(Courtesy of Fred D. Pfening, Jr.)
(Courtesy of Fred D. Pfening, Jr.)
(Courtesy of Fred D. Pfening, Jr.)Notice the billing: FROM RANGE TO GRIDIRON TO HOLLYWOOD
Whether producer Kent or Russell - or both - called it quits is long lost in Hollywood history. Purportedly, Reb was not comfortable among the glittering world of Hollywood and just couldn't visualize himself as a film cowboy and supporting player for the next few decades. Leaving Tinseltown, Reb and Rebel became star attractions with the Russell Brothers Circus (no relation to Reb) and the Downie Brothers Circus in the mid to late 1930s. It was during these circus days that Rebel passed away.
Marrying Julia Stephens in 1943, Reb and wife returned to his homeland where they owned and operated several ranches including a spread near Coffeyville, Kansas which was dedicated to cross-breeding of livestock. Developing a plan for high-yield agriculture, Reb spent much of the 1960s lecturing on his approach to farming. He also got involved in politics, but was unable to build a campaign for the 1962 U. S. Congressional nomination. Reb won the democratic nomination for Congress in 1964 but lost to the incumbent in the general election (another movie cowboy that had political ambitions was Tex Ritter, who unsuccessfully ran for the U. S. Senate Republican nomination from Tennessee in 1970). The Russell family grew to include a daughter and son.
Around 1973, Reb retired from ranching and moved into Coffeyville until his death on March 16, 1978 of a heart attack. Reb's wife Julia passed away in 1994 and she and Reb are interred at Fairview Cemetery, Coffeyville, Montgomery County, Kansas. More on the next webpage.
In summary, the film career of Reb Russell was brief, and it appears he made the decision to exit Hollywood. Russell became a cowboy hero during some rather turbulent times for that genre - times were changing, and independent producers like Willis Kent were soon eclipsed by the emergence of Republic and new-fangled "singing cowboy westerns" featuring the likes of Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and many others. Reb's dialog delivery problems could probably have been minimized by training along with some decent scripts. Yet he was not unique as many other sagebrush heroes such as Sunset Carson, Bob Custer and Jack Luden also had difficulties delivering dialog. Reb was a fine physical specimen, a good rider, and his movie career may have been different if he had come to Hollywood a few years earlier, or a couple years later.
(Pressbook ad courtesy of Les Adams)
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls on western film heroes were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual poll results would list the top cowboy film stars. Reb Russell's starring career was over when the first of these polls were conducted in the mid 1930s. IF Russell had still been doing films for Kent during the poll years, the odds are that he would not have been ranked. Generally, the winners were bigger names like Autry, Rogers, Starrett, Holt and Hoppy who were doing films for Columbia, Universal, RKO, Paramount and Republic. Their adventures played to larger audiences and at more and better theaters. Willis Kent, who distributed his low-budget flicks on a "states rights" basis, couldn't compete with those bigger stars and bigger production companies.
I still wonder what would have occurred if Russell had been lucky enough to sign on with Republic, Universal or Columbia.
But there's a bigger "what if?". What if he hadn't gone to Hollywood, and instead, had concentrated on a gridiron career with the Philadelphia Eagles or New York Giants (or some other team). Perhaps Reb Russell would now be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As for producer Sol Lesser, his lawsuit problems were finally resolved. And he did produce WHEN A MAN'S A MAN, releasing it through Fox in 1935. It starred big, muscular George O'Brien and a copy of a pressbook ad for that film is shown on the right. But that's another story!