Hello everybody. Morella and Segers at it again. This time with our musings on a unique star of yesteryear.
At her death in late February at the age of 89, Jane Russell was memorialized in the mainstream press with lengthy obituaries fairly dripping with condescension.
“Sultry Star of the 1940’s” read the headline in The New York Times. “Screen Siren” screamed the Los Angeles Times’ headline.
The subtexts seem to suggest that Russell was beneath serious consideration, the bimbo creation and sexual toy of mogul Howard Hughes, who led her leash-like through a good part of her – at best – mediocre career.
We are here to say, loudly, that that interpretation is wrong.
Yes, of course, she was a genuine two-fisted sex symbol. “Of all the screen’s sex goddesses, Jane Russell seemed to be the most amused by the performance,” writes David Thomson, the British film author-critic who is singular in his refreshingly balanced appreciation of her.
“Russell was no actress, but she was dryly skeptical and physically glorious. Such droll eroticism is rare in Hollywood and we are lucky that she was allowed to decorate so many adventure movies.”
We disagree in one respect. Jane was a better actress than even she acknowledged. In addition, she was a talented singer of superb musical taste, and woman of principle who didn’t bend – not even to Howard Hughes.
She was the tomboy daughter of a former actress married to an office manager for the Andrew Jergens Company, which made Woodbury soap. Born in Bemidji, Minnesota, Jane was transported to Glendale, California when she was all of nine months old. The large Russell clan included four younger brothers. It was an active household but hardly an affluent one after Jane’s father died while she was in her teens
A longstanding Hollywood myth is that Hughes had spotted the 19-year-old Russell in 1940, in a chiropodist’s office where she was employed as an assistant, and hired her on the spot to star in “The Outlaw”
As she dryly notes in “My Paths & My Detours,” her 1985 autobiography, Jane did indeed work in the doctor’s office at the time where “I wore a white uniform, took the patients’ shoes and socks off, and stuck their feet in pails of warm water… for a week! Then I gave the chiropodist my regards.”
What actually occurred is this: Jane had been doing some part time modeling in Hollywood for a photographer, Tom Kelley – no nude calendar stuff but lots of outdoorsy ski clothing and other sports-related shots. Posing in front of the camera in a demure bathing suit, Jane “never felt so vulnerable in my life. You see for years I’d been so skinny that the boys in school called me ‘bones.’”
But when the pictures came back, Jane was “thrilled. I didn’t look so skinny after all. Tom Kelley was some photographer.” – He was indeed.
One of those shots Kelley took wound up in the possession of a hustling agent by the name of Levis Green. He later explained that he had swiped Jane’s photo from Kelley’s office and, as he made his usual rounds of the studios, showed it to casting directors. No interest until Green showed her picture to a representative of Howard Hughes.
“She looks like the type,” the Hughes man commanded. “Bring her in.”
Jane was indeed being considered for the leading female part in the 1940 production of “The Outlaw,” to be directed by Howard Hawks.
At her first meeting with Hawks, the director explained the part was of a girl “who was half-Irish and half-Mexican” whose brother had been killed by Billy the Kid, and “she hated his guts. When she tries to kill him with a pitchfork, he rapes her.”
Said director Hawks: “We’ll be testing Monday, so learn the scene, and good luck.” This is how Jane Russell’s career spanning 24 movies over 27 years began.
Tomorrow we’ll have Part II of our blog on Jane Russell, and some of it will be quite gossipy. Promise. So please stay tuned.