Jane Russell could have just been a punchline. A nice Christian girl devoted to faith and family, Howard Hughes put her under contract and relentlessly sold her as two big breasts attached to a brunette. While most of the 30s and early 40s pin-ups had legs as the primary focus, Jane’s singular double assets moved the male gaze above the waist.
But Jane had a lot more to offer. As a hetero-girl, I’m not tongue-tied by cup size. It’s Jane’s laid-back, knows the ropes and not easily tied down characters that attract me. Perhaps having heard plenty o’ lame lines since age 13, Jane emits a been-there, wised-up quality that I find more compelling than the cheerful, naïve ingenues so prevalent in post-War movies. (For example, Marilyn does nothing for me.) l loved the way Russell is more than a match for Robert Mitchum’s world-weary know-how in the films they made together. Long a huge fan of Anita Loos’s sassy Dorothy Shaw character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I find Jane Russell perfect casting as the smart and smart-ass woman who prefers men to money.
Finally, Jane’s getting her due as more than just a mid-century synonym for boobs. In her latest book, Mean…Moody…Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, author Christina Rice gives readers the full picture on Hollywood’s most famous full figure. (I know, I can’t help myself.) In addition to Jane’s life on and off the screen, Rice looks at the role Howard Hughes and other men play in shaping women’s public personae. I was lucky enough to find out what attracted Christina to focusing on this particular actress and why Jane Russell’s story needs telling. (Can you believe that this is the first biography on her?! About damn/dame time!)
DAMETOWN: Hi Christina! As a huge aficionado of both classic movies and dames, I love that you’re so passionate about Hollywood’s “dames”. As a librarian and all-around cool chick, what makes you committed to profiling classic movie actresses?
CHRISTINA RICE: I’ve been enamored with the studio system era of filmmaking since I was really young. When I was in the 8th grade, I read a biography of Marilyn Monroe and was amazed that books about specific actors existed and started secretly harboring a desire to write something similar someday. As I got older, I certainly have gravitated towards writing about women, which I think gives a very different perspective than when a man writes about an actress. As I was researching Jane Russell, much of the writing I came across in regard to her first film, The Outlaw, treated her like an inanimate object. One of my goals with this book was to examine Jane’s own relationship with her publicity and how it affected her.
DAMETOWN: Your first book shined a spotlight on largely forgotten classic movie star Ann Dvorak. From the “smorgasbord” of classic Hollywood actresses you have to choose from, what made you decide to choose Jane Russell for your second book?
CHRISTINA: The Dvorak book was a very personal passion project that took fifteen years to complete and was ultimately draining. Plus, she was so obscure that I really had to throw myself into the marketing of the book when it was released. At the time, I didn’t think I had another book in me but after I had some distance from it, I started to think that maybe I could do this again, even though I knew it would be a very different experience from Ann. The problem was I did not know who to write about. So many of the film stars I love have already been written about extensively, so I turned to my publisher, the University Press of Kentucky, for advice. They were the ones who suggested Jane Russell, and I was surprised to discover that other than her 1985 memoir, no one had ever written a book on Jane. As a subject, Jane was the opposite of Ann in that she was very well documented and still has a great deal of name recognition. I’d always love Jane in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but didn’t know a lot about her otherwise, so it seemed like a fun challenge, and I dove in.
DAMETOWN: Are there ways in which you think Howard Hughes “relationship” with Jane Russell emblematic of the way 20th century men dealt with women in general?
CHRISTINA: Interestingly, their relationship strikes me as being much more progressive in some ways, while typical for the time in others. I get the impression that the way Hughes handled Jane Russell the movie star when making decisions about how she was presented in his films was very different than how he interacted with Jane Russell the person. Despite sinking so much money into her as a sex symbol onscreen, he never expected her to project that image in real life. In fact, offscreen she got married at the beginning of her film career and was always very forthcoming about her strong spiritual beliefs. Jane and Howard Hughes seemed to have a great deal of mutual respect for each other and were always loyal to each other. He certainly pushed her limits in terms of the over-the-top publicity, but if he went too far Jane could push back and he would ultimately compromise.
Early on, Jane’s agents wanted her to break her contract with Hughes and go somewhere else. She refused and he always appreciated that. Jane’s last contract with Hughes was for 20-years at $1,000 a week. For most of that time, she didn’t even make movies for him! I found their relationship fascinating and it appears to have been one of the more positive ones for him. The way he handled Jane’s career boosted it in many ways, while limiting it in others. It’s hard to tell how she would have fared had he sold her contract to another studio like he did with Jean Harlow and Ann Dvorak in the 1930s.
