‘Stella by Starlight’ – The Tragedy of Gail Russell (1924 – 1961)

Posted in Rewind by - December 09, 2013
‘Stella by Starlight’ – The Tragedy of Gail Russell (1924 – 1961)

“I was afraid. I don’t exactly know of what – of life, I guess.” – Gail Russell to a reporter.

Delicate, doe-eyed beauty Gail Russell could have had a much more successful career than she did. Unfortunately being painfully shy, and a lifelong battle with her nerves, caused Gail’s downfall into drink, and ultimately to a tragic, premature death.

Born Elizabeth L. Russell on September 21st 1924, Gail was a gifted painter from a very young age. Had she stuck to her dreams of becoming an artist, instead of letting herself be primed for movie stardom, Gail’s life could have been so very different, including finding the happiness that had eluded her.

Born in Chicago, Gail moved with her family to California when she was 14. A chance encounter with a Paramount executive resulted in a screen test, after which she was given a seven year contract. With no acting experience, Gail was soon being groomed for the big time.

After a couple of minor parts, and at just 20 years of age, Gail Russell was awarded the role of young Stella Meredith, in Lewis Allen’s classic 1944 ghost story ‘The Uninvited’. One of Hollywood’s first serious, supernatural chillers, ‘The Uninvited’ starred Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as a brother and sister from London who fall in love with, and purchase, an old abandoned house by the Cornish coast, unaware of its troubled past. Finding filming on the movie stressful, and already suffering crippling stage fright, Gail took to drink to help calm her nerves. Battling insecurities and lacking in self-confidence, Gail would suffer a nervous breakdown on completion of the movie.

Such was the enormous success of ‘The Uninvited’, both Gail and director Lewis Allen were re-united the following year for the much less successful chiller ‘The Unseen’. In 1947 Russell was teamed with John Wayne for the western ‘Angel and the Badman’. A friendship was formed between the two, and the following year, they were paired again for the drama ‘Wake of the Red Witch’.

Gail still struggled to find stability, and a marriage to pin-up boy Guy Madison in 1949 did little to soothe her problems. A year later she was arrested for drink-driving, after which Paramount did not renew her contract. Gail’s marriage ended in 1954, and she would not appear on screen again until 1956 when, through her friendship with John Wayne, she secured a role in the Randolph Scott western ‘Seven Men from Now’. In 1957 Gail had her last substantial role, in the film noir ‘The Tattered Dress’ with Jeff Chandler and Jeanne Crain. That same year, Gail would once again be arrested for drinking, after driving her convertible into a coffee shop.

After a couple of guest spots on TV serials, Gail’s final movie was the 1961 boy-and-his dog adventure flick ‘The Silent call’. By now a recluse, Gail would spend her days painting, drawing and drinking. Malnourished, and surrounded by her art work, Gail Russell was found dead in her small studio apartment in Los Angeles, on August 26, 1961. She was only 36. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack, but many years of alcohol abuse had clearly taken its toll, and had finally beaten her.

A painfully shy person, waif-like Gail Russell’s star may have shone only briefly, but she will forever be remembered for her enchanting performance in one of the very best of Hollywood’s ghost stories.

Favourite Movie: The Uninvited
Favourite Performance: The Uninvited

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1 Comment on "‘Stella by Starlight’ – The Tragedy of Gail Russell (1924 – 1961)"

  • Gail Russell also did another film about the telling of the future in Paramount’s “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” costarring Edward G. Robinson worth a viewing.
    When discovered by a talent scout her family lived in Santa Monica since she was dubbed “The Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica.” Truly a tragic actress.

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