Unless you have completely avoided the newspapers this morning, gentle reader, you are aware that actress Jane Russell died today at the age of 89. With her passing we have lost yet another of the few remaining icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, from before the collapse of the studio system in the 1960’s (along with everything else, frankly.) My readers may not be aware that despite her sex bomb image, she became an increasingly devout Christian as the years went on: moreover, beginning in the 1950’s she dedicated herself to opposing the legalization of abortion, founded an international organization to aid in the adoption of unwanted children, and even campaigned for Republican political candidates. She was also a particular type of star which we are likely never to see again.
Russell rightly never considered herself to be a great actress. She was adept at comedy and musicals, but due to the influence of her Svengali, tissue-box-slipper-man Howard Hughes, she was often miscast as a kind of dramatic femme fatale due to her legendary curves, beginning with the infamous “The Outlaw”, filmed in 1941 but because of censorship rules not issued in wide release for several years. Today the film seems unremarkable in this regard, particularly given that Russell did not take off her clothes in this or any other of her films, whereas other Hollywood beauties like Hedy Lamarr and Dolores del Rio had done so years earlier. During the course of filming Hughes fired the great director Howard Hawks from “The Outlaw”, much to Russell’s disappointment, and the resulting film was something of a mess – an infamous mess, to be sure, but a mess nonetheless.
More than a decade later however, Hawks directed Russell and Marilyn Monroe in what Russell always maintained was her favorite and best movie, 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. The film is remembered now as the work which catapulted Monroe from budding actress to major film star, because of the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical sequence, which has been copied and parodied by numerous performers ever since – notably by Madonna in her music video for her equally iconic song (and subsequent sobriquet) “Material Girl”. Yet much as the film is unquestionably Monroe’s, Russell’s performance is very much worth watching.
Unexpectedly, there was no cat fighting on the set, despite the fact that these two curvy stars were aiming for public adulation and had equal billing. In fact Russell and Monroe became life-long friends, probably in part due to the fact that apart from her sassy side, Russell seemed to have a very earth-mother quality about her. Russell later recounted that Monroe, whose legendary stage fright led in part to her later downfall, was sometimes so petrified she could not come onto the set. This problem was solved when Russell took it upon herself to go to Monroe’s trailer every morning, take her by the hand, tell Monroe what fun they were going to have that day, and then walk her to the cameras. This kindness and professionalism is not only in keeping with what we know of Russell’s personality, but interestingly it is also part of the “gal pal” characterization which is prevalent in all of her better films.
In her best work, including this picture, Russell plays a type which we do not often see in films anymore. She is “all woman”, as the old film adverts used to say, or a “dame”, to use an equally old parlance. Russell was at her best playing the type of girl to beat you at cards or softball, or drink you under the table, all the while making wisecracks and fast talk, and then feeling bad about it so she would allow you to take her dancing until dawn.
This type of part seemed to exist in a brief window of time, particularly from the late 30’s through the 40’s; examples are Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday”, Betty Garrett in “On The Town”, or Eve Arden in “Mildred Pierce”. We occasionally see shadows of it in period films like “A League of Their Own”, which look back to the women of that era, but really the archetype is no more. And “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” actually foresees the demise of this character.
If we watch the film closely, there are a number of sequences in which Russell and Monroe appear together, where Russell clearly steps back and lets Monroe have center stage. Part of this is, of course, the book of the musical itself. But Russell, as an exemplar of the 1940’s, seems to recognize that Monroe (and types like her) are going to be the pinups of the 1950’s. In the film itself Russell seems to appreciate instinctively that this is both the height and the beginning of the end of her career. By the 1960’s her film career was effectively over, though she continued to pack them in performing her musical cabaret acts in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
Her connection to the pro-life movement is a sad one. Russell got pregnant when she was unmarried and only 19 years old, and underwent an abortion which left her sterile. Afterward she remained unflinchingly pro-life as a result of what happened to her as a teen. “People should never, ever have an abortion,” she said not long ago in an interview with the British press. “Don’t talk to me about it being a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body. The choice is between life and death.”
Russell being Russell, she eventually put her money where her mouth was. Not being able to have children of her own, she went on to adopt several children, but was surprised at not only how difficult it was to legally adopt children, but also at what little support there was for unwed mothers or women seeking to give up their children for adoption. The effort to improve the adoption process and the lives of these women became her life’s work, when she was not entertaining.
For example, Russell founded the World Adoption International Fund in 1952, a group which eventually placed thousands of children in adoptive homes. The next year she testified before Congress on a bill which allowed the foreign-born children of American military personnel to be more easily adopted by American parents. She then went back to testify before Congress in the 1980’s, to pass legislation providing tax breaks to parents who adopt handicapped and special needs children, who might otherwise never get adopted.
If she will forgive me for saying so – and I suspect she would – Russell was quite a gal, and we will not see her like again. She was not one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, true, but in her best work, either with Monroe or in the two musical comedy films she made with Bob Hope, Russell showed she was a great entertainer and probably a lot of fun to hang out with. Here she is in a clip from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”: