster — Bette Davis would have been more appropriate — but she made a brave try nonetheless. The Velvet Touch went so far as to cast her as a sweaty murderess; the entire enterprise seemed badly in need of Hitchcock.
The New York stage paved the way for career revitalization, and the actress took Broadway by storm with her star turn in Wonderful Town, Leonard Bernstein’s musical treatment of My Sister Eileen. If her singing skills posed no threat to the likes of Martin and Merman, she could still fire off Comden and Green’s custom-crafted zingers like a champ, and earned a Tony Award for her efforts. Since Hollywood had nothing better to offer than a supporting stint as a boozy spinster in the sodden mess of Picnic, she returned to the theater to take on the title role in Auntie Mame, a performance she repeated for the film version. The character of a madcap nonconformist, whose personality is expansive and irrepressible as her hair color is changeable, was a seven-course meal of a part, and the actress made the most of it. Everything about the globe-trotting, gin-swilling, convention-flouting Mame was writ larger than life, and Russell attacked the role with such giddy abandon as to make the entire mixed-up universe, from the Heart of Dixie to the Himalayas, seem like her own personal playground. It was her most unabashedly silly performance, and ultimately her most iconic; by thumbing her nose at conservatism, with behavior as outrageous as her wardrobe, both Mame and the actress playing her inadvertently kicked off the drag queen movement.
If Russell never again soared to Mame or Hildy-like heights, she continued to work steadily, and not without acclaim. The Majority of One cast her as a Jewish widow being romanced by Alec Guinness’ Japanese businessman — it was as bizarre as it sounds. If the actress had gotten by in Wonderful Town, it was clear that for the purposes of Gypsy, Styne and Sondheim’s backstage musical about the stage mother to end all others, her singing would have to be dubbed. While her acting as Mama Rose was credible, it was painfully apparent that a key element of the performance was being faked; as Ethel Merman’s participation in the original stage production testified, the role needed a great singer more than it required a great actress. For both of these late-career performances, she was recognized with citations from The Hollywood Foreign Press Association — it’s worth noting that a performer who never won a competitive acting Oscar still holds the record for most Golden Globe victories by an actress (her other three came for Kenny, Mourning and Mame). In a shame-faced apology for its habitual neglectfulness, The Academy presented her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1973 — Russell pursued an active interest in philanthropy long before it became fashionable for movie stars to do so.
If the remainder of her film work failed to capture the spark of her earlier triumphs, she never lost the affection of her audience. The silly The Trouble with Angels was profitable enough to merit a sequel, Where Angels Go — Trouble Follows. In both films, she returned to her Catholic school roots as a tough-but-tender Mother Superior presiding over the likes of Hayley Mills and Susan Saint James — the material was beneath her, but she played it for what it was worth. Looking back over her career, it’s startling to realize how few of the films that she participated in were genuine classics — and fewer still were those that really allowed her to shine. Nevertheless, the performances for which she is cherished — His Girl Friday, Auntie Mame and The Women — when taken out of context, would individually stand as the highlights of any career. It took only one to encompass all three.
Labels: Bellamy, Bette, Cary, Comden and Green, Crawford, Cukor, Gable, Garson, Ginger Rogers, Guinness, Harlow, Hawks, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, K. Hepburn, Lombard, MacMurray, O'Neill, Paulette Goddard, Sondheim
Great article, Josh. I love His Girl Friday and The Women, and I think that the obvious lip-synching by Roz ruined an otherwise inspired performance in Gypsy.
I liked the Velvet Touch and even knew a filmmaker who was trying to remake it at one point.
I don't know if Roz was intentionally lying when she claimed to have done all her own singing, or if she honestly wasn't aware that they hadn't used the tracks she recorded; Natalie Wood had no idea the producers had scuttled her West Side Story vocals until she saw the finished product - it was only after confronting the studio brass that she learned they'd brought in Marni Nixon to record alternative tracks, which they ultimately used.
This is a very good differentiation of the roles she had. That's what we called girl power!
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