Jane Russell: Man, moody and ahead of the curve
Such is the legacy of Jane Russell, who died on Monday at the age of 89. Obituaries will remember her as an occasional Hollywood actress who appeared in 23 movies during a three-decade career that began in the early 1940s. But her real place in history is far more important: Russell achieved both fame and fortune as the world’s first pin-up.
Before a well-upholstered girl called Norma Jean would blossom into the siren that was Marilyn Monroe, young men of an excitable persuasion would carry crumpled photographs of Russell pouting in a low-cut blouse against a stack of hay-bales in a famous publicity shot for her debut film The Outlaw.
Controversy over that movie would rage throughout the 1940s, sparking one of the era’s great free-speech debates. It helped create the atmosphere of liberalism that would culminate in Promises! Promises! in 1963 when Jayne Mansfield became the first mainstream US actress to appear nude.
That “fuller figure” was, as it were, responsible for laying the foundations for the sexual revolution. It was at the centre of one of the earliest versions of the obscenity controversies that would later envelop such socially-divisive movies as Last Tango in Paris (1972), Basic Instinct (1992), and Crash (1996).
It was quite a journey for Russell, who died from respiratory failure at her home in Santa Maria, California. The future siren was born into a respectable and highly-religious Minnesota family in 1921 and brought up in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from the newly-founded Hollywood studios.
At 19, she was thrust to stardom while working as a receptionist, when her photograph was passed to a casting agent employed by the eccentric movie mogul Howard Hughes to find a voluptuous female lead to play Rio McDonald, who woos Billy the Kid in The Outlaw.
The brunette Russell wasn’t what you might call a classic beauty, and had no formal education in the art of acting. But she could pout dreamily and (to the delight of the casting agent) possessed an extraordinary bosom. She got the part after a single audition.
Hughes promptly took over the direction of The Outlaw from Howard Hawks, and instructed his costume designers to construct a special “cantilever” bra which had no visible seams and would expose more of his young actress’s flesh than conventional undergarments of the era.
Russell refused to wear what she described as the “ridiculous” contraption. Yet despite her attempted modesty, The Outlaw revealed far more female décolletage than previous Hollywood films. After a screening in 1941, the censor Joe Breen, who was in charge of maintaining the “code” which governed morality in film, duly instructed Hughes to delete dozens of scenes.
“In my 10 years of critical examination of motion pictures, I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio,” wrote Breen’s report. “Throughout almost half the picture, the girl’s breasts, which are quite large and prominent, are shockingly emphasised.”
Breen refused to issue a screening certificate. But Hughes refused to censor the movie and instead decided to use controversy over Russell as a marketing tool. His studio released publicity posters bearing slogans such as “How Would You Like to Tussle With Russell?” In a famous PR stunt, a pilot wrote The Outlaw in the sky over Los Angeles, signing off by drawing two circles with small dots in the middle of them.
The film was eventually released in 1943 without “code” approval. Its notoriety naturally spawned a massive commercial success during the ensuing years and helped bring about the collapse of Breen’s organisation. It was replaced by the MPAA, which created a ratings system by which US films are still governed.
Russell meanwhile achieved huge celebrity and her picture was carried by a generation of soldiers heading off to the Second World War and Korea. She would remain America’s sweetheart until the emergence of the younger Monroe with whom she co-starred in the 1953 hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
In later life Russell’s acting career stuttered but she remained a member of Hollywood aristocracy. Though thrice married she became a teetotal born-again Christian. She adopted three children and campaigned for the rights of married couples seeking to adopt.
Latterly Russell made occasional public appearances, and wrote an acclaimed autobiography. She was active in her church and also performed in a local singing group until her health declined last month.
“She always said I’m going to die in the saddle, I’m not going to sit at home and become an old woman,” her daughter-in-law Etta Waterfield said yesterday.