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Inspired by the "Oresteia" trilogy by Aeschylus, Mourning Becomes Electra sets the tragic action in 1865 Massachusetts, with Russell cast as Lavinia, a Civil War-era Electra. Raymond Massey plays the patriarch of the murderous family, with Greek actress Katina Paxinou as his wife and British actor Michael Redgrave as Lavinia's brother. Leo Genn costars as a sea captain who has an affair with Paxinou, setting off a spiral of bloody violence. Kirk Douglas, in his second film, appears in a supporting role. Redgrave, in his Hollywood debut, also was nominated for an Oscar®, as Best Actor.
Russell wrote in her autobiography that she would have preferred playing Paxinou's part, with Olivia de Havilland as Lavinia. Nichols insisted, however, that Russell take on the younger role. From all reports, the international cast was ill at ease during filming. Russell wrote that Redgrave was "a hell of a good actor, but nervous, taking pills to calm himself." In his autobiography, Redgrave sniped in turn that Russell was "an excellent comedienne," but "Mourning did not become her." Redgrave added that, "On the first day of shooting, she greeted me with 'Hi, Michael!' I hear you dig deep into your part. Not me, I'm afraid. I like to have a laugh with the boys in the gantry, know what I mean?" Redgrave, with typical British reserve, wrote that he "thought it wiser not to pursue this too far." Redgrave unintentionally offended neophyte Kirk Douglas by giving him a gag gift - an old theatrical pamphlet offering advice to aspiring actors about how to treat their more experienced colleagues. Meanwhile, according to Russell, the volatile Paxinou was "screaming and yelling all over the set." Russell summed up the filming experience: "It was murder."
Despite some excellent reviews and awards (the National Board of Review Best Actor award for Redgrave, a Golden Globe for Russell), Mourning Becomes Electra was a major disappointment at the box office, losing almost $3 million after all receipts were counted. The most expensive project RKO had ever attempted, this "prestige" black-and-white film was first released as a road-show attraction with an intermission, then trimmed by 25 minutes for the rest of its initial release. Still, it remained a personal victory for Russell, who wrote that she "received a rare, handwritten note from Eugene O'Neill telling me how he loved my performance as Lavinia." By the time Oscar® season rolled around, it seemed that Russell's chances were excellent.
The campaign to win Russell the Oscar® that had eluded her the year before was masterminded by publicist Henry Rogers, who had mounted successful Best Actress campaigns for two years running, for Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and Olivia de Havilland (To Each His Own, 1946). Among Rogers' tactics was having a casino in Las Vegas post odds on the Oscar® race, with Russell favored at 6-5. A few days before the awards, a Daily Variety poll also predicted an easy win for Russell.
On the night of the Oscars, even presenter Fredric March seemed prepared to speak Russell's name as Best Actress. He saw with a shock that the winner was instead Russell's close friend Loretta Young, for the comedy The Farmer's Daughter - a lightweight role Russell had turned down, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Louella Parsons recalled that she was "seated directly behind Rosalind. . . Never as long as I live will I forget that almost involuntary motion she made of leaning forward, almost rising from her seat." Although obviously disappointed, Russell proved to be a good sport and showed up at the post-awards party, where she embraced Young for photographers.
The Image Entertainment DVD of Mourning Becomes Electra is acceptable though there are better looking public domain titles of other famous titles in circulation such as A Star is Born (1937). This print shows signs of some heavy wear and tear near the reel changes and speckling is a problem throughout the movie. You should know in advance that the Image disc is not the original 173-minute version but the 159-minute British version and there are absolutely no extra features.
For more information about Mourning Becomes Electra, visit Image Entertainment. To order Mourning Becomes Electra, go to TCM Shopping.
by Roger Fristoe