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Jane Russell: The Brunette Bombshell


The number of film stars who embodied the golden age of Hollywood who are still here to tell the tale are few and far between. However, this evening the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF) will have one such diva in their presence, Miss Jane Russell. The busty, brunette bombshell who set pulses racing in the 1940s and 1950s made only 25 films in a two decade career, but she was one of the iconic figures who defined Hollywood glamour. The discovery of millionaire Howard Hughes, she became a lightning rod of controversy for her aggressive sexuality and smoldering sensuality. Nearing the age of 90, Ms. Russell still has that spark and lucky Fort Lauderdale audiences will get a chance to sample it as she appears before a screening of one  of her most famous films, the decadent musical comedy GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1952). By the 1960s, when film tastes changed and the public became interested in more svelte beauties like Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway, the idealized "hour glass figure" gals were out. The feminists rejected the kind of Hollywood starlet who had been nothing but pure eye candy. However, Ms. Russell, in her own inimitable way, was a kind of proto-feminist long before it was fashionable. In the same way that Katharine Hepburn used her brains, Russell used her body and her allure to keep men in their place and to give her a modicum of control in a clearly male-dominated world. In most of her films, she was the sexual aggressor, and only when her co-star could match her smoldering arrogance (in the case of Robert Mitchum) was there anything resembling a fair fight. 

Born in Bemidji, Minnesota in 1921, she spent most of her childhood in Edmonton, Canada. Later the family moved to the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. They lived in Burbank in 1930 and her father worked as an office manager at a soap manufacturing plant. Russell's mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. In addition to music, she was interested in drama and participated in stage productions at Van Nuys High School. Her early ambition was to be a designer of some kind, until the death of her father at forty-six, when she decided to work as a receptionist after graduation. Because of her curvaceous figure and her beautifully endowed bosom, she was a favorite of photographers, and she eventually became a well paid model, while studying acting.



In 1940, she caught the eye of millionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, who had also become a film mogul with his acquisition of RKO Pictures. Russell was signed to a seven-year contract and made her steamy 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 was released for a limited showing two years later because of the objections of the production code over the way her ample cleavage was displayed. When the movie was finally passed, it had a general release in 1946, making Russell the pin-up fantasy of many a returning soldier. Together with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, Russell personified the sensuously contoured sweater girl look, though her measurements of 38D-24-36 and height of 5' 7" were more statuesque than her contemporaries. In 1947, Russell attempted to launch a musical career. She sang with the Kay Kyser Orchestra on radio and recorded two singles with his band. She put out the suggestively titled solo record Let’s Put Out The Lights, an album of torch ballads, for Columbia Records that further cemented her image as a brunette bombshell. Her movie career was also taking off, starring opposite Bob Hope in two successful Western comedies, THE PALEFACE (1948) and its sequel SON OF PALEFACE (1952). In those films, she was definitely in control, with the childish Hope clearly eating out of her hands.


Her next film had some men in it that she clearly dominated but it was the pairing with fellow bombshell Marilyn Monroe that has made it a camp classic to this day. GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES had been a magazine serial, then a novel, a straight play on Broadway and then a celebrated musical, all from the wicked pen of Anita Loos. In 1953, she was signed by 20th Century Fox for the film adaptation of the Broadway hit, which included such memorable numbers as “Two Girls From Little Rock”, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” and “Is There Anyone Here For Love”. The film was a mega-hit with audiences and was the only musical that iconic director Howard Hawks ever directed. It remains a camp classic to this day. She also showed off her musical chops a few years later in THE FRENCH LINE (1954), with the movie’s climatic moment  showing Russell in a form-fitting one-piece bathing suit with strategic cut outs, performing a then-provocative musical number titled "Lookin' for Trouble". This was considered nearly scandalous in the Eisenhower era but the film made a fortune for Howard Hughes and his RKO Pictures, which was then in the process of a steady decline from competition from America’s obsession with television. Jane Russell was one thing that you couldn’t find on television and only the big screen could accentuate her “assets”.



Of all of her co-stars, the only to match her in terms of saucy sex appeal and internal confidence was Robert Mitchum. She co-starred in two back-to-back RKO melodramas HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951) and MACAO (1952). Russell, who was used to eating men alive on screen, had met her match in the equally confident and arrogant Mitchum, and the sparks literally flew both on the set and, apparently, in the bedroom. Other co-stars in the 1950s included 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). She finally left RKO Pictures and the domineering grasp of the ever unstable Howard Hughes, and with her first husband, former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, formed Russ-Field Productions in 1955. They produced GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES (1955), THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS (1956) starring Clark Gable, RUN FOR THE SUN (1956), THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER (1956) and THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN (1957).

The films, tepid productions at best, were not successes, Russell focused more on her music career, becoming (in a rather unlikely twist) a singer of gospel songs. She also began touring in a solo nightclub act that was rather successful. She also began doing live theater, actually replacing the iconic Elaine Stritch in the Stephen Sondheim musical COMPANY in 1971. Baby boomers may remember her best for a series of television commercials she did in the 1970s as a spokeswoman for Playtex "cross your heart bras for us full-figured gals". She wrote an autobiography in 1985, Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours. In 1989, she received the Women's International Center Living Legacy Award and in 2009 was voted one of the 40 Most Iconic Movie Goddesses of all time by Glamour Magazine. Who are we to argue????? 

Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Circuit Editor 




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Mandelberger Sandy
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Coverage of the world of film festivals on the international film festival circuit.

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