IN PRAISE OF JANE RUSSELL
A MERE eleven years gone, the 20th century is difficult enough to recall now, not least the Brycreemed, salad days of that epoch of the 1950s.
Many might disagree, but it’s highly probably that the late Jane Russell – who died this week at 89 - was the last shining example of the sassiest of sex bombshells from the gaudiest age of widescreen Hollywood.
Ms Russell’s Amazonian looks famously caught the eye of the infamous Howard Hughes and other movie moguls who, not for the first time in cinema history, perhaps lasciviously saw the obvious payback in a prodigious female embonpoint.
But, according to her biography, Russell was in real life much more than the pneumatic star of The Outlaw, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The French Line and the Paleface movies with Bob Hope.
Sporting the kind of figure which made Jessica Rabbit look like Olive Oyl, there was always a good chance that Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell – a little like her partner in corporeal cinematic crime, Marilyn Monroe – would demand attention from at least 50 per cent of the sexually cognisant adult population.
It sounds sexist today, but with measurements of 39D-24-36 and standing at 5'7" tall, Russell was more statuesque than most of her contemporaries and whether she liked it or not, had the 1950s written all over her.
The butt of thousands of quips from radio comedians, including by her erstwhile onscreen partner Bob Hope, who once introduced her as "the two and only Jane Russell" and with "Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands", the photo of her on a haystack was a popular pin-up with servicemen during World War II.
The America of the 1950, pre The Pill and the freedoms of 60s, is often remembered for its male-dominated ad culture and for its toe-curling put-downs of the wife at home, or to a lesser extent of the home-spun ‘cosiness’ in which the man was king in his own castle.
America and its allies had just won a costly war of all wars, and it’s perhaps understandable how its returning GIs - who has been pining for the pin-up girls of the barracks and the bomb craters - were catered for by the moguls of the silver screen in the same way that a starving man might be treat to a bounty of the plumpest turkeys at a homecoming thanksgiving feast, only in prodigious surfeit.
Cinema audiences – especially in the 50s – the heyday of Cinemascope and other anamorphic delights – liked their women big, bold and brassy, and with more than a wisecrack up their sleeves.
Certainly, Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollabrigida, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, and Jane Russell and later arguably Sophia Loren – or at least the cinematic impressions of themselves – were, en face, cinema’s equivalent of the ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’ mentality.
The fact that all of them were far more multi-dimensional than their cup-sizes would have movie goers believe, seemingly mattered little.
And for a while, movie goers - perhaps satiated with the cooler beauty of the likes of Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman - were unabashed in lapping up the obvious excess.
In Gentleman Prefer Blondes, that Monroe/Russell uber-fest of genuinely innocent-enough bosom buddy-ness, there’s a rare moment of anachronistic squirm when Jane and Marilyn totter on high heels barely adequate to support their undeniable Unique Selling Points, past the all-male Olympic swimming team, waiting to board the passage to France.
While one of the so–called Olympians checks the ship’s roster, his fellow athletes – who look like those kind of 40-somethings who habitually pass muster for 22 year olds in the movies of yore – happen to spy the Zeppelin-like approach of Monroe and Russell several seconds ahead of him.
When he finally spots them, the swimmer, who looks as though he might struggle to manage the basic crawl, says to his jaw-dropped team-mates: “Suppose the ship strikes an iceberg and sinks – which one do you save from drowning?”
To which another wag retorts : “Those girls couldn’t drown…….” Figure the rest for yourselves.
A modern woman facing such retro-effrontery from such poor drooling creatures might dismissively smack one of the so-called Olympians round the chops, before ending his athletic aspirations permanently with a well-timed knee to the marriage tackle.
But presented with the strange Doppler-like effect of the approaching delights of the likes of Monroe and Russell, in those days at least men were allowed to drool.
In 1940, Russell was signed to a seven-year contract by film mogul Howard Hughes – he of Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator fame, - and made her motion picture debut in The Outlaw (1943), a story about Billy the Kid that went to great lengths to showcase her voluptuous figure.
Although the movie was completed in 1941, it languished for years under the censure of the so-called Hays Code; the tendency of the film to give prominence to Russell’s ample bosom was cited as being the major stumbling block and it did not receive a certificate.
It was finally released for a limited showing two years later and had a general release in 1946 just as the GIs came home.
She played Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) on loan out to Paramount, and Mike "the Torch" Delroy opposite Hope in another likeable western comedy, Son of Paleface (1952), again at Paramount. Russell played Dorothy Shaw in the hit film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) opposite Marilyn Monroe for 20th Century Fox.
She appeared in two movies opposite Robert Mitchum, His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952). Other co-stars include Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx in the comedy Double Dynamite (1951); Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael in The Las Vegas Story (1952); Jeff Chandler in Foxfire (1955); and Clark Gable and Robert Ryan in The Tall Men (1955).
But it was in Howard Hughes's RKO production The French Line (1954), in the movie's penultimate moment, which showed Russell in a form-fitting one-piece bathing suit with strategic cut outs, performing a then-provocative musical number titled "Lookin' for Trouble”, that she again gained notoriety.
In her autobiography, Russell said that the revealing outfit was an alternative to Hughes' original suggestion of a bikini, a very racy choice for a movie costume in 1954. Russell said that she initially wore the bikini in front of her "horrified" movie crew while "feeling very naked."
The dance – from otherwise a fairly flat musical with Gilbert Roland – had the Catholic League of Decency outraged and was notable for being one of the original tranche of 3D films.
In a decade when cinematic decorum could not be said to be wholly in evidence, the no-holds-barred strapline to the film ran : ‘JR in 3-D – It’ll Knock Both Your Eyes Out…”.
By modern standards it remains tame, but extremely rare – a gaudy goldfish in the murky pool of the declining years of the Hollywood musical.
In 1955, Russell and her first husband, former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, formed Russ-Field Productions. They produced Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), a weak imitation of its more joyous cousin minus MM; The King and Four Queens (1956) starring Clark Gable and Eleanor Parker, Run for the Sun (1956) and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957). The last of these was a box-office failure.
The Revolt of Mamie Stover followed but she did not appear on the silver screen again for seven years when both Monroe and Kennedy were dead, and American tastes has changed.
But perhaps the greatest irony of Jane Russell’s occasionally sneering on-screen appeal was the fact that she never saw herself as a sex symbol.
The only girl in a family of five, her autobiography recounts how she often laughed off her obvious allure, preferring instead to be regarded as a tomboy, vowing she would ‘die in the saddle’.
But perhaps more than this, just like many of the cinema wannabees of today, she probably just happened to be in the right place at exactly the right time.
Monroe, Russell and their hourglass-like clones seem to be overblown caricatures of on-screen femininity in these more willowy-minded days.
But perhaps each decade produces its own on-screen avatars to mirror the times?
Just as the fuller figured gals of the revitalising 1950s gave way to the emancipated chic of Bardot, Hepburn, Jane Fonda and Farrah Fawcett, with the possible exception of Raquel Welch in the 70s and the artificially-pneumatic blondes of the 80s and early 90s, it’s hard to think of contemporary parallels with the female sex symbols of Russell’s era. Nor it seems would many women would wish to emulate such.
The closest today in popular culture might be Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, model Kelly Brook or opera diva Katherine Jenkins.
But figures aside, the personalities of women of the so-called on screen sex symbols of today seem to shine through more than they ever did.
Today’s female sex symbols are only slightly augmented representations of the modern woman (not a criticism) - who is generally, by turns confident, independent, often financially free and good spirited and get-ahead, not stuck in gingham behind a kitchen sink waiting for their pipe-smoking marketing manager-type husband to come home.
Which, today, would even consider wearing a specially designed bra by a zillionaire movie mogul who might then jet them off around the world in his Spruce Goose to enduring fame and fortune?
Despite the alleged approach, Jane Russell never did, apparently, hiding Hughes' cantilevered contraption (whether an insult to her sex or a perhaps a quasi-tribute from a feverish mind) under her own bra.
But in the belief of such, if not in reality, she had the obsessive Hughes, like most men to this day - glad at any time, frankly, to be caught rabbit-like in the headlights of feminine attention and allure - for ever mesmerised by her cleverly projected image.
* JR and MM got along well. Russell called Monroe "Blondie" and was often the only person on the set who could coax Monroe out of her trailer to begin the day's filming.
* The teaming of the pair proved to be so successful, critically and commercially, that Fox wanted to re-team the duo. A December 1954 item in the Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column indicated that the studio wanted Russell and Monroe to star in the film How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955). Monroe passed on the project because she didn't like the script. In January 1955, the studio cast Sheree North as Curly (the part intended for Monroe) and Betty Grable as "Stormy Tornado" (originally intended for Russell).
* In her very last interview, (almost 10 years after making "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,") Marilyn recalled the lack of respect studio execs had for her, but made a point of mentioning her co-star. "I remember when I got the part in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Jane Russell, she was the brunette in it and I was the blonde. She got $200,000 for it, and I got my $500 a week, but that to me was, you know, considerable. She, by the way, was quite wonderful to me."
* Jane's dance from The French Line can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cl-r2mHPf4