Hollywood screen siren Jane Russell dies

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Jane Russell, the busty brunette who shot to fame as the sexy star of Howard Hughes' 1941 Western The Outlaw, has died of respiratory failure, her family said today.

Although Russell, 89, who died at her home in Santa Maria, California, made only a handful of films after the 1960s, she had remained active in her church, with charitable organisations and with a local singing group until her health began to decline just a couple weeks ago, said her daughter-in-law Etta Waterfield.

"She always said I'm going to die in the saddle, I'm not going to sit at home and become an old woman," Ms Waterfield said. "And that's exactly what she did, she died in the saddle."

Eccentric billionaire Hughes put her on to the path to stardom when he cast her in The Outlaw.

With her sultry look and glowing sexuality, Russell became a star before she was ever seen by a wide movie audience. The Hughes publicity mill ground out photos of the beauty in low-cut costumes and swimsuits, and she became famous, especially as a pin-up for Second World War soldiers.

By that time she had become a box-office star by starring with Bob Hope in the 1948 hit comedy-Western The Paleface.

Although her look and her hourglass figure made her the subject of numerous nightclub jokes, unlike Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and other pin-up queens of the era, Russell was untouched by scandal in her personal life. During her Hollywood career she was married to American football quarterback Bob Waterfield.

The Outlaw, although it established her reputation, was beset with trouble from the beginning. Director Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's most eminent and autocratic film-makers, rankled under producer Hughes' constant suggestions and finally walked out.

The film's rambling, fictional plot featured Russell as a friend of Billy the Kid as he tussles with Doc Holliday and Sheriff Pat Garrett.

It had scattered brief runs in the 1940s, earning scathing reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it "one of the weirdest Western pictures that ever unreeled before the public". Another release in 1950 drew more poor reviews and mediocre business.

But Hughes bought the ailing RKO studio in 1948 and he devoted special care to his number one star, using his engineering skills to design Russell a special bra - she said she never wore it. That year she made her most successful film, a loan to Paramount for The Paleface.

But at RKO she was cast in a series of pot-boilers such as His Kind of Woman (with Robert Mitchum), Double Dynamite (Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx), The Las Vegas Story (Victor Mature) and Macao (Mitchum again).

Hughes had rewarded her with a unique 20-year contract paying 1,000 dollars a week, then he sold RKO and stopped making movies. Russell continued receiving the weekly fee, but never made another film for Hughes.

Her only other notable film was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a 1953 musical based on the novel by Anita Loos. She and Monroe teamed up to sing Two Little Girls From Little Rock and seek romance in Paris.

She followed that up with the 1954 musical The French Line, which like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has her cavorting on an ocean liner. The film was shot in 3D, and he promotional campaign for it proclaimed "JR in 3D. Need we say more?"

In 1955, she made the sequel Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (without Monroe) and starred in the Westerns The Tall Men, with Clark Gable, and Foxfire, with Jeff Chandler. But by the 1960s, her film career had faded.

"Why did I quit movies?" she remarked in 1999. "Because I was getting too old! You couldn't go on acting in those years if you were an actress over 30."

She continued to appear in nightclubs, television and musical theatre, including a stint on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's Company. She formed a singing group with Connie Haines and Beryl Davis, and they made records of gospel songs.

Minnesota-born Russell's mother was a lay preacher who encouraged the family to build a chapel in their garden, but young Jane had a wild side. She wrote in her 1985 autobiography, My Paths And Detours, that during high school she had a back-street abortion which may have made her unable to bear children.

While working as a receptionist, she was spotted by a movie agent who submitted her photos to Hughes and she was summoned for a test with Hawks, who was to direct The Outlaw.

But Russell's life was marked by heartache. Her 24-year marriage to Waterfield ended in bitter divorce in 1968 (they had adopted sons Thomas and Robert, and daughter Tracy.)

That year she married actor Roger Barrett; three months later he died of a heart attack. In 1978 she married developer John Peoples, and they lived in Sedona, Arizona, and later, Santa Barbara. He died in 1999 of heart failure.

Over the years Russell also battled alcoholism but said she had always been able to rebound from troubles by relying on the religious lessons she learned from her mother.

She is survived by her children, Thomas Waterfield, Tracy Foundas and Robert "Buck" Waterfield, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

A public funeral is will be held on March 12 at Pacific Christian Church in Santa Maria.

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