Book Review: MEAN. . . MOODY. . . MAGNIFICENT! JANE RUSSELL AND THE MARKETING OF A HOLLYWOOD LEGEND (Christina Rice)

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by Vaughan Edwards on March 11, 2021

in Books,Film

HARDLY AN AVERAGE JANE

The Hollywood Golden Age biography market is glutted with studies of Crawford, Davis, Dietrich, Hepburn, Hepburn, Monroe, Taylor and their peers. Is there anything left to say about these fabled creatures? The answer in most cases is a resounding “No!” Consequently, many writers are now exploring less well-trodden paths, and it’s by no means a bad thing. Near misses, lost opportunities, and the occasional triumph can make for more compelling reading than a relentless catalogue of success.

Jane Russell fits neatly into this latter category – physically stunning, talented, but more concerned with family than fame, with more than her share of challenges and heartbreak; in some ways not unlike ourselves.

Jane, age two, during a trip to North Dakota to visit family.

There are no biographies of Russell except for her own 1985 account, leaving the field clear for Christina Rice, and she meets the challenge head on. Russell makes for a larger-than-life protagonist and Rice treats us to a stellar supporting cast: Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Robert Mitchum, Vincent Price, Clark Gable, and the two Howards in her life, Hawks and Hughes.

Things came easy at first. As Russell herself said, she didn’t have to leave home to get to Hollywood, she grew up just across the hill. In the 1930s, San Fernando Valley was still a sleepy expanse of citrus groves and ranches. Jane’s mother Geraldine gave up a modest acting career to raise her daughter and four sons, and Jane grew up in a loving family surrounded by brothers, dogs, and horses.

Jane during her junior or senior year at Van Nuys High School.

Geraldine Russell, hardly the ruthless stage mother of Broadway and Hollywood legend, encouraged Jane to study at Maria Ouspenskaya’s School of Dramatic Art. This led to modeling work and to the most significant figure in Russell’s career, aviation giant Howard Hughes.

If Hughes’ true vocation was flight, his avocation was film. His World War One drama, Wings, pioneered aerial photography, and his 1932 Scarface is one of the best gangster films of the era. He also had a keen eye for female talent. His greatest discovery to date had been Jean Harlow, first of the blonde bombshells, and in Russell he found a brunette counterpart. He picked her out of a hundred candidates for the female lead in The Outlaw, his first film in a decade. His faith in her was based solely on a gut reaction to her physical attributes which bordered on obsession, as witnessed in an 800-word memo to his Outlaw costume designer. Helped no doubt by his work in aerodynamics, he designed a bra worthy of Jane’s endowment and provided detailed instructions on its manufacture. In the event, Jane found this masterpiece of engineering too uncomfortable and simply stuffed Kleenex tissues into her own bra. Hughes never found out.

Jane with Jack Buetel shortly after finding out they'd been cast in THE OUTLAW.

Long before The Outlaw was ready for release, publicity stills of a décolleté Jane sprawled in a hayloft were circulating in magazines. The pictures caused a sensation and achieved the unique result of rocketing Jane to stardom on the strength of a single photographic image. They also established the voluptuous bad-girl image which pursued her for the rest of her life and beyond. Protests by the Catholic League of Decency only created a greater demand for the pictures, and when America entered World War Two, they became favorite armed forces pin-ups. Jane Russell was a star before ever appearing on the screen.

Jane and photographer Tom Kelly in 1947.

Hughes signed Russell to a seven-year contract, and to ensure that The Outlaw would be her film debut, forbade her taking any work until after it premiered. Owing to his obsessive tinkering, and problems with the Production Code Administration, mainly relating to that bra, The Outlaw didn’t get a general release until 1946, which effectively put Russell’s career on hold for five years. She would remain under contract to Hughes for the next thirty-five years. The partnership was something of a two-edged sword. While she might not have succeeded without Hughes’ influence, his control of her career deprived her of several valuable opportunities.

A string of reasonably successful films followed, notably The Paleface with Bob Hope, and His Kind of Woman with Robert Mitchum and Vincent Price. But it wasn’t until 1953 that Russell had a hit to outrival The Outlaw; the sublime Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Jane and Robert Mitchum at the Orpheum Theatre in L.A. to promote HIS KIND OF WOMAN,

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, though very much of its time, is still hugely enjoyable; screwball comedy, musical, and buddy movie rolled into one. A quintessential jazz age novel by Anita Loos, and a hit Broadway musical in 1949, the tale of Lorelei Lee, a dumb-but-canny gold digger, proved as relevant to the fifties as it was to the twenties. In 1953 Marilyn Monroe, on the brink of stardom, looked tailor-made for Lorelei, and Howard Hawks, who had been a father figure to Jane in the early stages of The Outlaw, was to direct. There was some concern over Monroe’s ability to carry a big-budget musical, and Hawks suggested the more experienced Russell to play Lorelei’s feet-on-the-ground pal Dorothy.

