Rosalind Russell — It’s Smart to Be Screwy (1941) 🇺🇸
There’s nothing like a good screwball comedy to take your mind off ominous headlines — and no one like Roz Russell to make you laugh.
by Gene Schrott
Rosalind Russell was perched on a steamer trunk, her arms tightly wrapped about Melvyn Douglas’ neck, and kissing him for all she was worth. Every female extra on that set, every woman in skirts — and even those in slacks, cast envious glances in Rozzie’s direction, their eyes scornfully saying — “You call that work!” You can’t blame the ladies. Melvyn Douglas still is one of Hollywood’s foremost pulse-flutters. He still has enough male “oomph” to make the ladies pat their coiffures nervously in his presence. He has just the right glint in his eyes to give promise of romance — as romance should be experienced.
But all this left Rosalind Russell cold despite the 114° temperature.
Quick, sharp, and without beating around the bush Rosalind Russell came to the point. She likes doing screwball comedies such as This Thing Called Love. All her life she has wanted to make people laugh. In times like these, when the headlines are drenched in sadness and despair — when the radio keeps repeating the horror of war and the ominous warnings of what might come, we can’t get enough laughter. We’ve got to make the most of what we have right now.
For the first four years the choice of roles in pictures meted out to Rosalind Russell were undistinguished. Then came Craig’s Wife, followed by Night Must Fall and The Citadel. If Roz hadn’t put her foot down they’d still have her playing in one tear-jerker after another. Of course she didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want to be a menace. She didn’t want to make the public start hissing as soon as she appeared on the screen. Instead, she felt it was time for comedy.
The director called Miss Russell to continue with her osculatory sequence and again she wrapped her arms about Melvyn’s neck and started transferring the freshly-applied lip rouge from her own lips to his.
This wasn’t the Russell that the world knew. This was a new and completely refreshing sort of personality. She was no longer the thin-lipped, embittered, home-adoring, overbearing Craig’s Wife. She was an airy being, filled with more enthusiasm, more wisecracks and more personality than a lot of those stars who take their art with a capital, “A.”
There is a frankness about her that is delightfully refreshing in Hollywood. She makes no attempts to cover whatever shortcomings she may have. Personally, we didn’t detect a single one. Personally, we thought of Rosalind Russell — straight or screwball — as the one girl who in spite of her gay sense of humor and her seeming frivolity would make some man the perfect wife. For all those things are visible at first glance.
But before we had a chance to think another thought of her, the scene was over. And her dry, humorous voice boomed out pleasantly above the roar of voices. “Ha — z — ell! Hazel, my sex appeal!”
Her maid, Hazel Washington, appeared like a genie bearing an atomizer and Roz started drenching herself and the surrounding atmosphere with toilet water.
Roz doesn’t mind being thrown around. She doesn’t mind being dumped into a puddle of water, thrown down the stairs, having her hair wrenched from its roots or her dignity trampled upon. Of course the wear and tear on the constitution is none too pleasing. But she doesn’t care about that. If it makes people laugh. If it keeps them entertained — that’s her job.
Maybe she is taking things the hard way. But one thing is obvious. She’s getting a big kick out of these comedies. She’s having the grandest time of her life. Audiences loved seeing her kick Brian Aherne in the seat of his pants in Hired Wife. Perhaps we all want to do that to some dignified guy at one time in our lives, just to bring him down to our own level. And we loved Roz for doing it for us.
“I know the whole world got me wrong because of Craig’s Wife. After all, it was really my first big picture. They must have thought, ‘this Russell gal certainly looks like a determined and forceful woman! She’ll probably make the typical mother-in-law when she gets old.’
“I know, I know,” Roz continued, waving her arms emphatically. “That’s what they all thought. The role didn’t have the slightest bit of sympathy for me. And as far as the producers were concerned they would have been satisfied to see me continuing in roles like Craig’s Wife. I’d probably be one of the most hated women in the world by the time I got through.
“But that’s not me! That isn’t what I wanted!” And the famous Russell voice broke into a softer pitch — the eyes opened wider — and the words tumbled out of the famous mouth at 360 per minute.
“Remember that scene in His Girl Friday, you know, the one where I do the flying tackle to catch the escaping prisoner. And I had a swell time doing it. But I had a mean ‘charley-horse’ after that. Couldn’t move for a couple of days. But it was action — screwball action. It was in keeping with the character and I loved it!
“And — oh, yes, — that scene in The Women. No, I can’t forget that. Look at this finger. See the scar. That’s the real thing. Got it in that fight with Paulette Goddard. But it was one of the most exciting moments in my motion picture career.”
When you take into consideration that Rosalind Russell comes from a dignified and wealthy New England family; that she attended the fashionable Marymount School at Tarrytown-on-Hudson, you can’t easily reconcile yourself to seeing her in all these rough-and-tumble scenes. But if you know her, it’s an entirely different story.
She’s the sort of girl who was the school tomboy, who at school shouted the loudest. She was the black-stockinged youngster, who, good or bad at them, played all the games with more vigor and energy than the rest of the team. She was the one who never bothered about dental braces or spinach.
