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|Also Known As:||Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell||Died:||February 28, 2011|
|Born:||June 21, 1921||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Bemidji, Minnesota, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor singer model receptionist|
Made virtually synonymous with voluptuousness by Hollywood publicists and press in the 1940s and 1950s, Jane Russell's talents as a dramatic actress and musical performer were given significantly less attention than her statuesque figure. She was brought to fame by Howard Hughes, who made a fetish of her image in the controversial B-Western "The Outlaw" (1943). Russell smoldered quite spectacularly on screen, but showed a particular knack for both a wisecrack and a song, as demonstrated in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) and other musicals. She was teamed to great effect on several occasions with Bob Hope in such films as "The Paleface" (1948) and with Robert Mitchum in "His Kind of Woman" (1951), both of which gave her ample opportunity to poke fun at her sexualized screen persona. She left Hollywood in the mid-1960s for sporadic work on stage and in commercials; the latter gave her a third-act boost of fame as the spokesperson for Playtex's bras for "full-figured gals." One of the last of the true Hollywood bombshells - blonde or otherwise - Russell's highly-sexualized screen persona overshadowed a consummate professional, under-appreciated for her talents and commitment to her craft.
Born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell in Bemidji, MN, she was the sole sister amidst a brood of four boys born to Roy Russell and Geraldine Jacobi on June 21, 1921. The family moved several times during her early years, first to Canada (home to Russell's grandparents), then to Minnesota and finally to southern California. Russell's mother was a former actress and approved of her daughter's interest in music and drama. According to her 1985 autobiography, Russell's childhood was also flecked with genuine drama - she survived two assaults and a botched abortion at 19, which resulted in her becoming unable to naturally conceive. After her father's early death at the age of 46, Russell went to work as a receptionist to help support her family. She also earned money as a model, with her mother continuing to encourage her artistic interests by urging her to study with famed acting coach Maria Ouspenskay. But in 1940, the young girl's life was about to change.
After seeing photographs of the buxom bombshell, Howard Hughes signed his latest discovery to a seven-year contract full of the usual binding terms that marked Hughes' legal dealings with new actresses. True to his obsessive nature, Hughes was fixated on the gravity-defying aspects of Russell's figure, and mapped out all manner of displaying it to the fullest degree in her feature debut, "The Outlaw," which gave a hot-blooded account of the romance between Billy the Kid and a wanton named Rio (Russell). According to Hollywood legend, early rushes of the film left Hughes displeased about the level of exposure given to Russell's breasts in the film, and he designed a special bra that would exploit them to absurd levels. In her autobiography, Russell stated that she found Hughes' uber-bra too constraining to wear, and simply wore her own undergarment during the filming of the picture.
Notorious in Hollywood circles for bedding his protégés, Hughes never succeeding in doing so with Russell, since she had married her high school sweetheart, future professional football player Bob Waterfield in 1943. He did put her on a grueling promotional routine that forced her to endure endless remarks about her breast size and proclivities. She shouldered the comments with impressive reserve and good humor; however, censorship issues and Hughes' own perfectionism forced "The Outlaw" to be pulled from theaters in 1943 to spend the next four years in reshoots and reedits. He also kept Russell off movie screens until the picture could be released. She only made one other film between 1941 and 1947 - a weepy romance called "The Young Widow" (1946) which she shot while briefly on loan to United Artists.
Despite the fact that her debut film had yet to play an extended date in theaters, Russell was exceptionally popular during the early 1940s as a WWII pinup. The extensive promotional campaign for "The Outlaw" had given her wide exposure, as did the famous image posed seductively against a haystack. By the time "The Outlaw" was finally released in its finished form, she was a star, though one known largely for her physique than her acting abilities. Hughes propagated that image with a series of lightweight dramas and musicals that presented her in a series of revealing or formfitting costumes. His obsession with her figure reached its most absurd apex with 1954's "The French Line," a harmless musical marked by scene after scene of leering angles at Russell's chest - made all the more unseemly by use of the 3-D process. The censors pounced upon the film prior to its general release, and Hughes eventually sent a much tamer version to theaters.
