Monday, February 28, 2011
Remembering Jane Russell: Last Of The Great Broads
She was the last of the great movie sex symbols.
"Just call me a broad with attitude," smiled Jane Russell, the only time I interviewed her for a TCM documentary on her studio RKO.
The year was 1986 making the silver-haired Russell a simply stunning 65-year-old.
She died Monday at her home in Santa Maria of respiratory problems.
"I had the Lord on my side," she whispered to explain how she survived the rigors of Hollywood stardom and why her pal Marilyn Monroe did not.
Russell became an instant star with the 1943 release of producer Howard Hughes' risque western The Outlaw. The film was so provocatively sexy for its date that it did not go into general release for three years because of censorship problems.
Photos of Russell sprawling in a haystack helped sell the film. So did stories that Hughes had engineered a specially designed pneumatic bra for Russell to wear.
"I put it on once, it hurt so I took it off and stuffed tissue in there and Howard never knew the difference."
"Today it looks so sweet," smiled Russell of The Outlaw.
"I never did a nude scene, I was never even allowed to show my belly button. No bad words, no nothing. But I became a sex symbol because of my attitude. It was Louis B. Mayer who told me never to show my backside. Garbo never did."
Russell became a pin up staple of fighting American soldiers everywhere along with Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour and Lana Turner.
"Unlike the other girls I never believed in any of that publicity guff," she said. "I was a Four Walls dame --just hadda get home at night to my husband and my kids --and my God. The other gals would be out partying all night long. Me, I'd be home studying my Bible --mother was a preacher and I wanted to be as good a Christian as she was.""
But Russell could do more than pose fetchingly. She was Bob Hope's sidekick in two comedy romps, Paleface (1948) and Son Of Paleface (1952).
"On my first fday Bob told me I'd play the straight guy, the one who tosses him the innocent line and then he responds and gets the big laugh. When I asked for a funny line he acted out out and refused. When I did holiday tours for the troops with him I got all the wolf whistles and he still got all the laughs."
And she "absolutely adored" working with Clark Gable in The Tall Men (1955). "He joked he was just an ordinary guy but there was no ordinary way he kissed me. He may have had dentures and a hair piece but here was the King of Hollywood."
"My favorite co-star --I was going to say it was Trigger --but seriously it was Bob Mitchum. If I told you he was just about the smartest guy around you'd fall off your chair. A real big reader. He play acted at being tough, he was a real sissy when it came to brawling."
When it came to directors Russell was a man's woman. "Howard Hawks was the tops. He once told me how lucky we were to work with Marilyn Monroe before she became strange. Raoul Walsh --now there was a man. I'd call him Papa. As in 'Papa, come over here to mama right now!' He loved that sort of thing.
"I think my movie career would have lasted if I'd had the opportunity to work at MGM. But Mr. Mayer told me they had enough screen tramps under contract! I understood what he meant."
Opposite Marilyn Monroe she was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): "A scared kid. Always chose the wrong man --Joe DiMaggio was no help to her and neither was Arthur Miller --both were plain wrong.
"She was killed by the Kennedys. I know that. A few months after her passing I saw Bobby Kennedy at an event and he turned away quickly. He knew I knew what they had done to her."
"Marilyn came out to our Malibu ranch weeks before she passed. And she romped in the surf with the kids. Was real happy. A gal that happy does not commit suicide."
Howard Hughes made his last movie with Russell in 1955 --it was Underwater with the entire premiere held underwater in the Florida everglades.
"I told Howard he should have cast Esther Williams because I spent a lot of weeks acting under water. For once the critics were right in saying I was all wet."
But he kept Russell on full salary for the next 25 years just in case he should ever decide to make another movie.
"I didn't exactly hang around waiting for the phone to ring.-- I was touring all over the world by then. Occasionally he'd phone saying 'Just one more picture Janie?' I'd humor the old guy but he got strange after his plane crash. Stayed holed up on a Vegas hotel --when they threatened to evict him he bought the joint -- out of petty cash. He hated the local TV outlet's movies so he bought the station and ordered them to run only westerns."
Later on she became the TV pitch woman for Playtex bras --for the full figured woman.
I first met Russell on the set of her TV series The Yellow Rose (1983) --she played Sam Elliott's mother and joked about the transition.
"I'd even play Trigger's mom if the salary was right."
What I'm remembering is her niceness, her continuing beauty and her sheer delight at still being recognized and applauded as a true movie queen.