skip navigation
Jane Russell Profile
share:
Remind Me

Jane Russell Profile
* Films air on 8/7

In Hollywood, scores of actresses have founded careers on their physical attributes, but probably no other woman has endured as much attention focused on a specific part of her body as Jane Russell. Frequently, ad campaigns for her films centered more on her ample 38D breasts than the plotlines of the movie.

"J.R. in 3-D," proclaimed the ads for The French Line (1954), "It'll knock both your eyes out!"

Born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota, her family moved to Canada, then California, where the only daughter found work as a receptionist in a chiropodist's office. Because her mother was a former actress in a traveling theater company, Russell was encouraged to take music and acting lessons. She studied at Max Reinhardt's Theatrical Workshop and Maria Ouspenskaya's Drama School. She was modeling part time when discovered by Howard Hughes, and signed to play the female lead in his Freudian western The Outlaw (1943).

Because of Hughes's eccentric approach to filmmaking, her stardom did not occur overnight. Production of The Outlaw began in 1941, and the film was completed in 1943. It played only a handful of engagements before it was pulled from release for reshoots and reediting (due to censorship and Hughes's perfectionism). It wasn't widely released until 1946.

"They held up The Outlaw for five years," Russell said, "And Howard Hughes had me doing publicity for it every day, five days a week for five years."

Russell was among the few of Hughes's "discoveries" with whom he did not have a sexual relationship. Instead, Russell married athlete Robert Waterfield on April 24, 1943. He was her high school sweetheart, who played quarterback for UCLA, and later the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams (eventually serving as their head coach from 1959-1962).

Russell was Hughes's personal discovery and he didn't want her appearing in someone else's film first. So, during The Outlaw's five-year evolution, she remained under contract to Hughes, earning a salary, but waiting for her star to ascend. She was loaned out to United Artists for Edwin L. Marin's Young Widow (1946), but this was a rare occurrence. Russell had the dubious honor of being one of Hughes's favorite actresses, which made her the focus of his peculiar obsessions.

Like one of his aircraft designs, Hughes scrutinized every detail of Russell's appearance. In one of the best-known incidents, he designed a special brassiere for her to wear in The Outlaw, so the seams wouldn't show through her tight shirt (she told him she wore it, but actually modified her old bra herself). During the production of Josef von Sternberg's Macao (1952), Hughes issued a memo that demonstrates his preoccupation with her physique: "It would be extremely valuable if the dress incorporated some kind of a point at the nipple because I know this does not ever occur naturally in the case of Jane Russell. Her breasts always appear to be round, or flat, at that point so something artificial here would be extremely desirable."

Hughes's glorification of Russell's voluptuous figure hit its apex in Lloyd Bacon's The French Line. The innocuous musical comedy stirred up major problems with the censors due to a song-and-dance number at the climax, in which Russell appears in an extremely low-cut, tight-fitting, one-piece suit, with openings cut in the midriff. The number was filmed in 3-D, up close, from an advantageous angle. Once he had stirred up the necessary amount of publicity, Hughes put the film in general release, utilizing more chaste footage of the number, shot from an extreme distance.

Russell later recalled, "Howard Hughes was a good and fair boss, but he lacked the artistic taste to do the kind of films I really would have liked to be in, with parts I could get my teeth into. He wasn't the man I needed if I was to have developed into a serious actress. So I really have no idea how far I could have gone in films....I was definitely a victim of Hollywood typecasting."

Russell tolerated the obsession with her breasts gamely, shrugging off everyone else's fascination as if it were inconsequential, and this blasé attitude toward her sexuality has become the distinguishing feature of her acting style. Rather than cooing and posing for the camera and struggling to ooze sexuality (as does her co-star, Marilyn Monroe, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953]), Russell maintains a strength and aloofness that made her seem more intelligent and mysterious than the typical pinup-turned-actress.

Hughes biographer Charles Higham describes Russell's complex persona as, "maternal and warm, but with a sturdy, almost masculine air of self-confidence that belied her almost excessively female body...decent, very religious, tough, nobody's fool, with sultry good looks... humorous, and very ambitious under a laid-back front."

