June 4 marks the birthday of one of golden age Hollywood’s most recognizable leading ladies, Rosalind Russell. To celebrate, we’re sharing an excerpt from James Bawden’s interview with him from our recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars. Here, the acclaimed actress shares fascinating stories from her long career:
Setting the Scene
Tall, sophisticated Rosalind Russell started out in movies as a serious dramatic actress, but her gift for wisecracking comic characters soon flowered, and she is today best remembered for those roles in His Girl Friday (1940), the original My Sister Eileen (1942), Auntie Mame (1958), and the musical Gypsy (1962). Oscar nominated for dramatic roles in Sister Kenny and Mourning Becomes Electra in the 1940s, she won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1972 Oscar ceremony for her charity work.
BAWDEN: What was your upbringing like?
RUSSELL: I had a mother and father who cared. I was the middle child in a big batch of seven children. I don’t think Mother wanted me to be a stay-at-home mom as she had so proudly been. My father was an affluent lawyer, but his will made news and is still listed in the law books. He wanted his children to take care of themselves, but he’d support us in any educational endeavor as long as we wanted. Then, for at least three years—nothing! We had to try to make it in the world on our own abilities. I thought I’d try acting. It had always intrigued me, which meant a lot of studying at first because that’s exactly the way Dad would have wanted it.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: How did you snag the choice role of Sylvia in The Women ?
RUSSELL: Well, nobody else wanted it. She was a real gargoyle. I barged into [director] George Cukor’s office and he said, “Roz, you are a lady!” He wanted his Broadway buddy Ilka Chase, who had done the original play. I auditioned and tested for producer Hunt Stromberg, who figured he could save money by casting an MGM contractee. Hunt produced Night Must Fall. He knew me inside out. At first I tried to inject some malice, but George said to go for the broadest comedy. I dressed Sylvia horridly for show with more than a little help from [chief fashion designer] Adrien. We first glimpse her at Mary’s house, and I wore an awful blouse with a great big bulging Picasso-like face staring back. Norma [Shearer] took one look and protested to George, “She’s not going to wear that, is she?” In my mind Sylvia was ungainly. In the department store confrontation, I fall back into a garbage bin. I also had a wonderful wrestling match with Paulette Goddard that we rehearsed a whole day. Her character stole my husband. I really got going and at the end I grab her leg and bite it. Paulette wisecracked that she was going to get hydrophobia and the line stayed in.
There was some backstage tension with Norma. She was also brawling with Joan Crawford. I was told I’d get under-the-title billing, so when enough of my part was in the can, I started phoning in sick. MGM’s Benny Thau knew exactly what I was doing and eventually phoned and said I’d get star billing under Shearer and Crawford, but in smaller letters.
BAWDEN: You immediately jumped into His Girl Friday, the remake of The Front Page.
RUSSELL: The Women premiered in September 1939 to huge crowds. I naturally expected MGM would now be buying properties specifically for me. Nothing happened. They did not even try promoting me for an Oscar nomination. The next month Harry Cohn, who’d seen The Women, arranged a loan-out for His Girl Friday. [Director] Howard Hawks had gone through [Irene] Dunne, [Ginger] Rogers, [Jean] Arthur—all of whom had turned down [the role of] Hildy. I went over to see him and my hair was still wet from the shower. That’s how much effort I put into that audition. Howard told me he had this idea of changing Hildy’s sex at a party and read the play with a script girl. The Front Page, he said, was, after all, a great love story. I left his office all enthusiastic and it remains one of my favorite parts.
There are all these wonderful character actors: Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen. They’d try stealing scenes like crazy. Don’t forget Cary Grant, who is a smash. He just enjoyed himself so much. Howard very correctly resisted attempts to open it up, and it plays like a photographed stage play. It’s true I hired a gag writer to give me some lines because Cary was ad-libbing like crazy. Most of it was so good Howard let him keep the lines in.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: You decided to change the course of your career.
RUSSELL: With Sister Kenny , I took a story most studios had turned down as too depressing. I had to practically break down the door of RKO head Charlie Koerner to get it done. It took two years to get the script right and only after scriptwriter Dudley Nichols came on board. He turned our characters back into real people and got so hooked he said he had to direct it. We all knew it wasn’t going to be a huge box office hit but it was my most challenging part. It did make a moderate profit and Charlie still talked to me.
BAWDEN: Then came Mourning Becomes Electra .
RUSSELL: I was stunned when Dudley offered it to me. I thought I could get by as the mother, but he said, “Oh, no. You must play the daughter, Lavinia.” Couldn’t understand her or that family. We filmed and filmed and after the third time when the carriages come up to the door, I asked Dudley if that were necessary. He snapped, “How else are people going to get to the front door?” I started hating it, although I did as told. Katina Paxinou as Christine seemed to be braying all the time. Michael Redgrave was always in a snit. Ray Massey really got it right. I think I was just awful.
I was very surprised to get an Oscar nomination. [On] Oscar night the idea that I was standing up before Loretta Young’s name was called is ridiculous. In fact my mother was sick and I was trying to get her home. That accomplished, I turned around and went to Loretta’s victory party to congratulate her.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: In 1955 came Picnic.
RUSSELL: I was floored when [the playwright] Bill Inge phoned me up and said, “Roz, you must be Rosemary.” I’d seen and loved the play but I was concerned she might be relegated to secondary status. Both Bill and Harry Cohn assured me there were five main characters and all would have equal treatment. But on location in Kansas it was evident director Josh Logan was giving Kim Novak special privileges. Hers was a dazzling beauty, but she couldn’t act a bit. That kind of attention tipped the balance and then Harry suggested I take a secondary [Supporting Actor] nomination. He had just cut my big scene and I was in no mood for compromises. I refused because it would have been unfair to Rosemary.
BAWDEN: There was nothing secondary about your part in Auntie Mame!
RUSSELL: She just flew into everybody’s hearts. It was the Eisenhower fifties. People were desperately looking for color in their lives. She was this beautiful dame overstuffed with emotions. And yes, Morton Da Costa and I did a bit of rewriting of the script. You see, it was necessary to get Mame off the stage for a large chunk of act 2 or audiences would have become exhausted with her.
I grew so fond of little Jan Handzlik, who played my nephew. When his mother was in the hospital I went to see her with him and I ordered Warners to hire him for the movie although he was growing up fast. Then he moved to Seattle and I lost touch with my dear little boy.
For the movie I worked on getting Mame’s dimensions lowered for film. I didn’t want to wind up stagy and overbearing. But I now see I should have done even more. I really like the play better than the movie. Jack Warner immediately asked me to do a sequel titled Around the World with Auntie Mame. I refused. Bad decision. I think I should have done it, but I didn’t want to repeat myself in any way.
Russell battled cancer before succumbing on November 28, 1976. She was seventy-one. Her legacy as a much-respected actress seems secure, especially after Premiere magazine
named her Hildy Johnson one of the top one hundred movie portrayals of the twentieth century.
If you’re looking for more astounding behind-the-scenes stories from the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, look no further than Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller.