Jane Russell dies at 89; screen siren had sensational debut in ‘The Outlaw’


Jane Russell, the dark-haired siren whose sensational debut in the 1943 film “The Outlaw” inspired producer Howard Hughes to challenge the power and strict morality of Hollywood’s production code, died Monday at her home in Santa Maria, Calif. She was 89.

Jane Russell: In Section A on March 1, Jane Russell’s obituary and an accompanying caption said Russell and Marilyn Monroe performed “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” together in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” In fact, Russell and Monroe each performed the song separately in the film. —

Russell, who would later turn her sexy image to comic effect in films with Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and other major stars, had respiratory problems and died after a short illness, her family said.

Russell’s provocative performance in “The Outlaw” — and the studio publicity shots posing her in a low-cut blouse while reclined on a stack of hay bales — marked a turning point in moviedom sexuality. She became a bona fide star and a favorite pinup girl of soldiers during World War II. Troops in Korea named two embattled hills in her honor.

She went on to appear in 18 more films in the 1940s and ‘50s and, though only a few were memorable, she remains a favorite from the era for her wry portrayals of sex goddesses who seem amused by their own effect.

“Such droll eroticism is rare in Hollywood, and we are lucky that she was allowed to decorate so many adventure movies,” film historian and critic David Thomson wrote of Russell, whom he called “physically glorious.”

Among Russell’s better films are “The Paleface,” in which she plays the spirited Calamity Jane opposite Hope’s feckless dentist in a spoof of “The Virginian”; and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a musical in which she is brunet gal pal Dorothy to Marilyn Monroe’s gold-digging Lorelei Lee. In the latter, the two stars perform a razzle-dazzle production number of the Jule Styne-Leo Robin hit song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Russell appeared in a few films in the 1960s and ended her movie career in 1970 playing Alabama Tigress in “Darker Than Amber,” a film version of John D. McDonald’s mystery novel. She replaced Elaine Stritch in “Company” on Broadway for several months in 1971, but her career after that was mostly limited to nightclub, stage or other live appearances.

To later generations, Russell — who once famously had a brassiere designed for her by Hughes — was known as the “bra lady” for her role as a spokeswoman for Playtex bras for “full-figured women.”

Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and moved to Southern California with her family as an infant. After graduating from Van Nuys High School, she was working as a part-time model and receptionist when her photo was noticed by a casting agent working for Hughes. The mogul was conducting a nationwide search for a beauty with ample breasts for the part of Rio McDonald, who falls for Billy the Kid in “The Outlaw.”

One audition got Russell the part.

Hughes, who took over direction of the film from Howard Hawks, made it his personal business to make the most of his discovery’s assets. He even had his engineers design a special “cantilever” bra with no noticeable seams that would expose more of her breasts than conventional undergarments. Russell said she found his contraption “ridiculous” and wore her own bra.

“He could design planes, but a Mr. Playtex he wasn’t,” Russell wrote in her 1985 autobiography, “Jane Russell: My Past and My Detours.”

On seeing the results of Hughes’ efforts in 1941, Joe Breen, who enforced the production code, was appalled, saying he had “never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio,” which were “shockingly emphasized and, in almost every instance, are very substantially uncovered.”

He ordered Hughes to delete dozens of shots of Russell’s bosom. Hughes not only refused but played up the resulting controversy to publicize the film. He issued Russell-in-the-haystack posters with such lines as “How Would You Like to Tussle With Russell?” and “Mean! Moody! Magnificent!” In one publicity stunt, a skywriter wrote “The Outlaw” in the sky and then carefully drew two circles with a dot in the center of each.

Hughes also dreamed up the line: “What are the two reasons for Jane Russell’s rise to stardom?” (Comedian Hope later used a variation, introducing the actress as “the two and only Jane Russell.”)

The film was released briefly in 1943, then withdrawn while Hughes considered revisions and maximized the publicity. It was released more widely in 1946 without code approval. The film was “not a bore,” a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote, assuring readers that while Russell’s character was incidental to the story line, “the exploitation of [her] physical attractions is as insistent as advertised.”

Drawn by the film’s notoriety, moviegoers flocked to see it. It had made millions of dollars by the time censors approved it in 1949. As James R. Petersen wrote in Playboy magazine in 1997, “Hughes showed that a film could ignore the code and make a profit.” Other challenges to the code followed —including, notably, director Otto Preminger’s “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “The Moon Is Blue” in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, the code was replaced by the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings system, which permitted the release of explicitly sexual or violent movies as long as audiences were restricted on the basis of age.

Hughes’ famed battle with the code was portrayed in “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biographical film that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. In the film, Hughes appears before the enforcer of the production code armed with close-up pictures of Russell’s and other prominent bosoms of the day.

Russell cooperated in Hughes’ publicity campaign, but drew the line at blatantly revealing pictures.

Deeply religious throughout her life, she looked back with regret at the unrelenting attention devoted to her bounteous figure, calling it “Hollywood gook.”

Although she grew to despise the provocative pictures that had made her a star at 19, she succumbed to her publisher’s pressure to use one of the sultriest on the cover of her autobiography.

In her personal life, counter to her rather rowdy public image, Russell was a political conservative and a born-again Christian years before the phrase became popular. She once promoted the use of the Bible in public schools.

She and her first husband — Van Nuys High School sweetheart Bob Waterfield who went on to become a football star for UCLA and the Cleveland (later Los Angeles) Rams — were married for 23 years until they divorced in 1967. They adopted three children — Tracy, Thomas and Robert (Buck) — who survive her, along with six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Russell recounted in her autobiography that before her marriage to Waterfield she had had a botched abortion, which she thought might have affected her ability to have children. The couple’s difficulties in adopting inspired her to form the World Adopting International Fund, which helped place tens of thousands of children with adoptive families. The organization closed in 1998.

After she and Waterfield divorced, Russell married actor Roger Barrett, who died of a heart attack three months after their 1968 wedding. Her marriage in 1974 to John Calvin Peoples, a real estate businessman, lasted until his death in 1999.

After her third husband’s death, Russell moved from their Montecito estate to Santa Maria, home to her youngest son and his family. By 2006, macular degeneration had begun claiming her sight.

At 84, silver-haired and still statuesque, she regularly performed in a 1940s-style revue that she staged with friends on a tiny stage at the local Radisson Hotel, far from Las Vegas, where she made her singing debut in 1957.

In summing up her film career, Russell wrote in her autobiography that she never got to make the kinds of movies she would have liked to.

“Except for comedy, I went nowhere in the acting department,” she said. “I was definitely a victim of Hollywood typecasting.”

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. March 12 at Pacific Christian Church 3435 Santa Maria Way, Santa Maria.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.