All week so far we’ve paid homage to some of the Janes of the screen, and we end today with two of the sexiest ladies ever named Jane. Russell and Greer. They lit up the screen in the 1940s and 50s.
A longstanding Hollywood myth is that RKO mogul and notorious Hollywood womanizer Howard 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 Hughes production of The Outlaw, which introduced Russell’s cleavage to the world. (Bob Hope would thereafter introduce her as “the two and only.”)
As she dryly notes in My Paths & My Detours, her 1985 autobiography, 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.
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 barked. “Bring her in.”
This is how Jane Russell’s career spanning 24 movies over 27 years began. Along the way were some interesting pictures: 1948’s The Paleface opposite Bob Hope, 1952’s Macao with Russell sexily handling her male counterpart, Robert Mitchum (one of five pictures she appeared in that year), 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blonds famously teaming Russell with sister sexpot Marilyn Monroe).
Did she ever sleep with Hughes?
Jane said she found him likable, kooky and timid. I often hollered at Howard, and I think in a funny kind of way I scared him. Hughes would later confide to friends, that woman terrified me.
According to the actress’ 1984 autobiography, the powerful agent Lew Wasserman, who represented Jane at one point, asked her: “Look, are you sleeping with this guy or what?” A stunned Russell responded, “No, Lew, my God! He’s my friend.”
Jane Greer’s experience with Hughes was not as amicable. Greer (pictured below) is, of course, the pivotal femme fatale costar of 1947’s Out of the Past. Film noir-author/critic Eddie Muller calls this movie spellbinding. It reconfigured genre cliches by investing them with depth and style.
Greer’s performance seemingly assured stellar status. But it didn’t happen. The reason is two words — Howard Hughes. He had brought her to RKO, and (as was his custom) took a romantic fancy to her offscreen before her second marriage to Edward Lasker (her first for one year had been to Rudy Vallee). Greer was not thrilled by his overtures.
A followup to Out of the Past was planned in 1949 titled The Big Steal. George Raft and Lizabeth Scott were envisioned for the leads. When Raft dropped out, Scott followed suit. Hughes decided to cast Mitchum for the lead despite the actor’s incipient problems with the law over a marijuana bust.
But Hughes in a retailatory mood was adamantly opposed to the casting of Greer opposite Mitchum. Hughes even threatened not to cast Greer in any more RKO titles. But after he became enmeshed in salvaging Mitchum’s valuable (to RKO) career, his pique at Greer lessened. She finally was cast in The Big Steal (only after other actresses turned it down).
The resulting picture, a crime-adventure set in Mexico, was directed by the efficient Don Siegel and costarred William Bendix refreshingly cast as a nasty thug. The Big Steal is a pleasant, workmanlike picture with a happy ending, yet.
Greer discovered that she was pregnant during filming with one of her three children with Lasker. By the end of the shooting she was beginning to show. She was in a family way both physically and in spirit.
The Big Steal made money at the box office, and reinforced RKO’s faith in Mitchum’s career despite his messy legal problems.
For Greer, it was another story. Her career went into a slump, but she didn’t appear to be particularly bothered by it. Family life seemed a lot more appealing.