Jane Russell: Actress who caused a scandal in ‘The Outlaw’ and sang with Monroe in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’

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The actress and singer Jane Russell burst upon the film world in a blaze of publicity in the 1940s, when she was notoriously promoted by the producer Howard Hughes for her first film, The Outlaw (completed in 1941 but premiered, after much controversy, in 1943). Posters heralded her as "Mean, Moody and Magnificent", and Hughes was said to have designed a special brassière for her, using principles of aerodynamics. Photographs of Russell reclining seductively on a stack of hay, lips pouting as she chews on a piece of corn while wearing a blouse pulled provocatively over one shoulder became as famous as Betty Grable's Second World War pin-up pose, but instead of Grable's wholesome appeal, Russsell's was blatantly sexual, and The Outlaw was widely condemned and banned in many cities, though it is in fact surprisingly mild, and is even considered suitable for daytime television these days.

Russell proved to be a competent actress in both steamy thrillers (notably two pairings with Robert Mitchum) and as a comedy foil for Bob Hope. Her best remembered film is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which she teamed memorably with Marilyn Monroe as two "little girls from Little Rock" out to catch rich husbands. Censors remained wary of her, and in the UK half of her major solo in the film, "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" featuring Russell cavorting poolside with a bunch of musclemen, was cut from the movie. In stark contrast to her prevailing image, Russell was a devoted churchgoer and in later years she toured as part of a gospel group.

The daughter of a former actress who became a lay preacher, and an office manager who died when she was 15 years old, she was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell in Minnesota in 1921, and had four younger brothers. The family later moved to Los Angeles. After attending Van Nuys High School, she worked briefly as a chiropodist's assistant before studying acting at Max Reinhardt's Theatrical Workshop, and with the distinguished Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya, before working as a model.

When her photograph on a studio wall was spotted by an agent, he arranged for her to test for the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, who was looking for two newcomers to star in The Outlaw, a western in which a half-Irish, half-Mexican girl seeks revenge on Billy the Kid, who has killed her brother. After appearing in tests shot by the director Howard Hawks, Russell and Jack Beutel won the leading roles, co-starring with veterans Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell, and during breaks in shooting Russell would pose for photographs, though she later confessed that she was not fully aware of the reasons she was often requested to pose picking up pails. "My boobs were bulging out over the top of my blouse every time I picked up those pails," she said. "But I didn't know it until I saw myself on the covers and centerfolds of practically every magazine on the news-stands."

The film was banned by the Hays office due to the amount of cleavage displayed by Russell, particularly in a scene in which she nurses the sick and cold Billy and it is hinted that she raises his temperature by getting into his bed. "The camera was opposite me and you could see way too much cleavage." The photographer Gregg Toland had told Hughes he had better do the scene from another angle, and he did, but he was trying to get the first angle passed, and that is exactly the reason that The Outlaw was held up for so many years. "He was stubborn," she said, "and knew damn well that people would die to see something they were told they couldn't."

Under personal contract to Hughes, Russell had an active social life in Hollywood, dating both the football star Robert Waterfield, who had been a teenage sweetheart, and the actor John Payne, and in 1942 she had an abortion ("In those days, no 'nice' girl got pregnant. There was no such thing as keeping a child out of wedlock.")

In 1943 The Outlaw was finally released in San Francisco, and though the Catholic Church was excommunicating anyone who saw it, it played to packed houses for nine weeks. The same year, Russell married Waterfield, who was then a US Army officer. After an honourable discharge due to a knee injury, Waterfield recovered and became a professional quarterback.

In 1946, the year The Outlaw was finally widely released to critical pans but big box-office, Hughes loaned Russell to the producer Hunt Stromberg to star in a drama about wartime bereavement, Young Widow, co-starring Louis Hayward ("I had a crush on him and it was mutual"). The film was a weak soap opera which had three directors, but Russell was delighted when Paramount borrowed her to star opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948), in which she and Hope introduced the Oscar-winning song, "Buttons and Bows" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. "The script by Frank Tashlin was a delight, and Bob was even funnier off screen than on," she recalled.

At Republic, Russell played the outlaw Belle Starr in a light-hearted western with George Brent, Montana Belle (1952), directed by Allan Dwan. "He was a doll and even let me sing a song, 'The Gilded Lily', written by my friend, the cabaret singer Portia Nelson."

Russell loved to sing, and when the popular band-leader Kay Kyser lost his vocalist, Ginny Sims, he signed her for a 12-week engagement with his band. At the same time, she made an eight-song album for Columbia Records, Let's Put Out the Lights. She was delighted to be able to duet with Frank Sinatra in the comedy Double Dynamite (1951), but the film, after being withheld from release by Hughes, who had bought RKO, was poorly received, with little rapport among the stars, Sinatra, Russell and Groucho Marx. "The script was a big nothing, and no one got to know anyone," Russell said. "Not many laughs on that set."

Russell's next film was one of her most fondly regarded, John Farrow's delightful melodrama His Kind of Woman (1951). Russell and her leading man Robert Mitchum had respect for each other's talents and their joint charisma was palpable. Initial script problems resulted in considerable re-shooting, with a shift in mood to comedy in the latter sections, featuring Vincent Price as a ham actor delighted to be involved in tracking down real gangsters. Asking hotel guests to help him, he advises them, "Survivors will all be given parts in my next picture." Mitchum was a droll hero who irons his dollar bills, and Russell had two effective musical numbers.

The couple then starred in the exotic thriller Macao (1952), which also had problems: the initial director Josef von Sternberg, heartily disliked by the stars, was replaced by Nicholas Ray. One of the highlights was Russell's rendition of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard, "One For My Baby".

The Las Vegas Story (1952), with Victor Mature and Vincent Price, was one of Russell's poorer films, its only notable sequence being that in which Russell duets with Hoagy Carmichael on his hit song, "My Resistance is Low", but it was followed by one of her best films, Son of Paleface (1952), in which cowboy star Roy Rogers joined Hope and Russell in a rare instance of a sequel superior to its predecessor. Russell reprised "Buttons and Bows" and had two good new songs by Livingston and Evans, "What a Night for a Wing Ding" and "Am I In Love?"

Disappointed when told by a doctor that she could not have a baby (she blamed her earlier abortion), she and Waterfield adopted a girl and two boys. One of the boys was adopted while she was in the UK for a Royal Film Performance, and the difficulties she experienced prompted her to found the World Adoption International Agency, which has helped facilitate more than 40,000 adoptions from overseas.

It was Howard Hawks, who had known Russell since his abortive start on The Outlaw, who cast Russell as Dorothy opposite Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). "He made sure both parts were equal," she said. "He had been so wonderful when I was still wet behind the ears, so with him at the helm I knew it would be great." The two stars became good friends. "We got along great together. Marilyn was very shy and very sweet and far more intelligent than people give her credit for."

Jack Cole and Gwen Verdon staged Russell's contentious poolside number, which was supposed to conclude with a row of musclemen diving overher as she sat by the pool, butone failed to clear her and knocked her into the water. Though the numberwas shot again, the accident was left in the film, with Russell emerging soaked. "It was better," she conceded.

The film was a great success, and Russell won praise for her performance, which perfectly complemented Monroe's, but it was Russell's last good film for some time. The French Line (1953) was a drab musical in 3D, famous only for the one-piece costume with holes above and below the waist worn by Russell for her number "Lookin' for Trouble". Censors were again outraged, and the number was cut from UK prints, though it is another sequence now shown uncut on daytime TV.

Russell followed it with the forgettable melodramas Underwater! (1955), which had its premiere in a specially constructed theatre at the bottom of a lake, Foxfire (1955), and Hot Blood (1956), and a misguided, almost unwatchable sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). She had better roles in two films directed by Raoul Walsh, the western The Tall Men (1955) with Clark Gable, and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), in which she was excellent as a whore who grows rich buying Hawaii real estate after the Pearl Harbour attack.

This fine melodrama, in which she also sang two numbers, was her last notable film. When offers became scarce, Russell made nightclub appearances (her last as recently as 2008), acted in summer theatres and headlined Val Parnell's variety show on television, Sunday Night at the Palladium. On Broadway in 1971 she took over from Elaine Stritch, who was about to tour, the role of Joanne in Sondheim's musical Company, delivering her big number, "The Ladies Who Lunch", with wry assurance. She also formed a gospel group with Beryl Davis and Connie Haines, touring and making records, and on television she made knowing fun of her history when she became a spokeswoman for Playtex brassières.

She divorced Waterfield in 1968, and the same year married actor Robert Barrett, who died three months later. In 1978 she married the property developer John Peoples, who died in 1999, after which Russell battled alcoholism, undergoing rehabilitation a year later.

Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell, actress and singer: born Bemidji, Minnesota 21 June 1921; married 1943 Robert Waterfield (divorced 1968; three adopted children), 1968 Roger Barratt (died 1968), 1978 John Peoples (died 1999); died Santa Maria, California 28 February 2011.

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