Today’s question, posed in the headline above today’s picture, is not meant to be disrespectful or rude. Not at all.
It’s just that this blunt question arises whenever you assess the career of Jane Russell, one of Hollywood’s biggest sexpots of the Forties and Fifties.
Whatever Russell”s acting skills — and Frank rates her higher in this category than most — she oozed sex onscreen. Not the cuddly, baby-talking kind exuded by Marilyn Monroe, Russell’s costar in Howard Hawk’s wonderful 1953 rendition of the fortune-hunter romp, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
No. Russell’s eroticism was more direct, a lipcurling, no-nonsense, full figured approach that made amply clear the rewards of pleasing her were great, but those crossing her would be chewed up and spit out before breakfast. Her figure was her claim to fame as Bob Hope, her costar in The Paleface, and its sequel,The Son of Paleface, would point out to the world when he’d introduce her “as the two and only…”
Check her out in Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 thriller Macao, in which Jane was cast opposite Robert Mitchum as a sultry, worldly-wise nightclub singer at loose ends in the steamy Asian gambling capital now part of China. The chemistry between the two stars is evidently helped by the fact they were fast friends off-camera.
Both intensely disliked the Vienna-born von Sternberg (Marlene Dietrich’s svengali.) During Macao’s less-than-smooth shooting, the director would turn to Mitchum and say: “Now we have to bolster this beautiful girl with no talent.” This infuriated Mitchum, who would cut von Sternberg short — in more ways than one. (Von Sternberg was eventually taken off the picture to be replaced by a young Nicholas Ray.)
Getting back to our headline question, we felt compelled to search for the real Jane as expressed in her 1985 autobiography, Jane Russell My Paths & My Detours.
— Did Russell sleep with Howard Hughes, the studio mogul who made her an international sex symbol in her first movie, The Outlaw?
Jane says, absolutely not.
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.” Hughes did make one serious pass, according to Jane, but got nowhere. Hughes did volunteer during the making of The Outlaw to design a special-fitted bra for Russell, but she didn’t wear it.
“I found it uncomfortable and ridiculous.” The powerful agent Lew Wasserman, who represented Jane at one point, asked her: “Look, are you sleeping with this guy or what?” A stunned Jane responded, “No, Lew, my God! He’s my friend.”
There were rumors that Hughes lent, or gave Jane money when she found herself in financial straits late in her career. This isn’t true, but the eccentric mogul did provide financially for her after he sold the RKO studio and after completion of 1955’s “Underwater,” which Jane bluntly described as a “turkey.”
Hughes offered what she described as a “unique” contract reserving his right to loan Jane out to any other studio (she was under contract to him at the time) for six pictures over a five-year period with her payments spread over 20 years. She could also make pictures on her own. Jane was guaranteed $1 million dollars, a pretty big payday 56 years ago. Agent Wasserman “helped Jimmy Stewart and many stars set up the same format, but mine was the first of its kind,” boasted Jane.
One of Russell’s best remembered films is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The box office receipts and the critical reviews were “great,” recalled Jane. The picture was a highlight of her 27-year-career.