An actress of considerable ability, her talents were often overlooked as press and censors focussed on her figure
Published 06/03/2011 | 05:00
JANE Russell, who has died aged 89, was a Hollywood film star of the Forties and Fifties, whose acting ability attracted less attention than her vital statistics.
Her 38-inch bust became the bedrock on which her career was built. Unlike modern actresses, she never unveiled it but its fully clad charms were still enough to arouse the attentions of censors worldwide.
Her first film, The Outlaw, made in 1941, was briefly shown in 1943 but caused such controversy that it was rapidly withdrawn and not widely released until 1950. By modern standards, the film is innocuous, not to say dull. But promotion is a powerful tool.
"Mean, moody and magnificent", the publicity department called her and many a humble GI swallowed the message. Soldiers in Korea even named two hills on the battlefield after her. The press endorsed it, reporting that her bosom "hung over the picture like a thunderstorm over a landscape".
She was a discovery of Howard Hughes, the aeronautics tycoon. The Outlaw, a Western about Billy the Kid, was his production. He ended up directing it himself after firing Howard Hawks, a much more experienced film-maker. But try as he might, Hughes could not stop Russell quivering under fire.
"Call in my designers," he commanded. "Time for another engineering feat -- the world's first cantilevered brassiere."
And so the great structure, which parted like London's Tower Bridge, was built and to his dying day Hughes believed that Jane Russell wore it. In fact, she found the metal framework so uncomfortable that she secretly discarded it, substituting her trusted old bra and stuffing it with Kleenex to hold it firm.
Press attention to her physical attractions meant that her acting ability never received its due. She could not play drama but she had a good comic sense.
Wiser producers than Hughes realised that fun could be had from her formidable sex appeal. In The Paleface (1948), its sequel Son Of Paleface (1952) and especially Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Jane Russell became a self-parody -- a figure with whom audiences could laugh on the strength of past publicity.
Though the first to admit her shortcomings, she never wavered from the religion in which she was brought up. Adultery, alcoholism and drunken driving may have touched her life but she still believed that "the Lord is a living doll". She confirmed it in her autobiography, My Path And Detours, which was published in 1986.
Born Ernastine Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, at Bemidji, Minnesota, she grew up in California, graduating from Van Nuys School.
Though her mother had been an actress, the young Jane did not initially entertain thoughts of a career in showbusiness, opting instead for employment as a chiropodist's assistant. But showbiz was in the blood and in 1940, she enrolled in Max Reinhardt's theatrical workshop. Later, she studied with Maria Ouspenskaya and did a little modelling on the side.
That was how Howard Hughes discovered her, earmarking her immediately for the Western he planned to make with brand-new stars. Russell and Jack Buetel were cast in the leading roles. Though The Outlaw was not released for many years, Hughes's publicity machine kept the stories churning about this actress with the phenomenal embonpoint.
Hughes shrewdly placed her under a long-term contract and began lending her services to other studios. Paramount, which was planning a spoof Western with Bob Hope and Ginger Rogers, baulked at the leading lady's terms and signed Jane Russell instead to play Calamity Jane in The Paleface. Hope would later introduce his co-star as "the two and only Jane Russell".
At this time, Hughes also bought into RKO, to which he sold half her contract. Every time she made a film for this studio, Hughes collected $200,000. And in a short space of time, she made several -- thrillers such as His Kind Of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952), both opposite Robert Mitchum; The Las Vegas Story (1952) with Victor Mature; and Double Dynamite (1951), with Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx.
The Western Montana Belle had been made for RKO in 1948, but Hughes bought out the rights and sat on it for four years, releasing it only in 1952, when he felt his protegee was sufficiently established. In that year, she also made Son Of Paleface for Paramount.
Her biggest success -- and the one memorable film of her career -- was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953.
It was blessed by a stroke of casting genius. The blonde whom gentlemen are supposed to prefer was Marilyn Monroe, leaving Russell to play the brunette they allegedly marry.
And calling the shots was director Howard Hawks, veteran of such Thirties screwball classics as Bringing Up Baby and the man who might have made Jane Russell's first film if Hughes had not sacked him.
The production was closely monitored by the censors and several lines drawing attention to the actress's physical attributes had to be cut. Nevertheless, the raunchiness of the material -- two gold-diggers on the make -- could not be entirely suppressed. The musical numbers were sensational, particularly the two girls' credo (We're Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock) and Ain't There Anyone Here for Love? (sung by Jane Russell to a bunch of bodybuilders more obsessed with each other's muscles than with her).
This was the high-water mark of her career. Nothing she did later (including a 1955 sequel without Monroe, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes) quite matched it. Like Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors, she became famous for what she was, rather than for what she did. In that respect, she was entirely different from Monroe, who was cast initially as a femme fatale but had the good fortune to be acclaimed in comedy. Almost all Monroe's last films played to that strength, whereas Russell's comic talent was largely overlooked. Most of her later films reverted to the image she thought she had outgrown.
The French Line (1954), originally filmed in 3-D, ran straight into more flak on account of scenes shot to accentuate the depth of her cleavage. These were censored out of the final release. She continued to film regularly until 1957 but the movies were increasingly gimmicky and ludicrous.
Underwater (1955), for example, is remembered only as the first (and last) film to be premiered beneath the sea, off Florida. Others included Hot Blood (a 1956 gypsy melodrama with Cornel Wilde), The Revolt Of Mamie Stover (1956) and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957).
For nine years, she stayed out of movies, except for an unbilled guest spot playing herself in Fate Is The Hunter (1964). She was, however, comfortably off. She had signed a contract with Hughes to make six films for $1m, payable at the rate of $1,000 a week for 20 years. None of them was made, but she collected the fee notwithstanding.
In the mid-Sixties she made a handful of B pictures -- the Westerns Johnny Reno and Waco in 1966 and the biker movie Born Losers (1967), as the mother of a rape victim. Her last film appearance was in a supporting role in Darker Than Amber in 1970.
She did not, however, retire, switching instead to cabaret work and recording gospel songs, one of which, Do, Lord, became a popular choice in jukeboxes all over America. Jane Russell made her Broadway debut in 1971, replacing Elaine Stritch in the hit musical Company, and appeared on television in the series Yellow Rose and in advertisements -- for brassieres, being retained as a spokeswoman for the Playtex company.
In real life, Jane Russell claimed to be quite different from her screen image.
"I'm the mothering type," she admitted, when visiting England in the early Fifties to attend the Royal Command Film Performance. High on her agenda was "to adopt a really cute little baby boy", as she was unable to have children, possibly as a result of what she described as a botched abortion prior to her first marriage.
Her mother, who was accompanying her, faced an even more challenging task. "I've come over", she said, "to see if I can get hold of a rare German edition of the Bible."
"That", added her daughter, "is the secret of our family's success -- religion. Mom always was devout."
The quest for that "cute" little boy opened up a long and bitter battle, involving questions in the House of Commons and impassioned pleas by Lt-Col Marcus Lipton, Labour MP for Brixton, for the actress to return the 15-month-old boy, Thomas Kavanagh of south Lambeth, to his rightful mother and father, who had moved from Ireland some years earlier and were struggling to raise their family.
An agreement had been reached with the boy's parents for him to spend three months with the actress in her Hollywood home, but legislation of 1950 expressly forbade parents to allow their children to be adopted by non-British subjects.
Russell's mother said later that they had met Irish diplomatic officials one afternoon and two hours later were on the plane home with Thomas. In the end, after an 11-month struggle, Miss Russell did adopt Thomas Kavanagh in America, while the parents were discharged conditionally in London "for unlawfully permitting the care and possession of the child to be transferred".
Jane Russell married the athlete Bob Waterfield in 1943. They adopted three children, including Thomas Kavanagh. The marriage was dissolved in 1968.
Her second husband was the actor Roger Barratt, who died within three months of their 1968 marriage. In 1974, she married real-estate agent John Calvin Peoples. He died in 1999.