Remembering Jane Russell: Brunette Bombshell

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George Hurrell / John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images

1941: American actress Jane Russell stars as the fiery Rio in The Outlaw, directed by Howard Hughes — the film which made her a star

Back then they were called bosoms. Jane Russell had some, and Howard Hughes knew what to do with them. Russell’s breasts — not actors Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell — were the stars of Hughes’s 1943 western The Outlaw. Lovingly encased in flimsy blouses and a seamless brassiere that the millionaire engineer Hughes had designed for her (Russell says she never wore that “ridiculous contraption” on camera), and best displayed in her several bending-forward scenes, these soft monuments provided a spectacle of flesh that had not before been shown in mainstream movies. From its earliest days, Hollywood had sold female sensuality, but as a full package of allure: face, figure and personality. Russell was the first woman who became a movie star by being peddled in parts.

Those few seconds of semi-exposure seem almost prim today, when the issuing of a porn tape is one path to celebrity, and television has truly become the boob tube. In the ’40s, though, Russell’s eroticism was a big deal. It preceded and justified the acceptance of Marilyn Monroe and her calendar, the cartoon contours of Jayne Mansfield, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire — the whole codifying, elevation and exploitation of the American male’s mammary mania.

(See pictures of Jane Russell.)

The woman Bob Hope once introduced as “the two and only” managed to survive her Outlaw notoriety — or thrive on it. She forged a substantial postwar career in comedies (The Paleface with Hope), dramas (Macao with Robert Mitchum) and musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Monroe). Yet more than a half-century later — when she died Monday, at 89, of respiratory disease in Santa Maria, California — she could still be remembered as the Jackie Robinson of breast fixation.

That would make Hughes her Branch Rickey. He and Howard Hawks, The Outlaw‘s original director, had cast Russell when she was 19 and had no acting experience. Ernestine Jane Russell, born in Bemidji, Minn., on June 21, 1921, had come with her family to California when she was nine months old; after high school she worked as a receptionist and, occasionally, a photographer’s model. An agent sent her photo to Hawks — who also discovered Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Frances Farmer, Ella Raines, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone and Angie Dickinson — and he gave Russell a screen test. “I was astonished at how I looked,” she later told Todd McCarthy, Hawks’s biographer. “I had a very mediocre image of myself, so I was amazed and very pleased.”

Hughes was too. A decade earlier, the aviation mogul and dedicated playboy had produced movies, including the aerial epic Hell’s Angels and the notorious gangster film Scarface, directed by Hawks. Now he was back in the game, determined to cast unknowns as the young leads in a Western tale of Billy the Kid and Rio, the girl who nurses the wounded gunfighter back to health. (Jack Beutel, soon to be known as Jack Buetel, got the role of Billy.) In addition to designing Russell’s bra, Hughes sent her to pose for a platoon of photographers. “They would have me coming down a hill,” she recalled decades later on a TV documentary, “and I had a low blouse on, and then they’d say, OStoop down and pick up these two pails.’ Then you’d see down to my navel.”

Hawks left after two weeks’ shooting, and Hughes took over as director — his first stint behind the camera since Hell’s Angels. Insistent on capturing Russell’s sultriness and cleavage, he tangled with Gregg Toland, his ace cinematographer (Citizen Kane). To get a closer view of her prime attributes in a scene where Russell seems to be carrying her breasts on a tray, the director had technicians zoom in on the important elements. “Hughes was so fixated that that he privately ran shots of Russell’s most overtly sexual posturings night after night in his screening room,” McCarthy writes, “and rumors have persisted over the years of special nude footage made for Hughes’s delectation alone.” Though he operated a very busy casting couch when he bought the RKO studio later in the decade, Hughes showed a paternal protectiveness toward Russell, insisting she remain true to her beau, UCLA quarterback Bob Waterfield. “He didn’t want me going out with Hollywood wolves,” she told a TV interviewer.