DAMETOWN: Nicknamed the “motionless picture actress”, how did Jane end up breaking past the jokes about her perceived liabilities and her famous “assets” and become a true star?
CHRISTINA: I think it’s a huge testament to Jane that she ended up having a film career in the 1950s and is still so recognizable today. Thanks to Howard Hughes and publicist Russell Birdwell, she received international press at the beginning of the 1940s, yet The Outlaw took almost a decade to be released widely. Jane only had two other films, Young Widow and The Paleface, released during the entirety of that decade! The years-long publicity push for The Outlaw and Jane’s popularity as a war-time pinup certainly helped sustain interest in her for years, but she also deserves credit for having some kind of spark that resonated with audiences. When she finally went to RKO, found her hair and make-up crew, and started working with cinematographer Harry J. Wild on a regular basis, along with having designers like Howard Greer, Michael Woulfe, and Travilla create costumes for her, she really morphed into a full-fledged glamorous movie star. Starting with His Kind of Woman, she is drop-dead gorgeous onscreen. Jane was very no-nonsense, but at the same time did not take herself too seriously, which comes across onscreen and is very appealing. She just came off as genuine and someone you’d want to hang out with, so it’s hard to reduce her to a joke based on all of the bosomy Howard Hughes publicity.
DAMETOWN: I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the Dorothy character in Loos’s book, Gentleman Prefer Blondes. She was seen as a breakthrough character at the time of the book’s publication because she was so savvy and unabashedly in touch with her own sexuality apart from a “male gaze”. (You’re welcome to disagree, of course.) Everyone focuses on Marilyn in the film version, but Jane is so perfectly cast. What is your take on Dorothy?
CHRISTINA: Oh, I completely agree! Marilyn is completely mesmerizing in that film, but from a strictly character standpoint, I think Dorothy Shaw is the more interesting of the two. She thoroughly enjoys the company of men but doesn’t see marriage as the be-all-end-all. She’s so secure with herself that she’s able to regard other women as allies, not adversaries, which is inspiring. Marilyn did tend to blow other actors off the screen, but Jane more than holds her own and it’s the standout performance of her career. The older I get, the more I identify with Dorothy. My daughter, who is eleven, loves the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number and would gladly be transported onto the set, wearing pink satin. For me, I’ll take the black jump suit and Olympic athletes in “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” instead! I’m definitely more a Dorothy than a Lorelei.
DAMETOWN: I was intrigued to learn about Jane’s faith and all her important charitable work. I always knew about her work on-screen and in bra ads, but never knew about this side of her. She refused to just be all about her boobs. Can you speak to her values and priorities off-screen?
CHRISTINA: Jane’s mother was very spiritual which is something that was instilled in Jane and her four brothers. Jane was very outspoken about this her entire life and even recorded and performed Christian songs with Connie Haines and Beryl Davis in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. In 1942, Jane had an abortion that went horribly wrong and almost killed her, so she was not able to have children. She and her first husband, Robert Waterfield, would ultimately adopt three children, but it was such an onerous process, particularly in regard to orphaned kids in other countries, that she decided to do something about it. She ended up founding an organization called WAIF that became the fundraising arm of International Social Service (ISS) and lobbied Congress to ease restrictions on international adoption. She got WAIF chapters started all around the country and helped run the organization for over forty years. It really was her life’s work. As much as she hated the way Howard Hughes promoted her, she came to find that the publicity gave her enough celebrity that she could channel it into something very meaningful. This enabled her to tolerate how much attention was paid to her anatomy, while also allowing her to be something more than just that.
DAMETOWN: Wow. That’s really impressive, and something the public really knows nothing about. As a “Jane Russell expert”, what do you think is the most important thing people should know about Jane and her story? What do you most want people to take away from your book?
CHRISTINA: I think it’s really easy to reduce Jane to just a big-breasted punch line, but she was a complex person who could be a mass of contradictions. She found a way to coexist with the Jane Russell that Howard Hughes presented to the world which was the opposite of who she was in real life. She also utilized her celebrity for a social cause she truly believed in, so I am excited for people to learn about her work with WAIF. I also hope people will seek out her films because she worked with notable directors like Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, and John Sturges, and acted with wonderful personalities, including Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Agnes Morehead, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. Onscreen, Jane was a truly magnificent dame!