The most enduring Sedona legend surrounding Angel and the Badman is that John Wayne and Gail Russell had a love affair during local filming in spring 1946, but no evidence has ever surfaced to prove this story. The world will never know what really happened, but consider that, at the time, Wayne was a newlywed, having married second wife Esperanza “Chata” Baur Diaz Ceballos on Jan. 17, 1946. And, he was said to be a micromanager involved in every detail of production. With the responsibilty to be the film’s producer, act in almost every scene, and keep an eye on novice director James Edward Grant, would Wayne have added the pressure of a clandestine tryst?.
The Wayne-Russell rumors became an issue in Wayne and Chata’s scandalous October 1953 divorce. During the trial, the Los Angeles Herald Express reported Russell threatening legal action against Chata because of several inflammatory accusations about her relationship with Wayne. Russell, who was married to actor Guy Madison, issued a statement saying that “It is upsetting to me that an appearance of impropriety has been placed by some upon the events of the day.” The report added that she’d instructed her attorney to “demand a full and complete retraction under penalty of suit for defamation of character.” Ultimately, the frail Russell checked into a Seattle sanitarium to begin intensive psychotherapy. Wayne’s divorce from Chata became final on Nov. 1, 1954; he married Pilar Pallette that same day.
“Why did Chata have to drag that poor kid’s name into this?” Wayne reportedly asked friends when the story broke. “I never had anything to do with Miss Russell except to make a couple of pictures with her.”
Chata testified in the trial that Wayne refused to allow her to attend Angel’s wrap party being held at a restaurant across the street from the nearby Republic Studios lot, but assured her he’d be home in time for dinner. When he hadn’t returned by 10 p.m., she called the restaurant and was told the party had ended four hours earlier. When a drunken Wayne finally arrived home at 1 a.m., the distrustful Chata, who was also drunk, almost shot him with a .45 handgun when he broke a window to gain entrance into the locked house.
Wayne explained away the incident by telling the court that “We [he and Russell] were following some friends who wanted to stop in a bar for a drink. We lost them in traffic and couldn’t find them again. We looked in several bars, then wound up at Carl’s Café on the beachfront.
“We had some food. I saw some old friends from Glendale who called me ‘Marion,’ as I was known in grammar school days [Wayne’s birth name was Marion Robert Morrison]. An artist did a charcoal drawing of Miss Russell, and I drove her home at about 11:30 p.m. Her mother was there and we talked. I took a cab home around 1 a.m.”
Chata also testified that a few days after this incident, she found out Wayne had bought Russell a car. “I wondered why unless there was some relation between them, some friendship or closeness,” she said.
In rebuttal, Wayne explained that Russell was under contract to Paramount, and while he paid the studio $30,000 for her services, she only received her regular $125 weekly salary to make the picture. So he and Grant chipped in $500 each to give her a bonus she could use as down payment on a new car. “I gave $2,500 in gifts after that picture,” he added. It was my first production effort.” Wayne’s attorney asked him under oath if he had an affair with Russell and he replied firmly: “Absolutely not.”
And yet, Wayne and Russell did ignite sparks. Harry Carey Jr. is quoted by author Herb Fagen in his 1996 book Duke, We’re Glad We Knew You as saying, “I think [Wayne’s onscreen chemistry] was most special with Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman. My father was in the picture, and my mother was there with him while they were filming in Sedona. My mother said he and Gail definitely had tremendous chemistry between them. Yet I don’t think it ever got into a big affair.... But according to my mother, he had a definite attraction to Gail.”––Joe McNeill