While Hughes was busy marketing Russell as prime cheesecake, the actress was quietly building a reputation as a capable actress and singer who could handle both drama and light comedy. She impressed audiences and critics alike in several team-ups with Bob Hope, starting in 1948 with "The Paleface," a loan-out to Paramount which cast her as Calamity Jane opposite Hope's traditional wisecracking coward. Their pairing was so successful that a sequel, "Son of Paleface" (1952) was ordered up, earning her an Oscar nomination for her rendition of "Am I In Love?" with Hope and Roy Rogers. Russell also worked well with Robert Mitchum in two noir dramas, "His Kind of Woman" (1951) and "Macao" (1952). Both actors projected enormous sex appeal in their scenes together, as well as the sense that both were approaching the overheated material with tongues planted firmly in cheeks.
Russell reached the apex of her movie career with the sparkling 1953 musical "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Paired with Marilyn Monroe - another actress whose abundant sexuality overshadowed her acting abilities - Russell was hailed by critics for her dry comic delivery and singing talents. A smash hit at the box office and on the record charts, it elevated her beyond the restraints of her pinup persona and showed her as a full-fledged and multifaceted actress. She shot her last film for Hughes - "Underwater," in 1955 - and soon after, began to take charge of her professional and personal life in bold strokes.
She and Waterfield launched their own production company, Russ-Field Productions, and oversaw three of her own pictures between 1955 and 1957. A well-liked singer who often performed with the Kay Kyser Orchestra in the 1940s, Russell also enjoyed a recording career and a touring nightclub act as a solo performer and in vocal trios, often with fellow actress Rhonda Fleming. After adopting two children with Waterfield, she campaigned heavily for the Federal Adoption Amendment of 1953 (which allowed children fathered by American servicemen overseas to be adopted by families in the United States) and later founded the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF) in 1956, which helped find homes for over 50,000 children. A political conservative and born-again Christian, she also launched the Hollywood Christian Group and sponsored a weekly Bible study in her home.
Unfortunately, Russell's film career never blossomed as it should have in the late 1950s. Her efforts during this period were likable, including a sequel to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" called "Gentlemen Marry Brunettes" (1955), but fared only moderately well with audiences. Russell scaled back her movie roles and concentrated on stage and television; her final film appearances came in a string of low-budget Westerns in the late 1960s and in the violent detective drama "Darker Than Amber" (1970). The following year, she replaced Elaine Stritch on Broadway in the musical "Company."
She returned to the public eye in the 1970s as the spokesperson for the Playtex Cross Your Heart bra, which was made for abundantly endowed woman like herself. Though her acting appearances were only occasional at best - she appeared in several episodes of the primetime soap opera "The Yellow Rose" (NBC, 1983-1990) - she remained active with contributions to numerous documentaries about Hollywood's Golden Age, her favorite co-stars, and Howard Hughes. She also penned her autobiography, Jane Russell: My Paths and Detours, in 1985, which revealed the bouts of infidelity that brought her first marriage to an end, as well as struggles with alcohol.
In 1989, she received the Living Legacy Award from the Women's International Center for her tireless work for adoption groups. She launched a new nightclub act in 2006 with performers culled from the senior citizen ranks of Santa Maria, her hometown after the death of her third husband in 1999. The act, called "The Singing Forties," performed at the Radisson Hotel in Santa Maria and earned Russell high praise for her stage presence and vocal skills. In interviews, Russell stated that she had put together the act because of her frustration over adequate entertainment resources for older residents in Hollywood. Russell was portrayed by actress Erika Nann in the 1996 TV movie "Norma Jean and Marilyn," which depicted her placing her hand and footprints alongside Monroe in the sidewalk outside Graumann's Chinese Theatre in 1953. Actress Renee Henderson later played Russell in the Monroe miniseries "Blonde" in 2001. The actress died at age 89 on Feb. 28, 2011 at her home in Santa Maria, CA.
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