Hollywood during WWII was extremely repressed, but there were always the pin-up girls, Betty and Rita and Lana and the amply bosomed Jane Russell, who died last week at 89. Russell for me has always belonged to that category of actresses who looked seethingly sexy in photos, but was never as red-hot on screen. Perhaps it was her reserve on camera, plus the fact that underneath it all we were aware that Russell the sexbomb was also Russell the Very Christian Girl. She was an imposingly sexy babe on screen, but she wasn’t the best actress (although she did study with Maria Ouspenskaya, so maybe that explains why she played gypsy babes so well) and was not reserved in the even more appealing way that Kim Novak was (a sex queen who had you coming to her rather than doing the Marilyn thing of coming straight at you).
In any case, Ms. Russsell was quite identified throughout the years with her chest (38D), from her headline-fetching “censored” debut in Howard Hughes’ dirty-for-its-time The Outlaw (1943) to the very tame films she made that showcased her chest in musical numbers or in the very titles of the pics themselves (including Double Dynamite, which found her getting star billing over Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra, thanks to Hughes) to her ubiquitous ads for the Playtex Cross Your Heart bra in her later years.
As I went through the clips on YT to discover the best possible tributes to Jane, it became evident that she had three fan bases: men who really dig the sexbombs of the Forties; classic movie fans who liked her somewhat dominating presence in adventure pictures and musicals; and gay fans, who love old movie divas and especially those like Russell whose big-screen identity was openly classified as being of “gay interest” by no less a filmmaking master than Howard Hawks (see below), who in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actually achieved the impressive feat of making Busby Berkeley seem subtle.
First, the photos. Here is a montage of pics accompanied by Russell singing a song called “Boin-n-n-ng.” Yeah, the Forties were a demure decade all right….
A song I like a lot being given the “steamy” treatment by Russell. She wasn’t Julie London, but she could actually warble pretty well:
She only made 22 films in all, 18 during the Forties and Fifties. This one started it all, and this YT poster has pared The Outlaw down to only the most “provocative” scenes:
A few years later Russell was fit for mainstream Hollywood and appeared in such family-friendly fare as Son of Paleface (1952), opposite Bob Hope and Roy Rogers. Here the trio sings the film’s best-remembered tune:
The aforementioned Groucho-Sinatra pic where Jane received top billing, Double Dynamite (1951). It’s a very slight movie, but fascinating for the fact that someone did actually think Grouch and Frank would make a good comedy team:
Macao (1952), a classic adventure picture, with touches of stylization provided by the initial director (Josef von Sternberg) and embellished by the director who took over (Nicholas Ray). The script isn’t much, but the cast is perfect and, yes, Russell actually does have two physical tussles with Big Bob Mitchum and was a great match for him physically:
Howard Hawks was indeed a Master, and he knew back in 1953 that there was, let us say, an “alternative” audience for the major sex symbols of the era. He openly acknowledged the gay male viewer in the camp staging of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The film is available in its entirety here, and the musical number is here:
Here is Jane in a very “provocative” outfit (for the time) in The French Line (1953). UPDATE: I had initially linked to this version of the following musical number, but the brilliant RC has noted to me that The French Line was censored at the time it came out, to the extent that there were two different versions of this number. The one I initially linked to was the censored version, which used an alternate take of the scene that showed Russell in a very long shot. The uncensored version of the number included not only a clearer view of her provocative one-piece outfit, but also a bit of spoken-word patter in the middle that RC rightly notes finds "Jane channeling two MMs: Marilyn Monroe and Moms Mabley." The proper, "dirtier" version is below, and here is a quick link to an interview clip where Russell talks about the censorship of her films (and mentions how The French Line was condemned by those perpetual tight asses over at the Catholic Legion of Decency). The fact that The French Line was a 3D picture must've pleased teenage boys quite a lot at the time:
As with Sophia in Italy and Raquel in the Sixties (and Bisset in the Seventies), directors figured that the best way to showcase an actress’s “assets” was to keep her in the water:
The sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, called Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), has never been available on VHS or DVD, and has really not been shown much (if at all) on the classic movie nets. This wildly crazy, racist musical number might explain why. UPDATE: I've been informed by Paul G. that the film is available (streaming only) on Netflix. If anyone wants to deliver a report of how bad (or good) it is, please pass it on:
One of the most colorful, eye-filling movies Russell made was the earnestly sincere but still pretty odd saga of gypsy life made by Nicholas Ray, Hot Blood (1956). No intrepid soul has put up the energetic catfight Jane has in one scene in the film, but here is a small sample of the film:
Jane in full Xtian-lady mode on TV as part of “the Hollywood Christian Group,” a singing quartet composed of Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, Rhonda Fleming, and Russell. This is some super-wholesome stuff, so wholesome it has been spoofed by drag queens on YT:
Jane guests on Italian TV with a bilingual host named Heather. The two talk about Jane’s latter-day pursuits, sing together, and James Coburn comes out to say goodnight (!):
Russell essentially retired from show business after the Sixties, but made an occasional TV appearance and also did some live performances (what is there left to do after playing a rape victim in the first Billy Jack film?). Although there are indeed some very nice home-video moments (like this one, at the Hollywood Heritage Museum), the most impressive is this performance at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Many of her obits quoted her description of herself: "These days I am a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.” Clearly, she was okay with gay audiences, though, and she does seem a little butch here as she sings a theme song she says was written for her by Peggy Lee, “Big Bad Jane,” and the Blondes song “Bye Bye, Baby”: