Friday, January 17

Jane Russell

She was never the girl nextdoor type, no siree.  It is no accident that her most famous photograph has her lounging seductively on a stack of hay, peasant blouse down over one shoulder, gun in hand, pout on face and breasts prominent enough to make a red-blooded boy forget about the gun, the pout and the hay.

The haystack photo (actually a series of them) was taken for Russell's first film, The Outlaw.  It was made in 1940 by Howard Hughes, who had Russell under personal contract (a rather famous one).  But Hughes, as always, tinkered endlessly with his films, and it wasn't released until 1943, and even then, in limited run.  By the time it finally came out everywhere in 1946, Jane Russell was already a household name.  Hughes' relentless publicity machine was into full gear.  Her name was always in the papers and her cheesecake photos were incessant.  Those hot-blooded boys were encouraged to fantasize a tussle with Russell, throwing her on a haystack and having their way with her.  Oh dream.  During most of the time awaiting the release of The Outlaw, she wasn't making other movies but she had started to sing in public.  The truth is... Jane Russell was becoming a pretty good singer.

She began life as the oldest child of five and only girl in a religious family that practiced good family values.  God, love, doing good work, friendship, faithfulness, decency were put above all else.  It is almost odd that Russell even ventured into the wild and woolly world of Hollywood, although it was only down the street from her home in Van Nuys.  She was always singing and playacting around the house.  No one paid much attention until the tomboy youngster began, um, blossoming.  In addition to those obvious assets, her face had lost some of the baby fat and she was turning into a very pretty teenager.

Someone encouraged her to try modeling and the photogenic brunette began to like the attention.  When her mother suggested she take acting lessons to see what might happen there, Jane jumped at it.  It was then she was discovered by Howard Hughes, always on the lookout for hot brunettes with large bosoms.

Some would probably be surprised that Jane Russell ever took acting lessons.  Some would say that is not in the least bit evidenced by anything they saw on the silver screen.   At one level even I would have to agree with that, but she was perfectly capable of turning in a decent-to-good performance in most of her films, none of which particularly challenged her as an actress.  She developed, as a stripper needs that gimmick, a persona of an alluring but a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type of dame.  She was the first of my smartass actresses that I became so fond of.  I owe Jane for that.

But making movies never rocked her world the way it did most movie stars.  No limousines or sycophants for her.  She more or less thought of her job as a factory job.  The factory for a long time was RKO.  What she liked about her work is that she usually always got to do it with the same people... same hairdresser, same makeup man, same stunt people, same jokes, sharing lunches and gossip... it was like family to her.

Russell was never demure.  I thought she had one of the most beautiful faces in the movies.  When they did those super closeups, she wowed me out of my seat.  Despite the beautiful face, the big boobs and general sexiness, I found her body movements a little clunky, her deportment a touch masculine.   

In some ways, there really was no actress quite like her.  There was certainly no actress who had the type of career she did with respect to how it began and how it played out.  As famous as she was, she only made 24 films, most all of which were simply various shades of dreadful.

Hughes spent a lifetime trying to make some beautiful woman into an actress.  Some wanted that and thought their dreams had come true when meeting him.  Some didn't necessarily want it but became as dazzled with his power as he was with their beauty.  Jane may fall somewhere in the middle but one fact remained... she wasn't doing anything she didn't want to do, anything she couldn't explain to her mama simply to be a movie star.  But Hughes would put her under a personal contract (not an RKO contract) that would pay her well for over 20 years, whether she worked or not.  Most of those years she did not.

The Outlaw was a terrible movie.  It was at the time of initial release and it certainly is if seen now.  It's amazing that it didn't sink Russell's career with its cheesy sets, bad camerawork, atrocious dialogue and wooden acting.  It has always been said that Hughes engineered (as he did planes) a bra for Russell to wear but the truth it she didn't wear it beyond trying it on because it was grossly uncomfortable.  But that bra and that nice young couple living in it and Hughes' eventual relenting in Russell seeking outside film work brought on more films.

