Today marks the 100th birthday of Jane Russell (Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell, 1921-2011). I have to marvel at the aptness of her screen name (and the fact that it is her given one), for isn’t she smack dab at the crossroads of Rosalind Russell and Jayne Mansfield, both thematically and chronologically? When I was a kid, like many of her generation (Martha Raye, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney) I knew Russell from TV commercials and hers were the subject of many titters, for she was the spokeswoman for Playtex Cross Your Heart Bras — For the Full Figured Gal. Her 38-24-36 measurements were what she had been known for since the beginning of her career. Her breasts, in fact, seemed to be her superpower. (I was toying with calling this post a “bicentennial” so closely is she identified with those two assets). Notoriously, Howard Hughes crafted an entire movie vehicle to showcase them, the 1943 western The Outlaw, which featured Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett, Walter Huston as Doc Holiday — and that girl you see rolling around in the hay up there. Hughes had even designed a special brassiere for her to wear. After all, he had also designed the Spruce Goose. He was all about scale.
Russell’s mother had been a stage actress and model. Jane grew up in L.A. and had been signed by Hughes as early as 1940. Prior to The Outlaw, she was already famous as a pin-up girl. She had studied acting with Max Reinhardt and Maria Ouspenskaya, and could also sing, but it was her legendary figure that sold tickets. Amazingly, she had fewer than 3 dozen screen credits. She was a creditable Dorothy Lamour substitute in Bob Hope’s The Paleface (1948) and Son of Paleface (1952), had a cameo in Hope and Crosby’s Road to Bali (1952) and appeared many times on Hope’s tv shows. Howard Hawks’ 1953 version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe is undoubtedly her other best known movie. She formed an odd triumvirate with Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx in Double Dynamite (1951). She held her own with Robert Mitchum and William Bendix in the colonialist noir Macao (1952). She was the title character in both Montana Belle (1952) and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) and the female lead in Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men (1955) with Clark Gable and Robert Ryan. The Norman Taurog Technicolor comedy The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957) was a bit like Tashlin and Mansfield’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, also released that year, but it wasnt nearly as successful. She sang in nightclubs and made appearances on television over the next decade, returning to movie screens for the westerns Johnny Reno and Waco in 1966. She had a recurring role on the western TV series The Yellow Rose in 1984. Her last acting credit was a 1986 episode of Hunter.
Russell also sang on a few records, including a couple with Kay Kyser, whom we wrote about just a couple of days ago. In 1986 she penned her memoir Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours. Russell passed away in 2011, but the legend of her edifice…may outlast the pyramids.
To find out more about the history of show business please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.