Classic Hollywood: Jane Russell was Cantilevered to Stardom

Jane Russell Profile
Publicity photo from ‘The Outlaw’ starring Jane Russell. (RKO Radio Pictures)

Glamour queens come and go in the movies, but few have made as much of an impression as Jane Russell. At one time known more for the dimensions of her bosom than for her acting ability, she proved herself to be quite adept at comedy roles as well as her usual sexpot roles.

Jane Russell became famous as a movie star before anyone had seen her on the screen! Due to an intense publicity campaign by RKO Studios and her boss, eccentric oilman and aviation genius Howard Hughes, her photo was propelled onto every movie magazine cover and newspaper front page.

Billionaire Hughes groomed Miss Russell for her film debut in the sexy Western, The Outlaw, co-starring handsome young Jack Buetel. The film was made in 1941, but it was too hot for the censors to approve. It was briefly released in 1943. It became a cause celebre because of the blatant sexuality displayed in the film. Hughes yanked the picture and tinkered with it for a few more years, doing re-takes and re-editing.

Although Miss Russell was under contract to Hughes, she never appeared in another film during those first few years at the studio. Hughes wanted her to make a big splash first in The Outlaw before audiences saw her in anything else. The Outlaw was finally released in 1946 and became a sensation – just as Hughes had predicted. Miss Russell became a sultry overnight sensation after waiting for five years!

It is rumored that Hughes, a noted aviation pioneer, used his engineering skills to design a sort of flying buttress brassiere to cantilever Miss Russell’s levitating assets. It’s one of the great Hollywood legends and only Miss Russell could confirm whether it was true or not.

Hughes finally put her into a nondescript film called Young Widow in 1946. In 1948, Jane walked across the RKO lot over to Paramount Studios next door to make the sensational comedy, The Paleface, with Bob Hope. The picture was such a huge hit that it spawned a sequel, Son of Paleface, in 1952. Jane was kept busy at RKO co-starring with Robert Mitchum in such hard-hitting films as His Kind Of Woman and Macao.

When the novel 3D film process came into vogue in the early 1950s, Jane was the perfect three-dimensional subject for the two-eyed cameras. She starred in a musical called The French Line. She projected her ample bosom out over the heads of an amazed and startled audience. The 3D process was used for what it was intended – popping your eyes out.

Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The highlight of Russell’s career came in 1953 when she co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in the classic 20th Century Fox musical comedy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She and Marilyn knocked everybody out when they sang “We’re Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock.” Although Jane was a much bigger star than Marilyn at the time, this film skyrocketed both their careers into the stratosphere. Marilyn became Queen of the Fox lot at age 26. Jane followed up with the films The Tall Men with Clark Gable and Robert Ryan, and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, with Jeanne Crain and Scott Brady, both in 1955. She again starred with Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens in 1956 with Eleanor Parker and The Revolt of Mamie Stover.

When her film career waned in the 1960s, she still drew crowds to her nightclub act, thus proving that she was still a star. Her tour took her to South America, Europe, Mexico, and Canada. She later formed a singing group with singers Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, and Della Russell. They recorded a song, “Do Lord,” which sold two million copies.

After divorcing former football great Bob Waterfield, Jane voluntarily retired from the screen and found happiness with a new husband. She remained in the public eye through her appearances for the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), a charitable organization for orphaned children.

Television commercials that Jane made for a bra company crowned her the “full-figured gal” and brought her to the attention of a whole new generation of young fans. She also took to the stage and did successful engagements with the musicals Bells Are Ringing and Janus. She took over on Broadway for Elaine Stritch in the hit musical Company in 1971, in which she played for six months.

Miss Russell represented the film industry as one of its most outstanding citizens and spokespersons. She demonstrated graceful longevity and received respect from her peers in Hollywood for her many good public works. She also wrote her autobiography in 1985, Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours, to great acclaim.

She retired to a quiet life in the Santa Maria Valley of coastal California. She died February 28, 2011 at age 89 of a respiratory illness. She was survived by her three children.