Monday, September 29, 2008

The Wonder of Roz, or Life as a Banquet

Rosalind Russell ended her career one of the Biggest of the Big - Wonderful Town's gala Ruth, Auntie Mame, Mama Rose.

I kind of love, though, that she spent so long paying her dues. It took the Hollywood bigwigs a good five years to realize that their serious dark-haired leading lady was actually a genius comedienne, a romantic lead, and a stunner to look at.

In the meantime, she played an awful lot of what she later called "Lady Mary" parts - you know, the proper dull stick who says of whichever floozie Jean Harlow is playing, "She's rahtha vulgar, isn't she?" just before being dumped by the leading man.

She was certainly pleasant, and lovely enough to look at, but somehow a shade generic. A workmanlike lead in straight parts in light comedy, she made a decent stab at drama - her Harriet Craig is less hysterical than Crawford's later incarnation, but somehow even more disturbed. But still she hadn't really clicked.

She wasn't, it has to be admitted, all that easy to photograph; in 1936, Fox thought nothing of releasing this still, in which she looks like a mildly bad-tempered Scarsdale matron.

She was well on her way to being not only just a leading lady, but a rather second-tier one, playing second fiddle to bigger names like Myrna Loy (who did her own years before the mast before MGM finally figured out how to make her score).

She must have wondered how long she'd have to do novelty stills, just one rung up from the calendar shots and leg art assigned to just-arrived starlets...

Even in sure-fire settings like the Big Telephone Scene, she seems to lack confidence, the total self assurance of the real Top Thesp.

But then - finally - after a string of now-forgotten pictures like Man-Proof, Live, Love, and Learn, and Four's a Crowd - came Sylvia Fowler, The Women. Roz clicked, and in the face of big time competition; the biggest really: in wifeliness, from Mrs. Thalberg; in glamour, from Paulette Goddard; in evil, from Crawford herself; in comedy, from Mary Boland and Marjorie Main and the whole ridiculous mise en scène. And Lady Mary walked away on top.

Don't, it turned out, force her to be proper, or even myrnaloyishly genial. Let her loose. Let her be awkward, loud, cackling, mean: hilarious.

Suddenly, when Hurell photographed her, you saw what had always been there, waiting:

Screen gold. Then came His Girl Friday, which added romance and smarts to her mix, and there was no stopping her. Oh, there was still the occasional misfire - anyone for Hired Wife (1940) or Tell it to the Judge! (1949)? Sometimes she over-reached; her Mourning Becomes Electra did favors neither to Eugene O'Neill nor her career; even at the end, her last real starring vehicle, 1967's Rosie!, is as putrid a film as any.

But from 1940 on, Rosalind Russell was a name to conjure with, the joy of audiences and critics both, the star you could equally imagine next door or at the most glamourous of Mame's Manhattan soirées. Isn't she somebody, still, you'd love to have a drink at the Plaza with, were it still, say, 1957?

1 comment:

  1. well I would have a cocktail or three with her TODAY... were it not that she passed on, 32 years ago.

    Love. Her.