Jane and Marilyn Monroe shortly before being immortalized in cement
at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

The pairing proved to be a stroke of genius, the yin and yang of fifties femininity: blonde and brunette, innocent and sophisticate, pursued and pursuer; and a few years later, in a chilling instance of life imitating art, victim and survivor. But before real life kicked in, Blondes gave both stars one of their biggest hits. Marilyn turned out to be sensational, but Russell more than holds her own, stealing most of the scenes she’s in, revealing impressive comedic skills and confirming once and for all that she could do more than smolder. Her solo turn “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” showcases her vocal talent and incidentally has a contemporary interest beyond its context in the film. A group of Olympic athletes working out in a gym are oblivious to drop-dead-gorgeous Dorothy as she struts her stuff. With the athletes clad only in flesh-colored swimming trunks, it may be the only sequence in Hollywood history which objectifies men rather than women. The fact that the entire scene was cut on the film’s release in the United Kingdom suggests that the British Board of Censors picked up on something the Production Code Administration missed. To put it crudely, the number might as well be titled “Bottoms Up”. At a time when underwear ads in Sears Roebuck catalogues were the closest thing most Americans got to pornography, the sequence must have marked a turning point in many young lives, and that in a nutshell is the power of film. In later years the number would lead to Jane’s consecration as a gay icon, a role she didn’t altogether relish, and for an unexpected reason. In contrast to her sex goddess image, she was deeply religious, and unfortunately embraced some of the vices along with the virtues of Christianity. That said, her religious conviction, combined with her strong sense of family, led to what amounted to a second career, far removed from the world of film, and ultimately more important to her than all her Hollywood success.

Jane with Robert Waterfield shortly before they eloped, 1943.

A botched abortion in 1942 left her unable to bear children, and adoption was the only viable alternative. Fruitless visits to some of the grimmer orphanages of Europe alerted her to the plight of unwanted children and the challenges faced by couples wishing to adopt. Laws against Americans adopting European children only intensified the problem. In characteristic fashion Jane confronted the issue head on, enlisting influential friends and lobbying Washington for a change in the law. She eventually established WAIF, an organization which, over five decades, found families for over forty thousand children. Jane had found her cause, one she tirelessly supported for the next fifty years.

Jane with Clark Gable, her co-star on THE TALL MAN, in Durango, Mexico.

Although Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be Jane’s last big hit, she continued in movies through the fifties and sixties, making her last film in 1970. And when Hollywood stopped calling, she fell back on the career that had always run parallel to her film work. She had been singing on radio and in nightclubs since the forties. This now blossomed into a full-blown stage career, culminating in her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim’s Company as the wise-cracking Joanne, a part that could have been written for her. Then in 1973, a series of Playtex bra commercials for “full figured gals” introduced her to a whole new generation and sparked a revival of interest in her movies, especially the earlier films noirs.

Jane as Joanne in the Broadway production of COMPANY. Photo by Martha Swope.

All too often in biographies of long-lived subjects, the pace begins to slow towards the end, but that wasn’t Jane’s style. She stayed actively involved in her beloved WAIF foundation until she retired in 2000. Her stance on homosexuality softened enough for her to pose for pictures with drag versions of Marilyn and herself at a San Francisco screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2004. Still knockin’ ’em dead in cabaret in her late eighties, she made her last public appearance two weeks before her death at age eighty-nine. She had been in the public eye for seventy years.

Jane with bandleader Kay Kyser, who helped launch her radio and recording career.

Like many talented people, Jane Russell was a study in contrasts. Generous to a fault, liberal-minded in many ways, yet a self-confessed bigot, she lived and died a Republican. But a Republican of the 1950s was a very different animal than a Republican of the 2020s. Christina Rice embraces these contradictions, taking the rough with the smooth as Russell herself did, and letting us judge for ourselves. Rice’s book reaches well beyond the narrow boundaries of the conventional star biography; a gutsy, full-blooded account of a life well-lived … and lived … and LIVED!

photos courtesy and © University Press of Kentucky

  • Mean…Moody…Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend
  • University Press of Kentucky
  • English | Hardcover | 372 pages | June 15, 2021
  • pre-order at Amazon

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