Angel and the Bad End
Gail Russell and Moonrise
In 2013, I wrote the booklet essay for Criterion’s edition of The Uninvited (1944), which was Gail Russell’s first starring role. She was 19 when she made it. As I spent some time with this exquisite ghost story, I became so fond of Russell that when a signed postcard with decent provenance crossed my path, I snapped it up. It remains the only such photo I’ve ever bought. Her quality on screen has always captured me. She was beautiful, of course—one reason Paramount signed 18-year-old Russell on sight was that the scouts thought she resembled Hedy Lamarr. But on film, Russell wasn’t seductive like Lamarr. She was delicate and tender.
Russell had a run of good-to-excellent movies in the 1940s, including the adorable Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944); Angel and the Badman (1947), the Witness forerunner starring her lifelong friend John Wayne; Wake of the Red Witch (1948), also with Wayne; and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), another tale of the supernatural well-suited to Russell’s qualities. She might have been content as a commercial artist (her original goal), but for her, stardom was not so much a mixed blessing as an endless terror. Many performers claim to be shy. Russell was afflicted with stage fright so acute it amounted to panic attacks. Colleagues reported that she would throw up before takes. As early as The Uninvited, she began to smother her nerves with a drink.
The 1950s began with one drunk-driving conviction and ended with another. In between, the parts got fewer and smaller. An exception was her role in the magnificent Seven Men From Now (1956), directed by Budd Boetticher and produced by John Wayne, who had stayed loyal. One part of Gail Russell’s life that has always been a bit mysterious is the question of whether she and Wayne were romantically involved. The actor said absolutely not, and his family has always said the same. But he was deeply attached to her, there’s no doubt of that. Budd Boetticher, having observed the two in 1956, said he thought Wayne’s affection for Russell was more than friendship, though he didn’t suggest an affair. Wayne’s second wife, Esperanza “Chata” Baur, was convinced enough to name Russell in her divorce suit. Chata went so far as to point a gun at (or shoot at and miss, pick your version) her husband when he reeled home late one night after a set party with Russell. Then again, that story doesn’t suggest a cool-headed weighing of the evidence, does it.
In any case, after Seven Men From Now, there weren’t many more chances, not even from Wayne. She died in 1961 of an alcohol-induced heart attack, age 36. When Jane Fonda was preparing to play an alcoholic actress in The Morning After, the star maudit she researched was Gail Russell.
In 1948, Russell also made Moonrise, the poignant film noir that was Frank Borzage’s only venture into the genre. Then a flop, it’s now considered a masterpiece, and it was the first of her movies I ever saw. Moonrise has a remarkable opening that shows a man's hanging for murder and the effect on his son. One cut moves from the hangman’s trap door opening beneath the prisoner's feet, to an infant wailing at the sight of a rag doll with a string around its neck, dangling over the cradle. It’s one of the most disturbing Hollywood film sequences of the 1940s.
The baby grows into Danny (Dane Clark), who’s still tormented by his father's fate and persecuted by nearly everyone he encounters. Early in the film, Danny kills one such rich-kid bully (Lloyd Bridges), essentially in self-defense. But with the doom-laden illogic of a classic noir protagonist, Danny drags the body into the swamp and goes back to a waterside dance club to continue his courtship of the sweet-natured Gilly (Russell).
Moonrise is set in a small town, clearly intended to be the South although you'd never know it from the accents. Cinematographer John L. Russell uses tightly framed shots that give a sense of Danny's world closing in on him, but that also have a vivid, eerie beauty—the swamp waters glitter, a ruined house where Gilly and Danny meet seems like an enchanted castle. In Moonrise’s black-and-white, Gail Russell’s blue eyes take on a gleam of silver.
Danny’s woes spiral out from that one killing, but if this is film noir, it’s a peculiar one. A typical noir starts with the premise that people are no damn good, then illustrates the point. Frank Borzage, Hollywood’s great believer in love, probably couldn't have adopted that theme on a bet. Moonrise instead makes the humanist case that criminals are not born, they're made—and can be un-made with sufficient compassion.
And Danny isn't by nature a criminal. Not only does he lack the requisite animal cunning, he’s even missing a sense of self-preservation. An orphan from the town (Harry Morgan) tries to return the knife Danny dropped at the crime scene, but Danny is too wild with worry to notice. The sheriff (Allyn Joslyn)—no Javert, rather a homespun philosopher with a good heart—shows up at a fair Danny is attending. Instead of trying to brazen it out like a normal crook, Danny goes haywire in spectacular fashion. It isn’t long before Borzage and screenwriter Charles Haas have the audience rooting for Danny to get caught, just to end the man's suffering.
As for Russell, she makes you believe her improbably gorgeous schoolteacher could love Danny, with his twitchy fears, sketchy past, and frequent disappearances. In Moonrise, as in Angel and the Badman, Russell is the rock that saves a good man from a bad end. In real life, she could have used someone like that herself.
This post combines, revises, and considerably expands upon two things I wrote back in 2006. I had always wanted to go back and try to do a better job for Moonrise, and for Gail Russell.
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