6/10/20: Tragic Hollywood

By Fred Muenz

Born in Fairfield, Wisconsin, on New Year’s Day, 1919, Frances Lillian Mary Ridste (aka Carole Landis) was the third child of the daughter of a Polish farmer and an itinerant railroad mechanic who abandoned the family a few months after Frances was born. Her mother later married the man with whom she had been having an affair, and who sexually abused young Frances and her older sister. In 1923, after the failure of her mother’s second marriage, the family moved to San Bernardino, California, where her mother worked menial jobs to support her family. At the age of 15, Frances dropped out of school and decided on a career in show business. She secretly married her 19-year old neighbor, but the marriage was quickly annulled when her mother found out. Several months later, her mother reluctantly gave the two young lovers permission to marry, when she was unable to keep them apart. The marriage ended in divorce five years later with her husband naming director Busby Berkeley in an unsuccessful alienation of affection lawsuit.  Her first job on stage was as a $35 per week hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub. Her boss described her dancing as “pathetic” but employed her because he felt sorry for her. Possessed of a good voice, she later sang with a dance band. After saving $100, she bleached her dark hair blonde, took the stage name Carole Landis, after her favorite actress, Carole Lombard, and moved to Hollywood. She soon found work as a studio extra and made her film debut in A STAR IS BORN (1937). After several years of bit parts, mostly in westerns, and posing for hundreds of cheesecake photos, Hal Roach cast her as a cave girl in ONE MILLION B.C. (1940). The movie was a sensation and turned her into a star. A string of successful films followed, including several musicals in which her own singing voice was used. Signing with Twentieth Century-Fox, she began an affair with Darryl Zanuck which resulted in her being cast in some of the studio’s biggest films. When the affair ended, however, she was quickly relegated to “B” films. Two more unsuccessful marriages and affairs with Franchot Tone and George Montgomery quickly followed. During World War II, she travelled with USO troupes, putting on more than 100,000 miles entertaining the troops in both England and the South Pacific. During this time, she wrote of her experiences which later became the film, FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944). In 1948, with her career in decline, plagued by depression and yet another failed marriage, she began an affair with Rex Harrison. When he refused to leave his wife for her, she packed all of the photos and mementos of their relationship in a suitcase, wrote two suicide notes, one to her mother and the other to Harrison, and took an overdose of Seconal. Carole Landis was 29 years old.

Betty “Gail” Russell was born in Chicago in September, 1924. When she was 14, in the midst of the Depression, her family moved to Santa Monica, California, where her father found work with the Lockheed Corporation. Quiet and painfully shy, young Gail dreamed of becoming a commercial artist. Upon her high school graduation, however, she was “discovered” by a talent scout for Paramount Pictures. Her father was ill at the time and the family was struggling. Although she had no acting experience, and had not even participated in high school theater, she accepted Paramount’s offer, in order to help her family. After months of training with the studio acting coach, Gail was finally cast in several small roles in 1943 and 1944. Still suffering from shyness and stage fright, she was given alcohol on the set to steady her nerves. This was something which would come back to haunt her. Her career blossomed as she appeared in one successful film after another and was even being talked about as the next Hedy Lamarr. In 1949, she married actor Guy Madison, but it soon became apparent that she was now an alcoholic. Soon after, Paramount refused to renew her contract, leaving her career in shambles. Madison divorced her in 1954. Despite her inability to control her drinking, and the subject of numerous arrests for drunk driving, her friend, John Wayne, gave her roles in several of the films which he was producing. Finally, in August, 1961, deeply depressed and suffering from malnutrition and severe liver damage attributed to alcohol, she died alone in her apartment, surrounded by her paintings and empty vodka bottles. Gail Russell was 36.

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