Jane Russell dies at 89; screen siren had sensational debut in 'The Outlaw'
Her provocative performance in the 1943 Howard Hughes film — and the publicity shots posing her in a low-cut blouse while reclined on a stack of hay bales — marked a turning point in moviedom sexuality. She became a bona fide star and a favorite pinup girl of soldiers during World War II
By Claudia Luther, Special to the Los Angeles Times
8:30 PM PST, February 28, 2011
Jane Russell, the dark-haired siren whose sensational debut in the 1943 film “"The Outlaw"” inspired producer Howard Hughes to challenge the power and strict morality of Hollywood's production code, has died. She was 89. (File photo / February 27, 2011)
Jane Russell, the dark-haired siren whose sensational debut in the 1943 film "The Outlaw" inspired producer Howard Hughes to challenge the power and strict morality of Hollywood's production code, died Monday at her home in Santa Maria, Calif. She was 89.
Russell, who would later turn her sexy image to comic effect in films with Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and other major stars, had respiratory problems and died after a short illness, her family said.
Russell's provocative performance in "The Outlaw" — and the studio publicity shots posing her in a low-cut blouse while reclined on a stack of hay bales — marked a turning point in moviedom sexuality. She became a bona fide star and a favorite pinup girl of soldiers during World War II. Troops in Korea named two embattled hills in her honor.
She went on to appear in 18 more films in the 1940s and '50s and, though only a few were memorable, she remains a favorite from the era for her wry portrayals of sex goddesses who seem amused by their own effect.
"Such droll eroticism is rare in Hollywood, and we are lucky that she was allowed to decorate so many adventure movies," film historian and critic David Thomson wrote of Russell, whom he called "physically glorious."
Among Russell's better films are "The Paleface," in which she plays the spirited Calamity Jane opposite Hope's feckless dentist in a spoof of "The Virginian"; and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," a musical in which she is brunet gal pal Dorothy to Marilyn Monroe's gold-digging Lorelei Lee. In the latter, the two stars perform a razzle-dazzle production number of the Jule Styne-Leo Robin hit song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."
Russell appeared in a few films in the 1960s and ended her movie career in 1970 playing Alabama Tigress in "Darker Than Amber," a film version of John D. McDonald's mystery novel. She replaced Elaine Stritch in "Company" on Broadway for several months in 1971, but her career after that was mostly limited to nightclub, stage or other live appearances.
To later generations, Russell — who once famously had a brassiere designed for her by Hughes — was known as the "bra lady" for her role as a spokeswoman for Playtex bras for "full-figured women."
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and moved to Southern California with her family as an infant. After graduating from Van Nuys High School, she was working as a part-time model and receptionist when her photo was noticed by a casting agent working for Hughes. The mogul was conducting a nationwide search for a beauty with ample breasts for the part of Rio McDonald, who falls for Billy the Kid in "The Outlaw."
One audition got Russell the part.
Hughes, who took over direction of the film from Howard Hawks, made it his personal business to make the most of his discovery's assets. He even had his engineers design a special "cantilever" bra with no noticeable seams that would expose more of her breasts than conventional undergarments. Russell said she found his contraption "ridiculous" and wore her own bra.
"He could design planes, but a Mr. Playtex he wasn't," Russell wrote in her 1985 autobiography, "Jane Russell: My Past and My Detours."
Jane Russell, right, and Marilyn Monroe perform "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from the 1953 film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." (20th Century Fox)
On seeing the results of Hughes' efforts in 1941, Joe Breen, who enforced the production code, was appalled, saying he had "never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio," which were "shockingly emphasized and, in almost every instance, are very substantially uncovered."
He ordered Hughes to delete dozens of shots of Russell's bosom. Hughes not only refused but played up the resulting controversy to publicize the film. He issued Russell-in-the-haystack posters with such lines as "How Would You Like to Tussle With Russell?" and "Mean! Moody! Magnificent!" In one publicity stunt, a skywriter wrote "The Outlaw" in the sky and then carefully drew two circles with a dot in the center of each.
Hughes also dreamed up the line: "What are the two reasons for Jane Russell's rise to stardom?" (Comedian Hope later used a variation, introducing the actress as "the two and only Jane Russell.")
The film was released briefly in 1943, then withdrawn while Hughes considered revisions and maximized the publicity. It was released more widely in 1946 without code approval. The film was "not a bore," a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote, assuring readers that while Russell's character was incidental to the story line, "the exploitation of [her] physical attractions is as insistent as advertised."
Drawn by the film's notoriety, moviegoers flocked to see it. It had made millions of dollars by the time censors approved it in 1949. As James R. Petersen wrote in Playboy magazine in 1997, "Hughes showed that a film could ignore the code and make a profit." Other challenges to the code followed —including, notably, director Otto Preminger's "The Man With the Golden Arm" and "The Moon Is Blue" in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, the code was replaced by the Motion Picture Assn. of America's ratings system, which permitted the release of explicitly sexual or violent movies as long as audiences were restricted on the basis of age.
Hughes' famed battle with the code was portrayed in "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's 2004 biographical film that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. In the film, Hughes appears before the enforcer of the production code armed with close-up pictures of Russell's and other prominent bosoms of the day.
Russell cooperated in Hughes' publicity campaign, but drew the line at blatantly revealing pictures.
Deeply religious throughout her life, she looked back with regret at the unrelenting attention devoted to her bounteous figure, calling it "Hollywood gook."
Although she grew to despise the provocative pictures that had made her a star at 19, she succumbed to her publisher's pressure to use one of the sultriest on the cover of her autobiography.
In her personal life, counter to her rather rowdy public image, Russell was a political conservative and a born-again Christian years before the phrase became popular. She once promoted the use of the Bible in public schools.
She and her first husband — Van Nuys High School sweetheart Bob Waterfield who went on to become a football star for UCLA and the Cleveland (later Los Angeles) Rams — were married for 23 years until they divorced in 1967. They adopted three children — Tracy, Thomas and Robert (Buck) — who survive her, along with six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Russell recounted in her autobiography that before her marriage to Waterfield she had had a botched abortion, which she thought might have affected her ability to have children. The couple's difficulties in adopting inspired her to form the World Adopting International Fund, which helped place tens of thousands of children with adoptive families. The organization closed in 1998.
Finding homes for orphans became a full-time job for Jane Russell, here in 1959 with youngsters Andy Kenny and Yoko Todd and artist Jeanette Whiteaker. (AP)
After she and Waterfield divorced, Russell married actor Roger Barrett, who died of a heart attack three months after their 1968 wedding. Her marriage in 1974 to John Calvin Peoples, a real estate businessman, lasted until his death in 1999.
After her third husband's death, Russell moved from their Montecito estate to Santa Maria, home to her youngest son and his family. By 2006, macular degeneration had begun claiming her sight.
At 84, silver-haired and still statuesque, she regularly performed in a 1940s-style revue that she staged with friends on a tiny stage at the local Radisson Hotel, far from Las Vegas, where she made her singing debut in 1957.
In summing up her film career, Russell wrote in her autobiography that she never got to make the kinds of movies she would have liked to.
"Except for comedy, I went nowhere in the acting department," she said. "I was definitely a victim of Hollywood typecasting."
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. March 12 at Pacific Christian Church 3435 Santa Maria Way, Santa Maria.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
Jane Russell, Sultry Star of 1940s and ’50s, Dies at 89
By ANITA GATES
The New York Times
March 1, 2011
Jane Russell stands next to a movie still of her and Robert Mitchum at her home near Santa Barbara in 1999. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press)
Jane Russell, the voluptuous actress at the center of one of the most highly publicized censorship episodes in movie history, the long-delayed release of the 1940s western “The Outlaw,” died on Monday at her home in Santa Maria, Calif. She was 89.
The cause was a respiratory-related illness, her daughter-in-law, Etta Waterfield, said.
Ms. Russell was 19 and working in a doctor’s office when Howard Hughes, returning to movie production after his aviation successes, cast her as the tempestuous Rio McDonald, Sheriff Pat Garrett’s girlfriend, in “The Outlaw,” which he directed.
A movie poster — which showed a sultry Ms. Russell in a cleavage-revealing blouse falling off one shoulder as she reclined in a haystack and held a gun — quickly became notorious and seemed to fuel movie censors’ determination to prevent the film’s release because of scenes that, by 1940s standards, revealed too much of the star’s breasts. The Roman Catholic Church was one of the movie’s vocal opponents.
Although the film had its premiere and ran for nine weeks in San Francisco in 1943, it did not open in New York until 1947 and was not given a complete national release until 1950. Critics were generally unimpressed by its quality, but it made Ms. Russell a star. The specially engineered bra that Hughes was said to have designed for his 38D leading lady took its place in cinematic history, although Ms. Russell always contended that she never actually wore it.
She went on to make some two dozen feature films, all but a handful of them between 1948 and 1957 and many of them westerns.
In the western comedy “The Paleface” (1948), she played Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope, with whom she also starred in “Son of Paleface,” the 1952 sequel. In the musical comedy that she called her favorite film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), she starred with Marilyn Monroe as one of two ambitious showgirls. Her numbers included “Two Little Girls From Little Rock,” one of several duets with Monroe, and the comic lament “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” Two years later she starred with Jeanne Crain in “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes,” a sequel of sorts, set in Paris.
A number of her movies were musicals, and singing became a large part of her career. She first appeared in Las Vegas in 1957 and was performing in musical shows at small venues as recently as 2008. Although she did considerable stage acting over the years, her sole Broadway appearance was in 1971 in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” in which she replaced Elaine Stritch as the tough-talking character who sings “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Promo shots and poster from Howard Hughes' film "The Outlaw"
Ms. Russell was best known in the 1970s and ’80s as the television spokeswoman in commercials for Playtex bras, which she promoted as ideal for “full-figured gals” like her.
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., the daughter of Roy and Geraldine Russell. Her mother had been an aspiring actress and a model. “The Girl in the Blue Hat,” a portrait of her by the watercolorist Mary B. Titcomb, once hung in the White House, bought by President Woodrow Wilson.
When Jane was 9 months old, before her four brothers were born, her father moved the family to Southern California to take a job as an office manager. He died when Jane was in her teens.
After high school, Jane took acting classes at Max Reinhardt’s theater workshop and with Maria Ouspenskaya. She did some modeling for a photographer friend but was working in a chiropodist’s office when a photo of her found its way to Hughes’s casting people.
In 1943 she married her high school sweetheart, Bob Waterfield, a U.C.L.A. football player who became the star quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams. They adopted a daughter, Tracy, and two sons, Thomas and Robert. (After a botched abortion before her marriage, Ms. Russell was unable to have children. She later became an outspoken opponent of abortion and an advocate of adoption, founding the World Adoption International Fund in the 1950s.)
She and Mr. Waterfield divorced in 1967 after 24 years of marriage. The following year she married Roger Barrett, an actor, who died of a heart attack three months after the wedding.
In 1974, John Calvin Peoples, a real estate broker and retired Air Force lieutenant, became her third husband, and they were together until his death, in 1999. Ms. Russell had had previous problems with alcohol, but they became worse after she was widowed again; her grown children insisted that she undergo rehabilitation at the age of 79.
She also turned to conservative politics in her later years.
“These days I’m a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist,” she told an Australian newspaper, The Daily Mail, in 2003. Bigotry, she added, “just means you don’t have an open mind.”
By the time she married Mr. Peoples, her acting career was all but over. After appearing in three movies in the mid-1960s, she had a small role in her last film, “Darker Than Amber,” a 1970 action drama starring Rod Taylor. She did relatively little television, but her final screen role was in a 1986 episode of the NBC police drama “Hunter.”
Her children survive her, as do 8 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Ms. Russell was very public about her religious convictions. She organized Bible study groups in Hollywood and wrote about having experienced speaking in tongues. In her memoir, “My Path and My Detours” (1985), she described the strength she drew from Christianity.
A higher power was always there, she wrote, “telling me that if I could just hold tough a little longer, I’d find myself around one more dark corner, see one more spot of light and have one more drop of pure joy in this journey called life.”