Handle With Care
Is it true what they say about Russell? Is she really that sultry, sullen sexpot of a woman whose love scenes would melt a lead-lined camera? Or is Jane in the flesh, as more recent stories ha ve suggested, a simple, over-pious girl who’d bore the average man with her namby-pamby ways? Religion has so mellowed her, say the latest stories, that if you were a picture on the wall of her dressing room on the set of RKO’s “The French Line,” you’d never hear anything but Jane spreading sweetness and light in soft, gentle tones. Or, if she weren’t converting someone, you’d see her seated, eyes closed, in saintly meditation.
This is Jane Russell?
Uh, uh! In the first place, she hasn’t just “got religion”; she has been a practising Christian all her life. What’s more, she spreads her sweetness and light in the manner of a volcano erupting. And, finally, you’d never find yourself gracing Miss RusselI’s wall. That dressing room is her home on the RKO lot, and she’s pretty particular about the pictures that are in it. The only ones in evidence are handsomely mounted portraits of her adopted daughter, Tracy, and of little Tommy Kavanagh.
You’d seldom see her seated anywhere; she has too many projects going. She’ll help you build a house, paint walls, cover chairs—but be prepared for the fact that you’ll have very little to do with it. Jane will make the decisions. She’s too impatient to wait around while you make up your mind.
Jane’s impatience is notoriously her worst fault. Anyone with the poor judgment to stand near the door of the studio commissary at noon can count on being knocked off his props by Miss Russell, who rips through the dining room like an express train with no emergency stops. Well, on an exceptionally good day she might help the guy to his feet—but only provided he didn’t attempt to use the incident as a springboard to conversation. By Miss Russell’s definition, the commissary is a place to eat. not talk.
The people who are closest to Jane don’t care much for the sweetness-and-light routine, chiefly because the tough Jane Russell legend is more fun. According to the legend, she takes her role of big movie star very seriously indeed. She’s unpredictable, bossy, temperamental, hard to get along with. You’d be hard put to find anyone on the RKO lot who doesn’t like her, but they all contribute to the legend so loyally that separating fact from fiction is difficult.
“That dame!” says the still photographer with a grimace when you mention her name. Then, in the next breath, he says with obvious pride and devotion, “I’ve been shooting Jane for ten years, and she’s never given me a minute’s trouble.”
Jane, herself, doesn’t make it any easier. If her beauty is remarked upon, she’s honestly bored. If she’s complimented on a job of acting, she tabs the speaker as a phony. If the highly sexy build-up on which her career was launched is mentioned, she spits like a cat. She likes the stories written about her that say she’s a genuine, no-nonsense-about-her type person—and yet, she contributes as much as anyone else to the legend that she’s mean as a snake and harder to handle. She is gratified by her reputation as an oddball.
For instance, she makes a great show of being uncooperative. When a writer asks for an interview, she is likely to reply, “Nyahhh. Make your story up—I don’t want to read it, anyhow.”
To which a callous member of the studio publicity department is sure to retort, “No, not much! She’ll only ask me for it six times before you can get it written!” This passes for affection. Both know perfectly well that Jane is going to do the interview and is going to read the resulting story with considerable care.
“They hate me good,” she says of her crew, which is the biggest joke on the lot. They,” meaning wardrobe-mistress Mary Tate, hairdresser Steffie Garland, stand-in Carmen Nesbitt, and make-up artist “Shotgun” Britton, have probably the best deal in Hollywood through the efforts of Miss Russell. When she signed her own contract, it was with the stipulation that every member of her crew also be given contracts. This is most unusual— but when Jane Russell works, she wants these people and no others around. And this is true wherever she works; any other studio that gets her on loan-out from RKO buys the entire package.
To add fuel to the crew’s “hate” for her, Miss Russell does most of their work. She still isn’t used to being waited on hand and foot, and she’ll never learn to like it. Jane has always applied her own make-up; ‘Shotgun’s” function is to provide a sufficient number of every item required so that she can’t possibly lose them all before the job is done. If Steffie says she’ll come in early to wash the Russell tresses, Jane arrives the following morning with her hair already shampooed and in need of setting only. She operates this way, not only because she’s a very independent girl, which she is, but because she finds it easier to do things for herself.
“I’m planning to retire,” Steffie said recently. “But, in a way, I hate to. When I’m gone she’ll realize that I haven’t been doing a single thing for her all this time.”
The Russell legend features, among other things, a terrible temper, and Mr. “Shotgun” Britton carries the ball on that. One of his favorite sports is to precede Jane on the set and warn everybody concerned that she is in a snit. “Just stay clear of her today,” he cautions. “She’s really feeling mean!”
It is a joke assured of success. Miss Russell is notably uncommunicative in the morning, her mind on drapes she wants to make or a decorating problem, and she is naturally sullen of expression. People are used to this, but even so, when “Shotgun” gives the alarm, logic gives way to jitters. By the time they see Jane stride in, silent and unsmiling, everybody else on the set is walking on eggs. In fact, the only person on the entire lot unaware that her mood is allegedly lacking in tranquility is Jane; her thoughts have progressed to an antique shop she means to visit or a friend in need whom she wants to help, and the sound of knocking knees doesn’t even penetrate.
Sometimes, by mid-afternoon, she becomes aware of the pall that hangs over the set, but she has long since given up hope of doing anything about “Shotgun’s” mischief. If she should suddenly begin to smile and exude charm at a company expecting an explosion, it would make them all more nervous than ever. So Jane does nothing—and three days later, when she flips her lid over some real irritation, they nod wisely at one another and say, “You see? That ‘Shotgun’ really knows her!” Miss Russell is known by many names on her lot—the Queen, Hard John (Bob Mitchum’s contribution), the Madam—but she or her, spoken in a kind of italics, never means anyone else.
“That ‘Shotgun’ really fixed things fine at Fox,” Jane said a few weeks ago. “Going over there and telling them what a wild one I am I walked on the set of ‘Blondes’ and cleared my throat, and you should have seen them scatter!”
She leaped to her feet, demonstrating the agitation she had caused, and Steffie Garland said sharply, “Sit down.”
Miss Russell glared at her hairdresser. “Steffie, I’m trying to tell a story!”
“And I’m trying to get your hair ready for the next scene,” Steffie answered with equal power. “So sit down and be still!”
“What’s all the commotion?” bellowed a new voice, and “Shotgun” Britton appeared, stomping his feet and pounding the door frame with his fist. If the Madam wanted noise, he was happy to oblige.
“ ‘Shotgun,’ get out of here!” Jane we now getting maximum performance out her vocal cords. “When I want you around you’ll know it!”
“Aw right, aw right,” her matched he decibel for decibel, “I’m goin’!” And did, slamming the door behind him.
Know what they were doing? Having fun. Playing at the legend that Jane Russell is the most temperamental actress in Hollywood.
“Why’s everybody always talking about my shouting?” Jane asks. “I come from long line of shouters. I have four brother and they all shout. My father did it, so did both my grandfathers. My grandfather on my mother’s side was just like the kind of character Lionel Barrymore always plays—you know, a swell sense of humor but always hiding it by shouting at people in an irritable way. I loved that old guy.
She’s a study in contradictions, the Russell dame, even apart from the legend. On of the things she doesn’t like to read about herself is that she’s shy—which she is. Let it also be known that she considers herself quite an analyst of human nature; she’s curious as a squirrel about any stranger and much too shy to examine him openly.
By her own admission Jane has been walking all over people since childhood she has no respect whatsoever for anyone who is afraid to stand up to her. Professionally, that is. At home, Robert Waterfield rules the roost, as he has since they were married ten years ago. The person who can’t wait to tell you who’s boss is Jane Russell—her husband’s word is the law, and she wants everyone to know it. The big movie star who has become a legend of sound and fury is the world‘s most docile wife, the world’s most devoted mother when she returns to the house high on a hill.
She has been built up as a synonym for sexiness, as the female in essence—but she shows affection not by a kiss but by a solid punch that would rattle the bones of a 200-pounder.
Her thinking, her way of expressing herself is too direct and forthright to be feminine-and yet the motif of her home which is another form of self-expression, is Oriental, hence exotic and elaborate. In a similar vein, Jane habitually wears shorts or slacks while knocking around her San Fernando Valley home or the studio, but her gowns are about the most sophisticated in town and she’s real gone on spectacular earrings, the bigger the better.
She spends most of her time worrying over and doing things for other people, but a suggestion that she wants to mother the whole world bowled her over. ‘‘Who, me?” she asked in astonishment. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard!”
As a youngster, Jane controlled her four unruly younger brothers by the simple measure of clobbering them but she needed only one lesson to break the habit when they realized that they had outstripped her physically. Now she can say “Please” very prettily to the guy who’s bigger than she is.
Is she as sullen as she looks? Well, she only has one handsome football hero of a husband, only two beautiful children, only one castle on top of her personal hill. She only gets one new Cadillac a year, only earns enough money to match pennies with the head man of Fort Knox. Only everybody on the RKO lot is devoted to her in the casual, sarcastic way she has taught them, and she only has a host of friends outside the movie industry. If you were Miss Jane Russell, would yo w be sullen?
As for the temperament, it’s all bluff— and the day she knows that you know it is the day you become friends with Jane Russell. Her own opinion is that it’s ridiculous for people to quake in their boots at her approach, and she’s absolutely right.
They love to tell the story, on the RKO lot, of the writer who got the full legendary treatment. He knew Miss Russell only by reputation, he said, and he wanted to do a story on what she was really like.
Her crew greeted this statement with derision, but the writer assured them all that he wouldn’t water the story down, whereupon they led him into the star’s dressing room and gleefully, outrageously maligned their heroine. In the beginning they told him facts, gave examples of her thoughtfulness and generosity—but then the Madam put in an appearance.
Fixing the group with a fishy eye, she said, “I guess this was the only place you could find to do your gabbing!”
Nobody was impressed except the writer, who was ready to take to his heels. The crew simply fell into the pattern set by her introductory crack. While Jane sat silently applying make-up, they continued to brief the man with the notebook—but they didn’t have a single kind word to say for the boss. Instead, they told him how she was always hours late for appointments, how she was so hopelessly irresponsible that she had actually lost three wedding rings.
Midway through the recital Jane glanced at the writer via her mirror. “Think you can make a story out of all this silly palaver?” she asked.
By now he had gotten the idea that they were only playing, albeit a little rough; he had seen the faint smile lurking in the corners of Jane’s mouth. “I’m going to cut you up into quivering little bits,” he said.
The crew took over again then, relating further faults in great detail, and Jane said nothing until she had completed her make-up job. Then she suddenly slammed a comb down on the dressing table and “oared, “I’m surrounded by idiots!”
On her way out of the dressing room she paused before the writer. From where he sat, she looked a mile tall. “Say,” she asked, “what was that you said you were going to cut me up into?”
There was a silence, during which the writer’s entire life passed before him. “Quivering little bits?” he offered.
Jane gave him a brilliant, beautiful smile. “Yeah,” she said. “That was it.”
As he prepared to leave the set of “The French Line,” Jane was taking her lithe, catlike strides toward the stairs on which she would do her next scene with Gilbert Roland. Somebody spotted beloved character-actor Arthur Hunnicutt on the other side of the set and yelled, “Hey, Arthur, come over here a minute!”
He nodded amiably and was picking his way over equipment when Miss Russell wheeled and snapped her fingers at him. ‘Stay where you are,” she ordered. Hunnicutt froze in his tracks, and over her shoulder Jane winked broadly at the writer. “You see?” her expression said. “Temperament!”
All in good time Arthur joined the little group of watchers. He didn’t say anything, though, until Jane was within earshot. Then he grumbled loudly, “I don’t know where she gets off! Way she orders people around, you’d think that she was the star of this picture and I was the one who got fourth billing!”
Out of the corner of his eye he looked at Jane Russell, who was smiling broadly. They were having a ball.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JANUARY 1954