The French Line
In 1953, Twentieth-Century Fox had a big hit with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a musical based on Anita Loos' novel and play, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO studios, decided to make his own musical about American girls on their way to Paris by ship, The French Line (1954). The film starred Russell, who had been under contract to Hughes for more than a decade, and borrowed plot points liberally from its inspiration. Hughes even went so far as to hire Anita Loos' niece, Mary Anita Loos Sale, and her husband Richard Sale, to write the screenplay. And he decided to make The French Line in 3-D.
Russell plays a Texas heiress who wants to be loved for herself and not for her millions. Assuming a false identity as a fashion model, she takes a French Line ship across the Atlantic, and falls for a Frenchman, played by Gilbert Roland, who is not what he seems, either. The climax comes when Russell performs a production number wearing a revealing costume that turns the innocuous musical into a cause celebre.
Russell had stirred controversy and attained sex-goddess status with her very first film, when the generous display of her voluptuous cleavage held up release of Hughes' The Outlaw (1941) for several years. Russell was, in fact, a devout Christian who performed gospel songs in nightclubs in a close-harmony group with three other actress-singers. She was married to her high-school sweetheart, had two adopted children, and had founded a group called World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), which helped facilitate international adoptions. But because of Russell's shapely figure and sultry insolence (and in spite of her natural warmth and flair for comedy), Hughes persisted in showcasing her sexuality. Shooting The French Line in 3-D was intended to emphasize Russell's natural assets, from a bubble bath early in the film to the famously scanty costume at the end. Bikinis had just begun appearing on the French Riviera, and Hughes had chosen a silver-beaded bikini for Russell to wear in the final production number. Russell tried it, but said she felt naked, and refused to wear it. Costume designer Michael Woulfe came up with a one-piece bathing suit with strategic cutouts, which Russell found acceptable. But Woulfe recalled in a 1994 interview that Hughes "wanted her decollete lower and lower and lower...finally he said, 'I want her tits bouncing off the screen, hitting them in the eye, and bouncing back onto the screen!' And I think we did it." The ad campaign for The French Line emphasized that focus: "J.R. in 3-D. It'll knock both your eyes out!"
The censors were not amused. The French Line was denied the Production Code seal of approval. Then the Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a "condemned" rating, calling it "immoral," and forbidding Catholics to see it. Russell handled it with aplomb, expressing surprise that her discreet bump-and-grind routine was interpreted as anything but tongue-in-cheek. Naturally, the uproar meant full theaters, as the public flocked to find out what all the fuss was about. Audiences today might wonder the same thing. The outfit is less revealing than a bikini, and Russell isn't flaunting sex. The French Line is nothing more or less than a gaudy musical entertainment with good songs, eye-popping costumes worn by beautiful women (among them Kim Novak in a bit as a fashion model), and the considerable charms of Jane Russell on full display.
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Screenplay: Mary Loos, Richard Sale, based on a story by Matty Kemp and Isabel Dawn
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Editor: Robert Ford
Costume Design: Michael Woulfe, Howard Greer
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Carroll Clark
Music: songs by Josef Myrow, Ralph Blane, Robert Wells
Principal Cast: Jane Russell (Mary Carson), Gilbert Roland (Pierre), Arthur Hunnicutt (Waco Mosby), Mary McCarty (Annie Farrell), Joyce Mackenzie (Myrtle Brown), Paula Corday (Celeste), Scott Elliott (Bill Harris), Craig Stevens (Phil Barton), Laura Elliott (Katherine Hodges), Steven Geray (Francois).
C-102m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri