Let's get this out in the open: Jane Russell had breasts. The actress, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, famously debuted in 'The Outlaw,' a movie whose notorious reputation exceeded its actual content by tenfold. The original poster revealed too much of Russell's cleavage to please the Production Code Administration, which kept the film out of theaters for years. (Completed in 1941, it received a brief, limited release in 1943 and did not receive national release until 1950.)
As a bookend, she became famous to a generation of young men through her bra commercials in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that the first reports of her death provoked a ripple of cheap jokes on Twitter, as though the only reason that she should be remembered is because she was a woman and she had a full figure.
But such a stand betrays a woeful ignorance of both cinema history and her place in it. And it diminishes her attributes as a screen personality and star, a woman who was always warm and vivacious and strong.
That's not to claim she was a great actress. If anything, 'The Outlaw' put her at a disadvantage. After she graduated from Van Nuys High School, in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood, she took some acting classes and did some modeling before being cast by Howard Hughes in his directorial debut.
Considering that it was her first real acting job and that she was surrounded by a couple of very experienced actors in Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston, Russell acquitted herself quite well as Rio McDonald. She was working off her raw talent, with a first-time director, so her performance is not polished, but you can see her potential. Even then, at the age of 19, she had presence.
'The Outlaw,' its attendant controversy and publicity demands kept her from making another movie until 'Young Widow' in 1946. Her next role, 'The Paleface,' showcased her comedic abilities.
Playing opposite Bob Hope in 1948 must have seemed a daunting task. He'd been one of the top box office attractions of the decade; she was still a newcomer. She stood toe to toe with him, though, alternately tossing off one-liners and serving as straight man, giving life and energy to Calamity Jane, against Hope's cowardly dentist.
They teamed again in 'Son of Paleface' four years later, with the great Frank Tashlin, who co-wrote the original, stepping into the director's chair. The sequel is funnier and sillier than the first film, mostly, we can assume, because of Tashlin, who began as an animation director and would go on to direct live-action classics like 'Artists and Models' and 'The Girl Can't Help It.' The colors popped. (Check it out in the clip above, which features Russell singing as the boys look on.) The visual gags often add a surreal edge to what is otherwise a very mainstream movie. With a little more experience under her belt, Russell's comic timing is notably more assured.
Between the two 'Paleface' movies, Russell made 'Double Dynamite,' with Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx, and three dramas, starring with Robert Mitchum in 'His Kind of Woman' and 'Macao.'
The latter picture was a troubled production. Reportedly, producer Howard Hughes fired director Josef von Sternberg a third of the way through and replaced him with Nicholas Ray. The film is an oddball stew of murder, mystery and intrigue, confusing to unravel. Rusell, as a lounge singer, trades sarcastic barbs with Mitchum and easily holds her own. Mitchum could make powerful men look weak, but Russell was strong enough to stand up to him -- and look convincing doing so.
A year after 'Son of Paleface,' Russell's career peaked with 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' directed by Howard Hawks. The opening is stunning: the top-billed Russell appears with Marilyn Monroe, both dressed in dazzling, sparkling red dresses, slit up high, singing a song. It's mesmerizing.
The movie, based on a Broadway hit by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos, features Russell and Monroe as Dorothy and Lorelei, partners in love crimes; Lorelai wants to marry for money and Dorothy wants to marry for love. The musical numbers are (mostly) delirious, as in Monroe's showcase, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and the film boosted her steadily-climbing stardom.
What's forgotten, though, is that Russell gives a very good musical comedy performance. Even though she's the star, she has the less showy role; she's the one pursuing men -- leering over them comically yet longingly in an ode to male flesh ("Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?," the clip above; the tumble into the pool at the end was unplanned) -- and the one who has to maneuver things so that Lorelai can stay out of the hands of the authorities. She's very amusing when she does her impersonation of Marilyn near the end of the movie, donning a blonde wig, talking in Monroe's breathy, squeaky manner and then doffing her fur court in a courtroom to sing her version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."
It's all rather grand. Unfortunately, it was downhill from there as far as her career in movies was concerned. She made another eight films, the last in 1957, before making a few appearances on television and then singing in musical shows and appearing on stage.
She made a few more films in the mid-to-late 60s and then was absent from the screen, save for her appearances in commercials until she appeared on TV's 'The Yellow Rose' for several episodes during the show's only season on the air in 1983-84. Her final appearance was on the TV show 'Hunter' in 1986.
Jane Russell certainly was a beautiful woman and had a lovely figure. More imporant, though, she had a remarkably strong screen presence and brought real star power to her roles. That's what should be remembered most about her career in the movies.
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