Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Late Great Jane Russell

Jane Russell, Hollywood sex symbol and the star of such films as The Paleface (1948) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), passed yesterday at the age of 89. The cause was a respiratory related illness.

Jane Russell was born on 21 June 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota. She apparently inherited her looks from her mother, who had been a model and an aspiring actress, and the model for Mary B. Titcomb's painting "The Girl in the Blue Hat," which had hung in the White House during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. As a child Jane Russell studied piano. In high school she took part in school plays and following high school she studied acting at Max Reinhardt’s theatre workshop and with Maria Ouspenskaya.

She had modelled for a friend who was a photographer, although she was a secretary at a chiropractor's office when her picture was seen by the casting department at RKO, then owned by Howard Hughes. Mr. Hughes signed the 19 year old to a seven year contract. She made her film debut in The Outlaw (1943), the controversial film about Billy the Kid, directed by Howard Hughes. Because the film concentrated so much on Miss Russell's breasts (for which Howard Hughes invented a specially made bra), The Outlaw ran afoul of the Hollywood Production Code Administration, who refused to issue their Seal of Approval unless cuts were made to the film. Mr. Hughes refused to cut the movie. While it would debut in San Francisco in 1943 and would run for six weeks that year in the same city, it would not receive a general release until 1946. Regardless, The Outlaw turned Jane Russell, formerly a chiropractor's secretary, into a movie star.

Jane Russell would appear in The Young Widow (1946) before appearing in one of her most well known roles, as Calamity Jane in The Paleface opposite Bob Hope. She would also appear in the film's sequel, Son of Paleface (1952) as Mike "the Torch" Delroy, as well as such films as His Kind of Woman (1951), Double Dynamite (1951), Macao (1952), and Montana Belle (1952). In 1953 she co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in what may be her most famous film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not only did Miss Russell have most of the best lines in the movie, but one of the best numbers--"Ain't There Anyone Here For Love." Miss Russell's following film would be another one which would invited controversy. Shot in 3-D and featuring Jane Russell in what were then scanty costumes, The French Line (1953) received the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church's Legion of Decency and the Breen Office refused to give it a Seal of Approval, just as they had with The Outlaw many years before. Howard Hughes went ahead and released the film without the Production Code seal. Howard Hughes would later make cuts the number which was the source of most of the controversy,  "Lookin' for Trouble," and re-release The French Line in 2-D. It was a hit at the box office in both runs.

Miss Russell would go onto appear in such films as Foxfire (1955), Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955--the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Hot Blood (1956), The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956),  and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957). Following The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, Miss Russell appeaered on television on The Colgate Playhouse, Person to Person, Westinghouse Desliu Playhouse, What's My Line, The Ed Sullivan ShowThe Red Skelton Hour, and Death Valley Days. She did not appear in a feature film until Johnny Reno in 1966. Afterwards she would appear in the films Waco (1966), The Born Losers (1967), and Darker Than Amber (1970). On television she appeared on such shows as The Merv Griffin Show, Vicki, The Yellow Rose, and Hunter.

Jane Russell also had a singing career. In 1947 she recorded two singles with the Kay Kyser Orchestra and that same year an album for Columbia Records, Let's Put Out the Lights. In 1950 she recorded the single "Kisses and Tears" with Frank Sinatra. In the early Fifties she would record Gospel songs in a trio composed of herself, singer Connie Haines, and Beryl Davis. In 1957 she had a successful tour of nightclubs and in 1961 she recorded another album, Fine and Dandy. She also appeared on Broadway in 1971 in Stephen Sondheim's musical Company.

While it was Jane Russell's admittedly fantastic figure that initially made her famous, it was her incredible talent that made her a star. In my humble opinion she was one of the greatest comic actresses of the mid-Twentieth Century,. Miss Russell had impeccable timing when it came to comedy and could deliver lines better than many stand up comedians. Indeed, she was one of Bob Hope's few co-stars who was every bit a match for him. What is more, Miss Russell was a very good singer and also a fairly good dancer. This made her ideal as a musical star, so it should not be surprising that most of her best known films were musicals. Jane Russell was always at her best playing women not unlike herself, such as Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, intelligent, outspoken, and strong willed women who were nobody's pushovers. Beautiful and talented, Jane Russell lived her life according to her own terms, and it was that quality as much as her talent that made her a star.

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