The first two I ever recall seeing her in were both released in 1952.  One was Macao, a minor film noir costarring Russell's real-life good buddy, Robert Mitchum.  Second-unit photography was done on location but Russell and Mitchum never left the San Fernando Valley.  I was none the wiser at the time and fell crazy in adolescent lust for the sultry siren.  And she played exactly that opposite Bob Hope and Roy Rogers in Son of Paleface, which, at the time, I thought was more wonderful than Velveeta grilled cheese.

The following year she got the break of a lifetime from 20th Century Fox to costar with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, arguably the most famous movie either of them would ever make.  That statement is certainly true for Russell.  There was some weird Hollywood hope that the two would not get along, but they, in fact, would bond strongly with Russell forever having nice things to say about her blonde costar.  I couldn't begin to tell you how many times I have seen it, but every time I do, it brings me the joy it always does.  I would be hard-pressed to name another movie that costarred two such beautiful women showcased so stunningly.  The truth is that although Russell was top-billed, she was really a foil for MM, but the two of them really delivered.

She would attempt to duplicate her Blondes success by making the similarly-titled Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown and The French Line but all were duds.  In an effort to find projects more worthy of her talents, she and her professional football husband Bob Waterfield, formed a company, but the ones that featured Russell were among the least successful, and the company was abandoned. 

I think she may have had a real-life crush on actor Richard Egan (a Waterfield-lookalike; my mother amusingly thought Egan and Russell were direct descendents of Romeo and Juliet) and they costarred together in the over-hyped Underwater! When those two got all wet, they were breath-taking... and I'm not talking about Egan.  A year later, in 1956, they reteamed for The Revolt of Mamie Stover, which, despite, critics' carping, I thought was a pretty decent flick.  Flaming' Mamie worked at a, let's see, maybe it was called a Gentlemen's Club in 1940s Honolulu, run by a blonde Agnes Moorehead.  Whatever they called it, Jane was a hooker bent on getting rich and Egan her suitor who wanted her to give it all up for housewife duties at his house on the hill.

Around the same time she made Foxfire with an actor similar to her in a number of ways, Jeff Chandler.  I thought they were ideally paired in a story of an Arizona miner who impulsively marries a visiting society girl with obvious results.  It was a great title for a film starring these two beautiful creatures.

She played a pioneer woman opposite Clark Gable in The Tall Men and a gypsy opposite Cornel Wilde in Hot Blood.  Neither film was particularly successful.  Both actors likely found working with Jane proved no lucky charm.

She said she stopped making movies because she got old.  Her films of the 60s, while few in number, went by such titles as Born Losers, Johnny Reno, Waco, Cauliflower Cupids and The Godfather and the Lady?  Shall I go on?  Oh, I couldn't... and neither could Jane.

She did some television, but not nearly as much as some others in the twilight of their careers.  She did dinner theater, played Vegas and even managed to work on Broadway in Company.  And she also sang, often as part of quartet, with their specialty being gospel.  Actress Rhonda Fleming was part of the gang for awhile. 

Russell could not have children and as a result, she founded
World Adoption International Fund (WAIF) which gained fame as the first organization to encourage foreign adoptions for Americans. 

Before she married Waterfield, she had a relationship with actor John Payne.  After divorcing Waterfield, she married twice more and was widowed both times.  The first of those two husbands died only a few months after their marriage.

In her later years, I thought Jane Russell looked very bitter.  I can still see her and Mitchum in a TCM interview with Robert Osborne and was astonished at how mean she looked, while it appeared like we were gonna lose Mitchum right then.  She wrote an autobiography called Jane Russell: My Paths and Detours.  I had been looking so forward to it and yet was disappointed because it read more like Bible study than a bio.  Her main path was, of course, her Christianity and it seemed her main detour was to the liquor cabinet.  I always found it a curious pairing.

She apparently had a number of DUIs and somewhere before she was through acquiring them, she said: These days I am a teetotal (sic), mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.  Not a particular recommendation in my opinion but it is certainly worth noting that family and friends considered her a wonderful human being which speaks volumes to me. 

All I know is that as a kid, this beautiful woman, no matter what kind of an actress others may consider her to be, just knocked me out.  Here is the moment it likely first happened... from Macao:

Favorite Film #4

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