01/8/21: The Tragic Underside Of Hollywood

By Fred Muenz

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste (aka Carole Landis) was born on New Years Day, 1919. She was the youngest of five children born to the daughter of a Wisconsin farmer and a drifting railroad mechanic, who left the family shortly after Frances was born. Her mother, Clara, later married a man with whom she had been having an affair, who began to sexually abuse young Frances. At age 15, Frances secretly married her 19-year-old neighbor. While the marriage was quickly annulled, her family relented, and she was allowed to remarry him several months later. The same year, she quit school and the couple moved to California to start a new life together. She started working as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub, who’s boss described her as a “nervous blonde doing a pathetic hula”. He hired her because he felt sorry for her. She later changed her name to Carole Landis after her favorite movie actress, Carole Lombard, and sang with a dance band. As soon as she managed to save $100, she headed for Hollywood. Managing to win a studio contract with Warner Brothers, she made her first film appearance in a bit part in A STAR IS BORN (1937). More bit parts followed and finally, in 1939, she started getting small speaking roles. That same year, her husband filed for divorce, naming director Busby Berkeley in an alienation of affection lawsuit. Finally, in 1940, she was cast in the leading role in the Hal Roach production of ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), and she started getting bigger parts in “B” films. The big roles in the bigger “A” films, however, continued to go to the established stars of the day. Two more marriages followed, as well as affairs with Darryl Zanuck, Franchot Tone and George Montgomery. With the start of World War II, she joined the USO tour and wrote of her experiences in a book which later became the movie FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1943). In 1948,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.

Elizabeth L. “Gail” Russell was born in Chicago in September, 1924 and moved to Los Angeles with her family at age 14. A beautiful young woman, she was “discovered” by an agent and signed to a Paramount Studios contract upon her high school graduation. Although she was painfully shy, had no acting experience and had been dreaming of becoming a commercial artist since she was five, she accepted the Paramount offer to help her struggling family. Her mother, upon hearing that Paramount had offered her daughter their minimum salary of $50 per week, told her to “take it, we need the money”. After months of training with the studio acting coach, she was cast in a small role in HENRY ALDRICH GETS GLAMOUR (1943). Her next screen appearance came in THE UNINVITED (1944), which marked the first time Gail was given alcohol to calm her nerves (a habit which would come back to haunt her). A series of successful films followed, with her still consuming vodka to deal with her stage fright. In 1949, she married Guy Madison, one of the up-and-coming young actors in Hollywood. In 1950, with her drinking problem becoming worse, Paramount decided to not renew her contract. She’d been arrested and convicted of a DUI, and the studio didn’t want to be associated with someone who couldn’t control her drinking. She was still able to get a role in an independent film, AIR CADET (1951), after which she disappeared from films in an attempt to get control of her drinking. Her life in shambles, Madison divorced her in 1954. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films produced by her friend, John Wayne, in an attempt to help her, but she was unable to control her drinking and was arrested numerous times for drunk driving. Finally, in August, 1961, suffering from malnutrition and severe liver damage attributed to alcohol, she died alone, surrounded by her paintings and empty vodka bottles. Gail Russell was 36.

ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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