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John Wayne’s fiery and jealous second wife Esperanza “Chata” Bauer, believed he was having an ongoing affair with Gail Russell

Sad-eyed actress Gail Russell’s luminous beauty lit up the silver screen in 25 classic era films between 1943-1961. She was paired onscreen with leading men such as Alan Ladd, Joel McCrea, Dennis O’Keefe, John Payne and of course, John Wayne.

Nee Elizabeth L. Russell / aka Betty Gale Russell, was born on Sept. 21, 1924, Gail Russell was discovered by Paramount Pictures talent agent William Meiklejohn. Meiklejohn heard of Gail Russell, “the Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica“, from some high school classmates on Santa Monica Beach. According to the Los Angeles Times, Russell later said that her mother pressured her to accept the Paramount contract offer because the family needed the money.

Soon after she graduated from high school, 18-year-old Betty was signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures, moved to Los Angeles, and changed her name to Gail Russell. She had a supporting role in her first films for the studio, beginning with the family-friendly comedy Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943) starring Jimmy Lydon, Charles Smith, and John Litel.

Small parts in two 1944 movies starring Ray Milland followed – Lady in the Dark, a musical romance co-starring Ginger Rogers, Warner Baxter, Jon Hall, and Barry Sullivan; and The Uninvited, a gothic ghost story/horror film with Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Alan Napier.

Gail Russell told Pampa Daily News reporter Erskine Johnson that at school she was shy and had been studying art with a career as a commercial artist in mind. Even after six months of acting coaching, she was overwhelmed, “paralyzed with fright” and couldn’t remember her lines; the studio put up screens on the set of The Uninvited beside the camera to shield her from seeing the crew. What was unsaid at the time but later emerged, was that the painfully shy Russell had also begun drinking on the set of The Uninvited to allay stage fright, a fatal solution.

This trailer for The Uninvited features Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis SKinner, Alan Napier, and introduces Gail Russell’s “exciting beauty”.

Russell’s The Uninvited co-star Cornelia Otis Skinner was also an author, playwright, and screenwriter. Skinner’s 1942 memoir Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (co-authored with Emily Kimbrough) was turned into the 1944 European travel adventure comedy Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, with Gail Russell starring as Cornelia Otis Skinner in her first leading lady role, as Diana Lynn as her best friend, Charles Ruggles, Dorothy Gish, Beulah Bondi, James Brown, and Bill Edwards.

A couple of years later, the sequel film Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946) was released, with Gail Russell, Lynn, James Brown, and Bill Edwards reprising their characters; and adding in talented actors Brian Donlevy, Billy De Wolfe, and William Demarest. In Fallen Star: a biography of Gail Russell (2016) by author Steven Glenn Ochoa, Ochoa says that Russell enjoyed making this movie because she and Diana Lynn were good friends off screen as well, Bill Edwards was a former boyfriend (Russell was by now dating actor Guy Madison), and Russell’s acting coach Bill Russell directed the movie.

From 1944 on, Gail Russell’s name was usually above the marquee. She was Alan Ladd‘s leading lady in two films, beginning in 1945 with Salty O’Rourke, a horse-racing drama with WIlliam Demarest, Bruce Cabot, Spring Byington, and Darryl Hickman.

In the romantic comedy The Bachelor’s Daughters (1946) about 4 husband-hunters, Russell’s co-stars are Claire Trevor, Ann Dvorak, Billie Burke, Jane Wyatt, and Adolphe Menjou.

Some exceptions to leading lady status are two musical comedies that Russell and a host of other celebrities appeared in, in cameos. Duffy’s Tavern (1945) has Gail Russell, Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton, Paulette Goddard, Alan Ladd, Dorothy Lamour, Brian Donlevy, Sonny Tufts, Veronica Lake, Diana Lynn, and many others.

Gail Russell and John Wayne
A pivotal moment in Gail Russell’s career was being cast as a young Quaker woman for the John Wayne western Angel and the Badman (1947). Angel and the Badman is a departure from John Wayne’s usual type of western – focused on relationships more than action – and Russell, who at 23 was considerably younger than her romantic leading man John Wayne (then 40 years old), holds her own in scenes with him. This would be Russell’s first but not last, western.
Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne author Ronald L. Davis, says that Wayne (a heavy drinker himself) knew of Russell’s painful shyness and drinking problem, and that it was nothing but friendship and compassion that caused him to spend time in her dressing room.

John Wayne choose Gail Russell for his co-star again in Wake of the Red Witch (1948). This a seafaring romance-adventure film co-stars include Gig Young, Adele Mara, Luther Adler, Eduard Franz, Grant Withers, Henry Daniell, Paul Fix, and Jeff Corey. Adele Mara would describe Russell as a loner during filming of Wake of the Red Witch, and rumors were ri
fe among hairdressing and makeup people.

“they had to take a lot of bottles out of her dressing room every day”

Rightly or wrongly, John Wayne’s fiery and jealous second wife Esperanza “Chata” Bauer, believed he was having an ongoing affair with Gail Russell, fueled by his early morning return home from a late night at the end of filming Angel and the Badman. Wayne had also made the mistake of loaning money to Russell so she could put a down payment on a car.

Screenland reporter Louis Reid included Gail Russell’s statement to the court in the Wayne/Bauer divorce proceedings which took place in October of 1953:

“John took me home after the party. He had celebrated too much and apologized to my mother for his condition. He called a taxi. My brother helped him into the taxi and he left about 1 a.m. The next morning he sent my mother a box of flowers with a note of apology for the inconvenience he might have caused her. I was separated from Guy Madison at the time and was living with my family.”

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