Jane Russell could never be a star today, and more’s the pity. Though her start was shaky, and she was of limited range, Russell had a certain ironic detachment that made her a delight to watch. She knew why she became a star and why people liked her. It was simple: Jane Russell (born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell) had big tits.
Howard Hughes – partly a boob man, but more than anything a
capitalist – saw something he could make famous: large breasts on a
small frame. In a time when pornography was a crime, and the best that
could be found were soundless one-reelers (that history has taught us
were mostly viewed at Elk’s club), and the Hays code restricting any
film that suggested the romantic leads were going to do something about
it, Russell’s physique could do what less endowed women like Greta
Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Veronica Lake had to act to sell and might be
censored for. Russell – with her ridiculous cleavage – was walking sex.
Hughes knew it, and designed bras and outfits to highlight her
mammaries. As The Aviator attests, he had to fight tooth and nail for each blessed millimeter of skin he could.
His film (originally started by Howard Hawks) The Outlaw was
a western that had characters called Billy The Kid, Pat Garrett, and
Doc Holiday, but no one talks about the film for its melding and
commentary on Western legends. What they talk about is the image above.
Russell – dress off the shoulder, bra-less (or with non-period bra
technology), cradling a gun in her hands (symbolism) as her legs are
lightly askew, laying in the hay looking like she just got fucked by
someone with evident skill, though perhaps not entirely sated – could do
more by being more where it counted. The Hays code saw red, Hughes saw
green, and boys became men (and men became wolves).
It’s also true that this above image is more famous than the film
itself. Considering it has a script by the always dependable Jules
Furthman (with uncredited work from Hawks and Ben Hecht), the movie
itself is a mishmash, and Hughes was a modest director. It was made in
1941, got a limited theatrical showing in 1943 for a week, and then
finally went into general release in 1946 – the censorship struggles
went on that long – to become a smash hit. Even so there were still
regional censors, which is why the film has run from its current “full”
115 minute version to as short as 95 minutes (some of which had to have
been happy projectionists taking home souvenirs). There are a lot of
things to like about the film, but it’s no great work – like Veronica
Lake, Jane Russell is more famous for being an image than star. Russell
trained to be an actress, but she got better with age and was always
best with directors who knew how to use her.
When a director had her number she showed that she could hold her own. Paired with Bob Hope in the two Paleface movies,
she was a proficient straight-man, and was a perfect foil with her
amazon frame an appealing comic contrast to Hope’s cowardly gun-slinger.
Frank Tashlin took over for the sequel and did her right (and also
prepared himself for The Girl Can’t Help It). One of my favorites is the delightfully weird Macao,
which partnered her with Robert Mitchum under the eyes of director
Joseph Von Sternberg (though the film has three uncredited directors,
including Nicholas Ray). Regardless of who the auteur is – though it’s a
gorgeous film – Russell gets to sing (she was okay, pretty good), and
do what she did best: Sarcasm. Never lost on Russell was why she became
famous, and that sense of annoyance at being just eye candy came out. It
seemed to bore her that men viewed her as a lust object, and it only
added to her charm.
And if such is why she’s fondly remembered, Howard Hawks (her first
director) easily gave her the best on-screen role she’d ever have, and
saw the genius of pairing her with equally bosomy Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Monroe plays the dingbat, while Russell is the anchor. For my money
I’ve always been a Russell man, partly because Hawks understands that
being jaded and rude was part of her charm. She’d been around the block,
and though she might still be at the bar at last call, she wasn’t going
to suffer fools gladly even if she still might sleep with them. In that
way I’ve always seen her as a model for the Marion Ravenwood character
in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Howard Hawks is my
favorite director (well, him or Jean Renoir), and Russell was playing
the sort of woman that Hawks was in love with: the intelligent, sassy, a
sexual aggressor. Lauren Bacall is the poster child of this type, but
Russell did it as well as anyone.
Though she had some box office successes, Russell – like many of her
type – moved into television, with some final and mostly uneventful big
screen appearances in films like The Born Losers and Darker than Amber
– the Travis McGee film. But by the 1980’s she was mostly courted by
the occasional press, who always got great stories out of her. Russell’s
films may have sold her short, but her image looms large over
Hollywood. One could even say it heaves.