From 1930 to the advent of the ratings system in 1968, every Hollywood film had to be submitted to the Motion Picture Production Code board; scenes the board deemed offensive for public consumption would have to be cut or reshot. When chief censor Joseph Breen saw The Outlaw, he exploded: “I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shot of the breasts of the character of Rio.” Hughes, instead of cutting that scene, used it as the movie’s central attraction. Promoting his new star as the sexiest thing ever to hit movies (“How’d you like to tussle with Russell?” the ads read), he distributed the film himself, showing it for eight weeks in a San Francisco theater in Feb. 1943. Then, bizarrely — bizarre being S.O.P. for the eccentric iconoclast — Hughes withdrew The Outlaw, reopening it in San Francisco in 1946 and finally giving the movie a full release in 1947. It and she were a sensation.

Also an oddity. Though the ad campaign was all Russell, the film’s story concentrated on the battle of two older men — Doc Holliday (Huston) and Sheriff Pat Garrett (Mitchell) — for the affections of Buetel’s winsome Billy the Kid. Like Russell, Buetel is presented as a dusky, oily sex object; the two gruff men ignore Rio’s charms to paw and fawn over Billy. Indeed, the young actor (who didn’t make another film for a decade and never again got a role of this prominence) looks more attractive than his leading lady. She’s an imposing physical specimen: five-foot-seven, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders, and an ample chest framed by slim arms; but here her eyes photograph small and her nose beaky. Worse, for all Rio’s sexual assertiveness toward Billy, Russell gives the impression she’s scared of the camera — cheesecake that’s reluctant to be served up.

(See a story on Jane Russell from the TIME archive.)

Hughes filmed dozens of takes of many scenes — Russell told McCarthy the whole shoot was “painful S the most insane thing I’ve ever seen” — but the stars’ acting is slapdash and the pace torpid. Jules Furthman, who’d written some of the ’30s’ most entertaining adventure films (Shanghai Express, Bombshell, Mutiny on the Bounty, Only Angels Have Wings), turned in an amateurish script notable only for the number of times a character gets trussed up in a humiliating or erotic pose. One image of Russell is straight from a pulp-magazine cover: her wrists tied to opposite walls, her breasts thrust forward as she struggles to escape her spread-eagled captivity.

The actress must have felt similarly confined by Hughes. For years, she said, he sent her out daily to publicize a film virtually no one could see. And since Hughes wanted The Outlaw to be Russell’s film debut, he refused to lend her out for roles at the big studios. (She did appear in a minor melodrama, Young Widow, for indie producer Hunt Stromberg in 1946. Fifty years later she opined, “Young Widow should have died with her husband.”) Nineteen when she was cast in The Outlaw, she was 26 when the movie finally achieved countrywide release. Russell’s next step was to see if she’d have a career or be just a one-joke wonder.

Career it was — intermittently. Paramount smartly cast her as another gunslingin’ gal, Calamity Jane, opposite Bob Hope’s risk-averse dentist in The Paleface, a spiffy comedy western that spawned the Oscar-winning song “Buttons and Bows.” (Hope and Russell reprised the number in the 1952 sequel Son of Paleface.) Though Russell still hadn’t much screen experience, she’d learned how to dish out quips and field them, and was the perfect object of Hope’s patented fear and lust in one of the big hits of 1948. That same year, Hughes took over RKO as majority owner and production chief, and should have started churning out vehicles for his now-certified star. Instead, he kept her idle until 1951. In her twenties, ostensibly her prime decade, Russell made only three pictures.

(See portraits of Hollywood’s top stars.)

She was 30 by the release of her next two films. The suggestively titled Double Dynamite cast her opposite Frank Sinatra, at his Hollywood nadir just before From Here to Eternity revived his career. In her other 1951 effort, John Farrow’s noirish, Mexico-set melodrama His Kind of Woman, Russell was paired with Mitchum, the one actor more hulking and glowering than she. For the first time on screen, she kindled sparks with her costar as they swapped endearments and tough badinage (Russell: “You killed Ferraro. How did it feel?” Mitchum: “He didn’t say”). The two reteamed the following year in Josef von Sternberg’s atmospheric Macao, for which Hughes, ever attentive to Russell’s coutour, dashed off this memo to the costume department: “It would be extremely valuable if the dress incorporated some kind of a point at the nippleS. Her breasts always appear to be round, or flat, at that point so something artificial here would be extremely desirable.”

Over the 17 years he was in charge of her career, Hughes’s original view of Russell never changed. She was to him what she was to a French critic who rhapsodized over “sa fabuleuse poitrine” (her fabulous chest). Taking advantage of the fad for stereoptic movies, Hughes promoted her 1954 musical The French Line with the ad line: “J.R. in 3-D. It’ll knock both your eyes out.” Again, Hughes reaped the free publicity of scandal when the film, like The Outlaw, was rated Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

The objection this time was the movie’s climactic number, “Lookin’ for Trouble,” in which Russell purrs her hunger for “a man, any time, any style. / He can be short, tall or e-long-gated. / So bring him on, and watch my own private chemical reaction start to work.” Sporting a form-hugging bathing suit with a diamond-shaped cut-out that exposes her midriff, the star struts and bumps with a lubricious vigor that would have raised an envious smile from Tempest Storm. Hughes eventually released The French Line in a more demure edition (the one shown on Turner Classic Movies), in which Russell’s outfit covers more of her body, and virtually the entire number is shown in extreme long-shot. (The original version is on YouTube.)

She graced many an RKO film, including Underwater! (another bathing suit) and the gypsy drama Hot Blood (“Jane Russell shakes her tambourines and drives Cornel Wilde!”). But she did her best work away from Hughes’s protective leer. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes she was billed above Monroe, the newer bombshell; and though Marilyn made history singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in that pink dress that was later used by Madonna and James Franco, Russell was a full partner in the movie’s garishly good-natured success. Hawks was again the director, and relied on his old pal to calm Monroe’s famously frazzled ego. The ladies’ opening song, “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” is a smashing duet in which Russell’s by-now natural bravado plays cleverly off, and reinforces, Monroe’s coquetry. The Russell solo, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love,” has the star trying vainly to catch the eye of a retinue of musclemen; these narcissists were the only ones not paying full attention to an intoxicating brunette.

In 1955, when Hughes sold RKO and left the movie business, Russell formed a production company with her husband Waterfield (now a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams). But Monroe and Mansfield had supplanted her as Hollywood sex icons, and she effectively retired from movies in 1957, thereafter limiting herself to guest spots in a few films and TV series. She devoted her show-biz energies to singing, both on the road and on Broadway, where in 1971 she replaced Elaine Stritch in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Still looking great in her fifties, she became a spokeswoman for Playtex bras, “for us full-figured gals,” and gamely revisited her past for film documentarians.

The victim of a botched abortion in her teens, she and Waterfield adopted three children. (They divorced in 1967, after nearly 24 years of marriage. The next year she wed actor Robert Barrett, with whom she’d been touring in stock; he died of a heart attack three months later. In 1974 she married realtor John Calvin Peoples and was with him until his death in 1999.) For decades Russell proselytized for adoption and against abortions, no matter the circumstances. She led weekly Bible-reading classes and, in 2003, described herself as “a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot — but not a racist.”

This devout senior citizen also decried the low moral level of movies — to which she had significantly contributed — and said, apparently without irony, that “we had a Motion Picture Code in those days so they couldn’t do all this naughty stuff.” When one interviewer expressed skepticism at her new prudishness, she snapped back, “Hey, buddy, Christians have big breasts, too.” Over the years she reversed her image: from luscious sex object to anti-sex crusader, from taboo-breaker to cultural revisionist, from prurient to puritan. Thus did Bob Hope’s joke turn into a prophecy: she really did become the two and only Jane Russell.