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.
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—
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.)
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.