She was not the kind of woman to hang on the arm of just any leading man. It was difficult to find an actor who could stand up to her onscreen without being dwarfed by her full 5' 7" frame and her imposing demeanor. The closest match ever found was Robert Mitchum, who had his own trademarked brand of casual sensuality and lazy detachment. They appeared in two films together: John Farrow's His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao.

According to Lee Server's biography of Mitchum, "Russell was already well acquainted with some of Bob's more depraved antics and she had prepared herself for his 'shocking' side, but that he was so 'intellectual, gentle, caring' came as a most pleasant surprise."

Contrary to her sultry sexpot image, Russell was a born-again Christian who enjoyed the simple pleasures of family and political conservatism. According to Server, Mitchum "would tease her about her God-fearing ways, but he understood she was no Loretta Young, wallowing in piety. He loved to tell the one about the pestering reporter who couldn't believe a girl with her 'image' read the Bible and went to church each Sunday. 'Hey buddy,' she told him, 'Christians have big breasts, too.'"

"She was good-natured, generous, strong-minded when she had to be, a stand-up guy. Mitchum nicknamed her 'Hard John.' They became fast friends."

According to her autobiography, Russell was unable to conceive children as a result of an illegal abortion at age nineteen. To fulfill their yearning for children, Russell and Waterfield adopted a daughter (Tracy) in February 1952, then, in December, a son (Thomas). A longtime advocate for adoption, Russell used her celebrity to campaign on behalf of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment of 1953 (which allows the children of American servicemen born overseas to be placed for adoption in the U.S.). In 1955, she founded WAIF, the World Adoption International Fund, an organization that has helped find homes for more than 51,000 babies. In 1956, Russell and Waterfield adopted a third child, a boy named Robert John, whom they called "Buck."

Russell's last film for Hughes and RKO was John Sturges's Underwater! (1955), which used 3-D footage of Russell in a swimsuit ("as you've never seen her before!") as its primary selling point. She relished her independence and formed her own production company with husband Waterfield: Russ-Field Productions. The company made four films, two of which were Russell vehicles (Gentlemen Marry Brunettes [1955] and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown [1957]), but they were no great departure from her past work and did little to advance her acting career. Having appeared in several musicals, Russell exercised her vocal talents (and her independence) by forming a singing quartet with Baryl Davis, Connie Haines and Della Russell. In various incarnations, Russell recorded several gospel LP's and singles on the Coral Records label. This led to a more secular nightclub act in Vegas, which she performed at the Sands Hotel in October 1957, before embarking on a limited world tour.

In 1968, Russell divorced Waterfield, and one month later married Roger Barrett, who tragically died of heart failure three months later. It was five years before she married a third time: real estate broker John Calvin Peoples (to whom she remained married until his death in 1999).

Throughout her career, the attention publicly paid Russell's body never ceased. Nor did she struggle against it. In the 1970s she proudly became the spokesperson for the Playtex Cross Your Heart Bra ("for us full-figured gals").

In 1985, Russell published her autobiography, entitled Jane Russell: My Paths and Detours, which features on its cover one of the trademark promotional images from The Outlaw: her against a haystack, chest thrust out, head held proudly high.

In 1989 she was given the Living Legacy Award from the Women's International Center, for being such a strong proponent of adoption advocacy groups.

Restless and frustrated with the lack of entertainment opportunities for Tinseltown seniors, 84-year-old Russell formed "The Singing Forties," a musical act that performed bi-weekly at the Radisson Hotel in Santa Maria, California during the Spring of 2006. According to one observer who caught her revue, "the still-statuesque silver-haired woman decked out in a turquoise gown and heavy shell jewelry is unmistakably the brassy, sassy Jane Russell of yesteryear, the buxom bombshell whose pinup image defined the concept of longing for millions of GIs in World War II. In the right light, her imperious gaze still can smolder."

by Bret Wood
ADVERTISEMENT

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Edgar® Award Winners - 11/29
5 Movies

Tonight's films share the distinction of winning the Edgar®, the most prestigious award in the mystery business. Specifically,...more