June 21, 1921: Jane Russell:
…these days I am a teetotaling, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.
More than Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, or Raquel Welch, Jane Russell was probably straight guys’ most desired women of the 20th century. She had great erotic force and great likability. Russell made just over 20 films, but only a few are remembered today: her first film, The Outlaw (1943); the comedy western The Paleface (1948), with Bob Hope; and the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), co-starring Monroe.
Despite POTUS’s contention that most Hollywood celebs are liberals, many stars of the 1940s and 1950s were conservatives. Russell was a Republican, right there with John Wayne, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jimmy Stewart.
Just like her character Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Russell was a straight-talkin’ tomato. She never seemed to buy into her own publicity, which was a good thing since it was mostly about her famous bust.
When her final credits rolled in 2011, I was surprised to read about her work on behalf of the rights of adopted children. After a botched abortion left her unable to have children, she adopted three kids in the 1950s but faced plenty of problems in the process, especially when she tried to adopt foreign children. She worked to change laws, testified before Congress, and was an important advocate in the passage of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment of 1953. She helped pass legislation that allowed single parents to adopt and made it possible for children to cross state lines for adoptions. Her organization WAIF (World Adoption International Fund), placed over 50,000 children in homes. Whenever the studio sent her on a publicity tour, she spent much of her time in that area working for this cause, but she took little credit.
Unlike many of the other Republican movie stars of the era, Russell was no homophobe. She was especially close with openly gay choreographer Jack Cole who worked with her on Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. She called him a genius and said he was responsible for the success of the film since neither she nor Monroe were dancers before they started shooting. She touted the homoerotic number she sings in the film Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love, performed in the middle of a training session for the Olympic team with dozens of beefy studs doing their work-out. Russell darts in and out of their routines singing: “I like big muscles, and red corpuscles, I like a beautiful hunk of man”. The men ignore her completely and seem far more interested in each other as they gyrate in suggestive positions. How that scene ever got past the censors is beyond me. Watch (with Spanish subtitles):
Russell was 32-years-old when she made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and it is by far the best film of her career. Based on the novel by Anita Loos, it is the story of blonde, money-hungry Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and her best friend, dark-haired, cynical Dorothy, who doesn’t care about a man’s bank account but cares a great deal about other parts of him.
Of course, it could never be made in our own era, with dialogue like:
Horny Man #1: If this boat goes down, which of the two girls (Monroe or Russell) would you save?
Horny Man #2: Oh, those girls can’t sink.
Mr. Edmonds: Are you going to stand there and tell me that you’re not marrying my son for his money?
Lorelei (outraged): It’s true!
Mr. Edmonds: Then why are you marrying him?
Lorelei: I’m marrying him for YOUR money!
Considering her conservatism, how odd that she ended up becoming famous as a sex symbol who pushed the envelope to such an extent that preachers were calling for boycotts of her films.
Howard Hughes first noticed Russell in 1940 when she was working as a receptionist in a Van Nuys podiatrist’s office and signed her to a seven-year contract. But he was far more interested in showcasing her chest than he was in finding good roles for his new star.
Hughes was obsessed with Russell’s breasts and she admitted that while the famous story of Hughes designing a special bra for her appearance inThe Outlaw was true, he never knew that she didn’t actually wear the bra on the screen. She found Hughes’ design for the first seamless bra uncomfortable, so she just tossed it away and put tissues on the outside of her regular bra to smooth out the seams. Some of the shots of Russell bending over in The Outlaw showed so much cleavage that it took Hughes three years to get the film past the censors at the Hayes Code. He sent her out on publicity tours, mostly to wow the crowds with her boobs. Bob Hope used to introduce her, saying:
Here comes the two-and-only, Miss Jane Russell.
She refused Hughes’ request that she wear a bikini in the 3-D musical The French Line (1954), but she did agree to wear a cut-out bathing suit and do a bump-and-grind number that was condemned by the Catholic League of Decency. The film’s poster’s tag line:
J.R. in 3-D: It’ll knock both your eyes out!
Following the opening of the film, Russell marched into Hughes’ office and said: “Howard! Enough with my breasts already!” The billionaire agreed to give them a rest.
Monroe was an ardent Democrat; I wonder if they ever discussed politics. Monroe had her own coach on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blonds and after every take she’d look at her instead at her director Howard Hawks. Hawks was not pleased. From what I have read Russell and Monroe got along during the shoot. When Monroe overheard Tommy Noonan, who played her boyfriend Gus, tell a reporter that kissing Monroe was like getting eaten alive, she ran off in tears. She was too insecure to come out of her dressing room, but Russell went in and told her to get moving because the crew was waiting.
I admire Russell even if it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the woman who self-described as a “narrow-minded conservative Christian”. I find perplexing that she was involved with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum.
She had great affection for her co-star, Robert Mitchum, who once spent time on a Georgia chain gang and was arrested in 1948 for marijuana possession. He called her “Iron John”, and she said that they were like brother and sister. They shared dark good looks and big chests. In the closing line of their best film together, His Kind Of Woman (1951), Mitchum looks into Russell’s eyes and says:
You could be a handy thing to have around the house.
The Outlaw was famously promoted with a series of publicity stills showing Russell lying in the hay and bending down to pick up bales. The experience made her savvy about the vulgarity of the film industry.
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born in Minnesota. At a young age, Russell moved to the San Fernando Valley with her parents. She was brought up on a ranch, with four brothers, horses and fruit trees. From the beginning she was a tomboy, preferring a plaid shirt and jeans to dresses; the theme of getting out of trousers and into something slinky, or vice versa, turned up in her films.
Throughout her life Russell hated what she saw as feminine fussiness. She felt that women should be treated the same as men yet insisted that she was in no way a feminist. Russell:
A man should be the head of the household and a woman should be the heart.
Russell loved doing comedy and in one of her best films, The Paleface, she plays Calamity Jane. She was delightfully droll with her annihilating put-downs, and she and Hope have real chemistry. Russell starred again with Hope in a sequel, Son Of Paleface (1952). She later starred in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), based on another novel by Loos.
She worked hard and later films were intelligent. The Tall Men (1955) with Clark Gable is one of the best of her nine westerns, and in the feminist-themed The Revolt Of Mamie Stover (1956) she plays a prostitute fighting her way. In the fizzy comedy The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957), Russell plays a movie star who is abducted, grows to like her kidnappers, swaps dresses for jeans and a plaid shirt and says:
That splendid career of mine? Don’t mix me up with the girl in the movies … all that’s only make-believe.
By 1960, Russell got fewer offers. The film industry had changed and Russell felt that she had been left behind. She started drinking and was briefly sent to jail for drunk-driving. In the 1970s, she appeared in Playtex bra commercials on television, once more becoming a household name.
Russell said that in her career she had had little creative satisfaction. She always worked with macho filmmakers and wished she had worked with a “woman’s director” such as George Cukor.
At the height of her career, Russell started the “Hollywood Christian Group”, a weekly Bible study at her home which was attended by many of the leading names in the film industry. In 1953, she tried to convert Monroe. Monroe said:
Jane tried to convert me to religion, and I tried to introduce her to Freud.
Russell appeared on the Praise The Lord television program. She joined Jesus in heaven February 2011.