Saturday, 5 March 2011

Venus Passing: Jane Russell (1921-2011)

They can't do glamour in Hollywood like they used to, partly because modern communications removes any mystique that actresses previously had.  From the thirties through the fifties, however, public images were rigidly controlled by the studios, allowing for a carefully crafted image that matched looks with performance and with life story (even if the latter was completely fictitious).

There are very few of the great glamour queens of the forties left and this week we lost another in the curvaceous shape of Jane Russell, who Bob Hope once introduced as "The two and only Jane Russell".

Discovered by Howard Hughes and signed by him to a seven year contract in 1940, at the age of nineteen, she never realised her potential as an actress and made comparatively few films compared with her contemporaries.

Russell was born in Minnesota but only so that she could get an American birth certificate.  Three of her grandparents were Canadian and her parents were living in Edmonton after they married in 1917.  Her father then found work in California and they moved to Burbank.

Russell's mother had been an actress and Jane participated in some high school stage productions.  Initially working as a doctor's receptionist, when her father died she started to model to supplement the family income.  She earned enough to take proper acting lessons. 

She made her first film, Howard Hughes' The Outlaw, a western about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1940.  Hughes, who collected Hollywood actresses like other people collect wine, fashioned the film  around her impressive 38D bust.  Unfortunately for Russell, Hughes' pre-release publicity was so successful that the film  was banned by the MPAA (as he had hoped). 

Arguments continued over the film for five years, with Russell contractually obligated to publicise it for the whole period, working full time, before it was eventually properly released in 1946. 

She didn't make a single film in the meantime which meant that she lost five years of those precious pre-thirty years that were so important in retaining a position as a leading lady in Hollywood at the time.  If she had been able to make other films in this period her career could have been very different.

These days the images of Russell from publicity stills taken for The Outlaw are far more famous than the film itself and, in a way, the same happened to Russell; she was far more famous for her image than as an actress. 

Probably her best performance came with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen prefer Blondes (1953) by which time her figure was, according to a Photoplay article at the time, a fulsome 38 1/2D-25 1/2-38 1/2.  

She made only just over twenty films in total and by the 1970s was best known for her Playtex bra advertisements.

She became a born-again Christian and was married three times although had no children due to a botched back street abortion she had at the age of eighteen.

At nineteen, however, she smouldered with a sultry and illicit passion that has seldom been matched.

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