Obviously, once upon a time there were no Kardashian sisters, no up skirt websites, no mass produced semi-celebrity sex tapes, and no instantly publishable photographs of the glitterati sans underwear. Way back in the not-so-long-ago 1940 and 50’s, except deep under the furtive shadows of the deviant underground and the back room demi-monde, overt sexuality on display was unheard of. Unlike today, it was about suggestion, aura, dress style, costume, pose-- all of it artful artifice--with the exception of the somewhat innocent concentration on the one lowest-common-dominator feminine psychical characteristic commonly referred to as “curves”. Jane Russell, perhaps one of the greatest of all Hollywood Va-Va-Voom girls, had every ingredient listed in that last sentence, and she had ‘em spades.
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born deep in the middle of America, in Bemidji, Minn., in 1921. She and her family moved to SoCal when she was 9-months-old, and after graduating high school she enrolled in acting classes at Max Reinhardt’s theater workshop, also doing some minor league modeling. While working as an assistant in a chiropodist’s office a photo of her found its way to one of the US’s most infamous wayward sons, Howard Hughes, then beginning his filmmaking period, and he cast her at the age of 19 in 1940 as the temptress in his much ballyhooed western The Outlaw. Of course, the movie was plagued with Hughes’ usual weird karma, only getting a strange initial run in San Francisco in 1943, another one in New York in 1947, and it did not get an actual national release until 1950. Not of that seemed to matter, as it was unleashed with a torrent of publicity and controversy, much of it over a poster featuring Russell with the caption: “Mean…Moody..Magnificent,” and Russell immediately became part of the nation’s collective big screen firmament, with the actress’s charms labeled as particularly overt and unusually bourgeoisie (and somewhat scary since she came across as so fiercely carnal), undeniably a new breed of the long-standing movie-movie tough and glamorous broad.
The Outlaw poster might still stand as an appropriate visual definition of sultry as it depicted Russell lounging in a haystack, eyes smoldering, a gun in one hand, and her open topped skirt falling off one shoulder to focus attention on semi-bared breasts that looked more powerful then M-1 missiles. The Roman Catholic church made a hue and cry, stories surfaced that Hughes, the movie’s producer and boy genius (after casting Russell when spotting her himself at a doctor’s office) designed his own special contoured bra, although Russell long contended she never actually wore it, rendering each part of the tale equally apocryphal yet still long preserved as Tinseltown lore.
Russell was no great shakes as a dramatic personage, but her incandescent sexuality, a powerful mix of otherworldly knowingness, sizzling personality, and torrid airs, virtually leaped off the big screen and she became a pin-up fave rave. She is wonderful teamed with Bob Hope in The Paleface (‘48) and inexplicably enough, fortuitously partnered with Marilyn Monroe in the Technicolor gem that is Gentleman Prefer Blondes (’53). Russell also acquitted herself quite well in Macao (’52), Son of Paleface (’52), The Las Vegas Story (’52), The Tall Men (’55), and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (’56).
The vagaries of pop culture are often windblown and propelled by avarice, but somehow Russell remerged in the70’s and all the way through the 80’s as the television spokeswoman for Playtex bras, which she touted on the small screen as the perfect accouterment for “full figured gals” like herself, thus becoming an extreme feminine object of desire and commerce twice in her public life. By then her big screen career had faded into the rearview mirror, and eventually both her looks and politics grew harsh; but, as always, we are blessed to keep her image fixed in a time and place where she stood tall as a Lioness among kitty cats, as among the most red-blooded of the screen sirens, as the magnificently full figured gal posing knowingly in the stable, ferocious, challenging, and notoriously exuding the deep mystique that signifies forbidden pleasures. Russell stands forever shimmering and perpetually radiant, an absolute knock-out, while never a knock-over.