She just grew up to be a real, sincere and unaffected girl in spite of all her advantages, in spite of all the evidences of wealth that surrounded her. She grew out of it and away from it. She never let herself be molded according to any particular type. She is herself — Rosalind Russell — the positive, yet popular type of individual. Real, earthy and matter-of-fact.
“I’m happy now,” Roz continued, her voice full of enthusiasm as she drew a long, deep breath. “Five comedies all in a row. It made a new woman out of me. It took me out of that sombre, serious state of mind. The Women started it. Before that, I didn’t stand a chance for a comedy role. Everyone thought I was far too dignified — on the screen — to let myself go. They didn’t know that I was just itching for a comedy part. All my talking didn’t do me a bit of good.
“But when The Women came along, I actually fought for that role. And once I had it, I worked harder at it than at anything I ever undertook. I made it part of me. I knew how women act. I knew all their little tricks and schemes and ruses. But I also knew what goes on in their hearts. I could have made everyone hate me in that role. It was the logical thing. But I didn’t want to do that. So instead, I decided to make the part humorous. I made people laugh at me.
“How? Well, in the first place, the clothes I wore. Oh, I know most women wear all those screwy hats today. But I picked out the screwiest ones I could find. I wore them at screwy angles. I made sure that the public wouldn’t take me seriously the minute I came on the screen — even before I opened my mouth to speak my first lines. And then those dresses with the bustles — the nail polish — the bangles and bracelets.
“Yes, all of those things were deliberate. And a lot more planning went into them than most people realize. They were part of the light, fuzzle-headed, irresponsible character. They showed the public that I was to be laughed at. That I was just another silly woman with nothing on my mind — and one who wasn’t really serious about being a malicious cat. And because of that the audiences laughed at me. That’s exactly what we all wanted.”
The Russell eyes flashed with their impetuous, animated fire. Roz had warmed up to her subject. For the time being, she didn’t joke. She cast aside her natural light humor, her carefree attitude and her gaiety. She became serious. And then in a confidential tone of voice, she leaned closer. And pointing at me with a single long, tapering finger, she went on. “You men like screwy women. Sometimes you deny it. I’ll show you why.
“Take those same screwy hats. Whenever you see a woman wearing one, you’ll turn around and take a second look. You may laugh at it. But what you’re really doing is studying the gal who’s wearing it. You’re giving her a second good look. But the hat’s only an excuse. A pretense for taking a legitimate look. It attracts attention in the first place. But there’s a second purpose too. It brings the wearer to the attention of the people she wants to attract. And you men love to have other men turn around and stare at the woman you’re with. At any rate, that’s my impression.
“And as for the women. They can thank their lucky stars for fashion. Attractive girls might not need anything bizarre to draw attention to themselves. But, remember, not all women are attractive. Take a mediocre-looking woman, for example. Put her in quiet pastel colors. Put her in a simple dress and hat and conservative jewelry. When she enters a room no one pays the slightest bit of attention to her.
“But take this same woman. Put one of those screwy hats on her head. Give her a dress that emphasizes her ‘oomph.’ Put a couple of bangles around her neck — and the screwier the bangles the better — put a dangling bracelet around her wrist and a bright scarlet swab of rouge across her lips. Screwy, you’ll say. Right. But let that same gal walk into a room where there are loads of beautiful women. What happens? She hits everyone between the eyes. Everyone sees her. Everyone looks at her.
“They forget that she isn’t really beautiful. The only thing they realize is that she is the center of attention — that she can do something to that roomful of people that a beautiful woman, simply and quietly dressed, cannot do. That’s why I heartily endorse all these screwy clothes — these novelties and fads — these crazy hats for women. It gives them equality with their more beautiful sisters. It puts them on the same par with the stunners.”
Not that Rosalind, herself, has need to resort to any such tactics. Being a beautiful woman, herself, there isn’t much need of it. But she is intelligent enough to understand it. Her tall, brunette type can command attention without resorting to any of these means. But she uses them — wisely. And seeing her in them, you are aware that they express her personality and you understand why she makes use of them.
In Hollywood, Rosalind Russell is regarded as the one star who has done more to make women with brains popular. For despite the fact that she is beautiful, she is very far from being dumb. Whenever she is given a role in pictures, she will unearth the little details that make the parts more realistic.
In His Girl Friday, for example she says, “I studied newspaper people. I learned all about their habits and mannerisms. And I wanted to be more than just a girl who is tagged a newspaper reporter. I wanted to show that the part really had something to it, and that they were making a fuss over the girl for some good reason. That was why I suggested the scene interviewing the prisoner in his cell. It gave the added realistic touch.
“All those little touches are carefully conceived and deliberately planned. Often it’s those very little touches that make the picture. Especially is that true when you’re playing the light, screwy type of comedy. But I wouldn’t want to play the same sort of role time and again.
“I want variety. Maybe after I finish this picture, I’ll try something serious. But if a good comedy role comes along, I’ll certainly give that preference.”
Sources: Motion Picture, March 1941 (article), Screenland, December 1942 (advertisement)