The last time I saw the late Jane Russell in the flesh was five years ago. My wife Kendall and I took my daughter Leah to a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the American Cinematheque, which was followed by a Q&A with the former bombshell. I remember being surprised to find out that Russell had always been a staunch Republican. Despite the notion today that most Hollywood celebs are liberals, many stars of the 1950s were quite conservative. Jane Russell was right up there with Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Lou Costello, June Allyson, Dick Powell and Jimmy Stewart. During a speech in 2003, she announced that "these days I am a teetotaling, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist." She sure didn't come across that way in her delightful discussion that night.
At the time we saw her, Jane Russell was 84 years old but in great physical shape, sharp as a tack, and honest as all get out. Kendall and I have gone to many of these events where they drag out old movie stars to talk to their adoring fans. Often the former stars seem so caught up in their past glories that you get the sense they stopped being real human beings some time during the Truman administration. Not so, Jane Russell. Just like her character Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Russell was a straight-talkin' babe. You got the feeling that she never bought her own publicity, which was a good thing in her case considering it was mostly focused on her famous hooters.
I was surprised to learn about the incredible work Jane Russell did for the rights of adopted children. After a botched abortion left her unable to have kids, she adopted three children in the 1950s but faced major hurdles in the process, especially when she tried to adopt a child overseas. She started working to change the laws, testifying before Congress, and was instrumental in the passage of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment of 1953. After that, she helped pass legislation that allowed single parents to adopt and made it possible for children to cross state lines for adoptions. Her organization WAIF, which she retired from in the late 1990s, has placed over 50,000 children in homes. Whenever the studio sent her on a publicity tour, she spent much of her time in that area working for this cause but she didn't advertise her achievements. That night we saw her, whenever anyone tried to compliment her about her life's work she just shrugged and said "That's where God put me." Normally such comments would make me cringe but Jane was so humble and sincere that I could see how her deep faith has guided her life in so many positive ways.
So what's with the mean-spirited narrow-mindedness? She gave that speech when she was in the throes of a campaign to get prayer back in the schools and to allow the Ten Commandments to remain in public spaces such as courthouses. I don't agree with either of those ideas, but neither issue makes me start frothing at the mouth as so many other items do in the agenda of the religious right.
Unlike many of her conservative colleagues, Russell was certainly no homophobe. She spent a lot of time in the Q&A waxing nostalgic over her openly gay choreographer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jack Cole. She repeatedly called him a genius and said he was largely responsible for the success of the film since neither she nor Marilyn Monroe could dance a step when they started shooting. Jane always seemed to enjoy her status as a gay icon, and she commented on the bizarre bit of homoerotica in the film when she sings "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" in the middle of a training session for the Olympic team. As dozens of beefy studs go through their work-out moves, Jane darts in and out of their routines singing lines like "I like big muscles, and red corpuscles, I like a beautiful hunk of man." The men ignore her completely and seem far more interested in each other as they gyrate in suggestive positions. How that bizarre scene ever got past the censors is beyond me. Take a look!
Jane Russell was 32 when she made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and it is by far the best film of her career. Based on the novel by Anita Loos, it is the story of blonde, money-hungry Lorelei Lee (played by Marilyn Monroe) and her best friend, dark-haired, cynical Dorothy Shaw, who doesn't give a whit about a man's wallet but cares a great deal about other parts of him. Before the film started, and sounding like a Christian fundamentalist myself, I was trying to warn Leah, 11 years old at the time, about the outrageous values that are promoted in the film (marrying someone for money, using sexuality to manipulate, etc.). During my elaborate explanation of the film's twisted message, Leah stopped me cold and said, "Dad, relax, it's a movie! It's supposed to be fun, it's not about real life!" Of course we all loved the film, especially seeing it up on the big screen in Technicolor that was so vivid you practically needed to wear sunglasses. Many of the film's best lines would be considered appalling in a movie today.
Horny Man #1: If this boat goes down, which of the two girls (Monroe or Russell) would you save?
Horny Man #2: Oh, those girls can't sink.
Mr. Edmonds: Are you going to stand there and tell me that you're not marrying my son for his money?
Lorelei (outraged): It's true!
Mr. Edmonds: Then why are you marrying him?
Lorelei: I'm marrying him for YOUR money!
