Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #8

Rosalind Russell was one of those actresses who could hang out with the guys without threatening women or losing her femininity.

Perhaps that's just my perception, but I always felt Russell to be fully aware of who she was and what she could do without losing any ground with either sexes. She could be a razor-sharp comedienne or a sterling dramatic actress. Her versatility was admirable, both in film and on stage. Beyond the '40s she even ventured into musicals.

And this brings up an interesting point: Russell is one of the actresses on this list who gave fine performances over multiple decades. Still, while her work in the 1940s varied from routine to brilliant, and her output not as stellar as some others I've already mentioned, she is sheer perfection in several key films, and three of these performances are just so good that they are worth recognizing.

Let's start with one of her all-time best: "His Girl Friday." The 1940 release was a remake of "The Front Page," a gritty comedy about newspapermen hot on the trail of a story about a suspected killer, his impending execution and a last-minute plea to the governor. For the remake, the two male newspapermen were turned into a male and female -- Cary Grant and Russell (below), formerly married yet still bickering. Russell is about to quit her career altogether and remarry, but Grant refuses to let her go quietly.

This movie is one of the all-time comedy classics, with dialogue delivered at a tornado's pace. As much as I like Grant in this film, it's Russell who shines. The idea of changing her role from a male to female could have come off like a cheap gimmick. Instead, the right actress was found for the part -- someone who could be tough, hold her own against her male reporter competitors while showing enough allure to captivate both Grant and Ralph Bellamy, her mouse-ish fiance. She even manages to outrun her fellow journalists -- in heels and a skirt, no less -- to get the scoop on a story!

This is a woman who seemingly understood men better than men -- and could communicate with them better than most women. Yet the romance is there, too. Grant and Russell make a fine pair, each one capable of keeping up with the other. I can't say enough good things about this film or Russell in it.

The second film I want to address is "My Sister Eileen," released in 1942. This film was hard to find, and I thought perhaps it was lost. Finally, I saw it for the first time two years ago when it had its initial airing on Turner Classic Movies. And thank goodness it's not lost! Russell is a delight as Ruth Sherwood, who accompanies vivacious sister Eileen from Ohio to New York, where both can work on their careers -- Ruth as a writer, Eileen as a stage actress. They end up renting a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, in which they have to deal with the odd neighbors, noisy construction on the subway, and an array of other problems.

Russell makes comedy look easy at this point, as the men flock to Eileen but treat Ruth like yesterday's bread. If it weren't for an ending featuring a sight gag that is highly ridiculous, this film would be a great one. Still, Russell buzzes through this movie with an energy and lightness that earned her an Oscar nomination -- her first (why she wasn't up for "His Girl Friday," I don't know).

Her role was so memorable in "My Sister Eileen" that the piece was turned into a Broadway musical in the early 1950s. The producers wanted Russell, who explained she wasn't a great singer. So they had the songs tailored to her voice. She starred in the musical, it was a big hit and she won a Tony Award!

The third film I want to mention is "Sister Kenny." Released in 1946, this above-average biography starred Russell as real-life Sister Elizabeth Kenny (right), an Australian nurse who fought for better treatment of polio patients, despite ridicule from the medical establishment regarding her methods. She ends up traveling the world and establishing a number of clinics, constantly fighting on behalf of her patients and seeking better cures. Russell receives fine support from Alexander Knox and Dean Jagger, but it's her movie, and she demonstrates that a wisecracking comedienne can sink her teeth into a dramatic role, and she's terrific -- earning another Oscar nomination.

Russell played strong women, even if they did fall on their faces every once in a while. But in these three roles, despite her strength, she didn't talk down to people or come across as unkind. She could hold her own and earn the respect of others. She wasn't a glamorous beauty but looked stylish and well-put together, and her sometimes-oversized personality was perfectly suited for the big screen.

I need to see more of her films during this period. I have yet to watch "Mourning Becomes Electra," for which she received a third Oscar nod. I have read that this three-hour film put some audience members to sleep upon its release as an "important" film, and contemporary reviews make the movie sound like a good attempt but not always successful. Someone recently recommended "The Velvet Touch" to me, so I'll have to check it out.

These three roles alone make Russell, or "Roz," as she is often called, a standout of the decade, and while she made many more films during this time period, these are enough to earn my respect and adoration.


  1. Loved "Roz" in His Girl Friday! Each time I see this movie, I see a new facet of her character. Loved her ability to stand on her own in this movie, rather than the pretty arm candy of Cary Grant. Q.

  2. See, I love the final gag in "My Sister Eileen". I guess that's my (sometimes) low brow taste coming through.

    I like Russell, but she was never one of those actresses I would watch just because she was in it. But she was always good.

    One I particularly like from that era is "No Time for Comedy" (1940) with James Stewart. I'm sure 1940 audiences saw it as an enjoyable night at the movies and nothing more. Today, it seems a miracle.

  3. Hi Kevin, Glad you mentioned "No Time for Comedy." It's on TCM this weekend, so I've set my Tivo up to catch it. I love Roz and need to see more of her films.