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Remembering Jane Russell

by Leonard Maltin
March 1, 2011 12:41 AM
9 Comments
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To younger people who only know her as Marilyn Monroe’s brunette costar in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or baby boomers who remember her selling bras on TV “for us full-figured gals,” it might be hard to convey just how big an impact Jane Russell had on American popular culture in the 1940s and early 1950s.

I took this snapshot of Leonardo Di Caprio and Martin Scorsese flanking 84-year-old Russell backstage at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2005. Di Caprio went to see her to talk about Howard Hughes when he was preparing to shoot The Aviator.

She was, in every sense, a bombshell—and catnip for standup comics, who dropped her name in an endless series of jokes about her breasts.

This was not what she envisioned for herself. She was actually studying acting with the great Russian actress and teacher Maria Ouspenskaya when Howard Hughes spotted her and decided to feature her in his oddball Western The Outlaw. The film was in production (and post-production) for years, but long before it hit theater screens people got an eyeful of Russell, posing provocatively in a haystack and showing off her—

One of Russell’s earliest publicity photos, taken when she was 20, shows her with famed illustrator James Montgomery Flagg.

—curvaceous figure.

Russell spent the rest of her life trying to combat that image, prove her talent, and convince people to think of her as something more than a sex symbol. The first time I heard her speak, following a film festival showing of the tacky 1955 movie Hot Blood (ad line: 'Jane Russell shakes her tambourines and drives Cornel Wilde’), I realized what a forthright, self-effacing woman she was.

In fact, she was much more interesting than she was ever allowed to be onscreen. She embraced religion years ago but never tried to force it on people she met; when she appeared at showings of her films she was genial and good-humored. She had a good singing voice and had a nightclub act, recorded albums, and continued to perform well into her 80s. (Lest we forget, she appeared in Stephen Sondheim’s Company on Broadway in 1971.)

Va-va-voom! “J.R. in 3D” blared the posters for The French Line, while censors fretted about this particular costume.

Perhaps her best film is also her best-known. Not only does she hold her own opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: she reveals a comedy savvy that even her hit comedies with Bob Hope (The Paleface, Son of Paleface) denied her.

It would be disingenuous to write about Russell without mentioning her great good looks and spectacular physique. But it would also be a shame if that’s the only reason people remembered her.


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9 Comments

  • Steverich | March 8, 2011 1:46 AMReply

    “Tribute to a legend” Jane Russell.

    After the recent sad loss of an Icon of the golden age of film I felt my next painting must be a tribute to Jane Russell, and now she is complete.
    http://www.otm-club.com/art/jane-russell

    My ‘Infatuation’ with screen starlets of the golden era began only very recently when I discovered the stunningly beautiful ‘Lillian Gish’. This happened purely by accident whilst searching for images of beautiful ‘eyes’ for a series of sketches and paintings.

    Painting Lillian inspired me to do a series of early screen stars in a similar style, and Jane definitely made it onto the list!
    For a long while that first painting of Lillian held my heart, but now this latest painting of Jane Russell is complete I feel I am torn!
    I only hope her fans and loved ones think I have done her justice!

    Hope you enjoy.
    Steve.

    ‘Shine on Jane Russell’
    You can see this painting and others here: http://www.otm-club.com/art

  • Jon | March 4, 2011 3:10 AMReply

    I in fact saw Jane Russell in "Company" on Broadway; she succeeded Elaine Stritch as Joanne (who sings "The Ladies Who Lunch"). I, like most others, was surprised by the casting, but she proved herself in performance, with a different characterization (a cool, remote kind of bitchiness rather than Stritch's more in-your-face attitude) that was equally valid. The only evidence of her offstage convictions was her refusal to curse "Jesus Christ" in one lyric.

  • Rod Henshaw | March 3, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    Nice reflection on Jane. I always thought two of her best films were done with Robert Mitchum. I re-watched "His Kind of Woman" last evening, and there scenes together were just fabulous - they were a great fit.

  • Rosemarie Kopilak | March 3, 2011 4:34 AMReply

    I am so glad to read, that Jane was loved for who she was, not for the sex symbol that Hollywood presented. It's a shame she never got the chance to prove her acting worth on a more dramatic level. R.I.P. and may God bless.

  • Marc-A. Comtois | March 2, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    The world has lost one of its rareties (especially true in this day and age!!), i.e., a LADY!
    Thank you for the (far too short!) write-up.
    Sincere condolences to her family.

  • Karen | March 2, 2011 1:41 AMReply

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about Jane Russell. Coincidentally, I had just this week shared a photo with a friend that showed Jane and Marilyn, preparing to put their hand and footprints in the cement along the Walk of Fame. Jane was resplendent in a full-skirted halter-top sundress; Marilyn wore a "wiggle" sundress. My friend confirmed what I had percieved: Jane's was the more powerful presence! She had a great comic timing and those Paleface films have some genuinely funny moments, as does Gentlemen". Thanks again for acknowledging her many talents, not just her beauty.
    Karen in Rochester, NY

  • Tony Anselmo | March 1, 2011 10:53 AMReply

    Thank you Leonard for your brilliantly (as always) written article and very kind words about Jane Russell...

    Jane was indeed one magnificent Woman, whose greatest beauty was her soul. She was truly a blessing in so many lives, (not to mention the over 40,000 children adopted through her organization WAIF). She will be missed, but she's in the place she wanted to be most of all...with God and her MANY family and friends who've gone before her.

    Sincerely,
    Tony

  • Debra Levine | March 1, 2011 7:45 AMReply

    Leonard, Jane came to the Hollywood Heritage Museum last June and everyone loved it, it seemed, including her. She was not in great physical shape but very funny and ... well, just great. I wrote a little item on the event: http://bit.ly/caSwvO

  • Rendy wyland | March 1, 2011 3:29 AMReply

    I am really sorry to hear about Jane Russell. My condolences to her family. I always enjoyed her in the movies and seeing her on commercials.

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