And of course, one of Marilyn's most famous songs:
He's your guy when stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend.
It's then that those louses
Go back to their spouses
Diamonds are a girl's best friend!
Hideous, right? But so, so good! Considering the fluff that it is, I think Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a near perfect film. To my feminist friends who are shocked and repulsed, I say go watch it in a movie theatre with 400 fans.
Jane Russell grew up in a deeply religious home with a mother who quoted from Scripture at every meal. How odd, then, that she ended up becoming famous as a sex symbol who pushed the envelope to such an extent that preachers were calling for boycotts of her early films. It wasn't really her doing. Howard Hughes first caught sight of Jane in 1940 (she was working as a receptionist in a Van Nuys podiatrist's office) and signed her to a seven-year contract. But he was far more interested in showcasing her ample bust than he was in finding good roles for his new star. Hughes was obsessed with Russell's breasts and she admitted that night that while the famous story of Hughes designing a special bra for her appearance in her first film, The Outlaw, was true, he never knew that she didn't actually wear the bra on the screen. She found Hughes' design for the first seamless bra uncomfortable so she just tossed it away and put tissues on the outside of her regular bra to smooth out the seams. Hughes never knew the difference. Some of the shots of Jane bending over in The Outlaw showed so much cleavage that it took Hughes three years to get the film past the censor board. In the meantime, he had her doing one publicity junket after another, most with the aim of wowing the crowds with her voluptuous boobs. As Bob Hope used to introduce her, "Here comes the two-and-only, Miss Jane Russell."
Jane was a team player but she would only go so far in this constant exploitation of her body. She refused Hughes' request to wear a bikini in The French Line (at that time, Russell told us, "only the bad girls in the south of France wore them") but she did agree to wear a cut-out bathing suit and do a bump-and-grind number that was condemned by the Catholic League of Decency. The film was released in 3-D with Jane's breasts jutting out so far into the audience that viewers would jerk their heads away for fear of being struck. What other film in history has such a tasteless tag line: "J.R. in 3-D: It'll knock both your eyes out!" Oy. Following this film Jane marched into Hughes' office and said "Howard! Enough with my breasts already!" The billionaire agreed to give it a rest. Jane was a consultant on the Hughes biopic The Aviator and said that if she and Hughes' other real friends were allowed anywhere near the tycoon during those last crazy years they would have gotten him to a hospital whether he liked it or not.
Russell had many nice things to say that night about her co-star Marilyn Monroe (a liberal Democrat -- I wonder if they ever discussed politics!). Though this was her first real starring role, Marilyn already had her own coach on the set and after every take she'd look at her instead of famed director Howard Hawks. Needless to say, Hawks was not pleased. But Jane and Marilyn got along great. One thing about the film that I didn't have to make excuses for to Leah was the warm relationship between the two leads. For my money I can't think of a better cinematic depiction of girlfriends. Though wildly different in temperament and ambition, the two women loved each other and were fiercely loyal. Jane said that Marilyn was extremely sensitive. When she overheard Tommy Noonan, who played her boyfriend Gus in the film, tell a reporter that kissing Marilyn Monroe is like getting eaten alive, she ran off in tears. When she was too insecure to come out of her dressing room on some mornings, Jane would hightail it over there and tell her to get moving -- the crew was waiting. Marilyn always obeyed. You get the impression that if no-nonsense Jane had been around more coddled, temperamental movie stars, there would have been far less histrionics on Hollywood sets.
I really admired Jane Russell even if it's sometimes hard to reconcile the woman we met with the self-described "narrow-minded conservative Christian bigot." Some of Russell's past affiliations I find completely perplexing, like her involvement with Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. Still, one quality I always respected about this Good Ol' Gal who helped so many children around the world, was her ability to consider people as individuals, not just as labels that represent the values she's against. Look at her great affection for frequent co-star, bad boy Robert Mitchum, who once spent time on a Georgia chain gang and was arrested in 1948 for marijuana possession. The prickly actor was never repentant and yet he and Christian conservative Jane got along famously. When asked to describe Jane Russell, Mitchum said, "An authentic original. She tells it like it is." Louella Parsons called them "the hottest couple that ever hit the screen" and I agree. In the closing line of their best film together, His Kind of Woman, Mitchum sums it up. He looks into Jane Russell's eyes and says, "You could be a handy thing to have around the house."