The Shape They’re In—Jane Russell
When Jane Russell tore herself away from her happy home grounds recently to go on a rare tour in connection with her latest picture, “The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown,” reporters from coast to coast turned out joyfully, in full force. To eye the famous Russell figure? Sure. But also, for a reason the public doesn’t know: Jane is one gal who can handle a loaded question the way a Yankee outfielder handles a hot ball.
Right off, one. of the newshawks came up with a dilly: “What do you think of the new type of sultry, busty Italian actress, Miss Russell?”
Miss Russell fixed those big brown eyes upon him, and grinned. “New?” she drawled. “Do you remember a picture called “The Outlaw’?”
That stopped him cold. Who but Jane Russell originated the earthy, dark-skinned, disheveled sex bomb who is currently scorching the screen anew in the curvy persons of Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and company? Every girl who has risen to fame via the tape-measure route owes something to Jane, “The firstest with the mostest.”
And nobody is as well qualified as Jane to size up these burgeoning beauties and answer some big questions about them. Are they carrying things too far? Where should they draw the line? Can they stay on top, as she has, and if so, how?
There’s one big difference between Jane and the girls who have followed her. The sex buildup was something she never sought, and often fought. Today, the girls are latching onto it and using it deliberately for all it’s worth—which in terms of cold, hard cash has proved to be considerable. But such antics as Jayne Mansfield’s overexposure at the Sophia Loren party, and Vikki Dougan’s backplay tactics had the most blasé Hollywoodites gasping.
“You can’t blame these girls who are built for it for using this type of buildup,” says Jane. “They know how tough it is to get a break in this business, and it’s one sure way to attract attention. But it must be done with good taste. Any girl who goes beyond the bounds of good taste is making a terrible mistake. It may get her a lot of publicity, but in the long run she’ll lose much more than she gains.”
Jane’s advice is, “Watch it, girls! You’ve got to learn to look out for yourself. Nobody’s going to do it for you.”
To the outsider, this appears to be an easy matter, but Jane knows better. She learned, the hard way, how an innocent, well-meaning girl can be led astray by conniving cameramen.
“I was nineteen when I signed for ‘The Outlaw,’ ” she says. “I didn’t know from nothing about movies. I did exactly what I was told—until the day that bevy of photographers fell on me. They had me picking up paper off the ground and, piéce de resistance, they had me stooping over to pick up two pails of water. Dumb as I was, it finally dawned on me. The pictures they were getting were definitely not lady-like. I went crying to Howard Hawks, the director. He informed me that I was a big girl and I’d better start learning to take care of myself. So I did. But those pictures hit every magazine cover in the country. Occasionally one still pops up in a book.”
So many girls, particularly those who haven’t quite hit the top, are afraid that balking at certain poses will brand them as uncooperative and scare the photographers off altogether. Since Jane wasn’t seeking publicity, she never gave this a thought—she just balked. Whenever a photographer suggested a bad pose, she simply gave him a look and wouldn’t budge. It worked better than any amount of screaming, not only keeping the lensmen in line, but winning their lasting respect: They long ago learned not to ask Jane Russell for any questionable shot. And they’re still coming back for more. Plenty of the current lovelies could take a leaf from Jane’s book on that score.
Jayne Mansfield is one girl who has learned the wisdom of Jane’s words, “Look out for yourself,” the hard way. Of the Sophia Loren party, where she wore a gown that exposed much too much of Jayne, she now says, “I yielded to the advice of another person, and I’ll never do it again. From now on, only I will decide what I should wear and how I should act.”
Even so, Jane learned that there are some things a girl can’t control. The sensational advertising campaign for “The Outlaw” was one instance. It was the advertising—not the picture—that ran into heavy censor trouble. And Jane could do nothing but fume helplessly. When her dance in “The French Line” caused another hot censor controversy, she protested violently, and still insists that it was put into the picture out of context and would have been fine if preceding scenes had been left in. Again, she could do nothing, except put her foot firmly down on a too-sexy advertising campaign—after “The Outlaw” experience, she made sure she’d never be in a position where that could happen again.
Granted that the sexpots can cope with these hurdles, Jane feels there’s a much bigger one they have to face. Inevitably, there comes a day when the public says, “So she’s beautiful. So she’s sexy. So she’s famous. So what?” Sure, a gorgeous girl can keep the male audience flocking to the theaters—but what about the women, who come out of curiosity, to criticize and cluck their tongues? And even for men, beauty and sex appeal will pall.
“It isn’t enough,” says Jane flatly. “You have to prove you have something more to offer.” And right there, the sex buildup that can bring a beauty so far so fast becomes a big handicap. Then, a girl is faced with the fact that she has to develop a lot more than a forty-inch bust. She has to develop two much more rare assets—talent and personality. There is no alternative, except a quick nosedive into obscurity. This is particularly tough for these girls because their quick rise to fame has not given them time for the thorough train- ing an actress needs—and because the public ridicules their efforts.
“I admire Marilyn Monroe very much, for the way she studied acting in spite of all the criticism she got,” says Jane. “That took courage.”
Of herself, Jane says with a grin, “I got to the point where I realized I was nothing more than a label on a can of tomatoes.”
The ensuing ups and downs in her career she can now recount with wry humor. In spite of—or perhaps because of her unique history, she can look at her career with more objectivity than most stars, and even seems to relish the devastating reviews on her flops.
“After ‘The Outlaw’ I was loaned out,” says Jane. “After three directors (and three separate techniques) the picture was finished—in every sense of the word. At one time, one director had me crying into a rose in the garden, carrying it to bed with me and kissing it passionately as I lay on my lonely pillow. Brother! A Boston critic wrote: ‘If the young widow had died when the husband did, the picture need never have been made.’ He was so right.
“After ‘Paleface’ with Bob Hope,” she continued happily, “I had a, to me, very good review. The part I played was dry and caustic so I did a female version of my old man (Robert Waterfield). The review said, ‘This girl has one expression and uses it all the way through the picture—stone face.’ As that’s the way I planned it, I thought it very good. Then I did a western type very pale ‘Paleface’ with Scott Brady. No comment. Then ‘It’s Only Money’ with Frank Sinatra. I played an icky-goo ingenue, which I now call the Mibbs type role. Nothing. Then dear old Robert Hope ask me back for ‘Son of Paleface.’ They even let me sing and dance in that and I had a characterization!”
After that, unfortunately, RKO decided that Russell and Mitchum were a hot romantic team.
How could Jane, or any star in her position, survive? The consensus is that showed through the slipshod scripts and sickly ingenue roles. A Jane who had found a firm place in the hearts of the public—and at the box office.
For the benefit of Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, Mamie Van Doren, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and their ilk, there’s a pertinent point in this: Being extra-glamorous, they may be called upon to “carry” inferior pictures, as Jane was. But glamour alone can’t do it. Talent and personality can.
And brains. And just plain spunk. Jane had to prove, many a time, that she had a large portion of both.
During the filming of “Underwater,” Harry Tatelman, the producer, recognized talent and instincts. He brought her into story conferences and all phases of the picture. “It was the smart thing to do,” Harry recalled. “She knew what she could do. She could sense a phony bit of dialogue a mile off and will wait for a good script.”
I’m a good waiter,” Jane says thoughtfully, “but I don’t like it. You could say I’ve been lucky. I like to think it’s more than luck to find enough good pictures to keep going. The good ones, including ‘Fuzzy Pink Nightgown,’ I’ve been asked for. No one went and knocked on doors for me. Norman Taurog on this last picture seemed to think I had a good comedy talent.”
“Talent!” exclaimed director Taurog when queried, “The girl has a great flair for comedy. She has a fine talent. At first I thought she was aloof, but after a few days, I discovered, much to my amazement, that Jane was shy. When she warms up she’s wonderful. Her depth is wonderful, as an actress and a woman. Now that I know her as well as I do, I’d love to work with her again. With the right script she could be out of this world. She’s got a whole new career ahead of her. When they hung that sex tag on her, she started with two strikes. But she’s overcome that and more. Do I sound excited? I am. I’d like to see Jane do the old Eve Arden part in ‘Stage Door.’ She’d do a beautiful job. Jane is really something special.”
Yet, even if a sex bomb has what it takes inside to hang onto her fame, even if she has the wonderful satisfaction that is Jane’s in knowing that she has grown tremendously as a person and as an actress and still has great career prospects ahead, “It won’t make her happy,” says Jane. Happiness, Jane knows, doesn’t lie in a career—it begins at home, with your family and your friends. So many ambitious young girls, given a chance at the quick sex buildup, climb on the bandwagon, and sacrifice family relationships—even at the price of divorce—for the glamour, the fame and the money.
“Don’t they realize,” Jane explodes, “that when they get to the top, they’ll have nothing?”
She knows so well the pressures they are under—the demands to go here, go there, do this, do that, that can so easily come between them and the more important things in life. And her heart aches for them. She was lucky, she feels, in having such strong family ties with her mother and four brothers at the beginning.
“You couldn’t lose her if you tried,” cries Billie Paul, friend of nineteen years duration, “when Jane decides to be your friend—you got a friend. She descends, you know. She swoops in, fills the coffee pot, dumps kids and hot dogs in the back yard, sits, and talks. And she always has a purpose. If she decides you’re in need of advice—she gives it—and you take it. Actually, it’s good advice and given with love, its just that the Queen knows no other way than sweep in and utter a proclamation. Her attitudes are so simple, basic and sound, they’re sometimes frustrating when you’re talking yourself into something else. The foundation of Jane’s advice is good old-time religion, but her vernacular takes the curse off it. I said simple. It’s true. Jane is profound because she strips everything to basics.”
Old Friend Margaret Jones produced an indulgent smile one usually reserves for favorite grandchildren. “You want to talk about Miss Fix It? Whether you want it fixed or not she’ll fix it. Sticks her big nose in and makes you love it. I don’t see her as much as I used to, but it makes no difference. When she walks in, it’s like she was here yesterday and ‘where’s the coffee?’ is the first communication. Pat, Alberta, Jane and I have important things in common. We started our bull sessions when we were seventeen and we still have them. You might say we pool our ignorance. We all have families, and problems are pretty universal with kids. You might say it’s group therapy without the aid of an analyst. Of course, we all shriek at each other, but not in anger. We can stand toe to toe and scream it out and go home satisfied. I think home, family and friends are the most important things in Jane’s life. She has a crazy dream she takes out and brushes off occasionally. Everybody should live on ranches, miles from anyone else, grow their food, make clay things and weave their rugs. Not only does she want to, better we should all do it. This brings on the arguments.
“Jane was just as delightfully crazy in high school as she is now,” Margaret continued. “I remember the time we were to do a one-act play for the Girls Athletic Association Mother and Daughter Dinner. It had five parts so we had to invite a fifth girl in. She was a nice girl only square. She expected to rehearse. As I was the director, we would gather after school at one house or another and have bull sessions ranging from boys, sex to religion. The girl went wild trying to get us to rehearse. The night of the play all four of us ad-libbed our way beautifully through the play and the poor girl, who knew all her lines, was blown sky high.
“This habit of Jane’s—never enough time—has always been with her. Now her excuses are more legitimate. That striding with her head down is a horrible habit which she blames on being Gemini and I blame on laziness. She still has the habit of asking me to read a three hundred page book and to digest it so I can give her the meat of it—in thirty seconds, of course.
“Seriously,” Margaret concluded, “I think Jane would give her right arm for any of us . . . and we would for Jane.”
Such words from her friends, her home, three children and Robert; WAIF-ISS (her organization to put orphans in homes all over the world); Mother Russell and Jane’s chapel in the valley; entertaining for charity or troops—these mean more to Jane than all the glamour.
If the girls who are following in her famous footsteps can find this kind of happiness, they’re lucky.
What are their chances? That, of course, is up to them. It depends on the inner fibre of their characters, something developed, in Jane’s case, she feels, from her family background, in others, from other sources. Marilyn Monroe, although she has a tendency to depend too much on others and may be misguided by it, has a sound sense of values.
“And I think that is true of Sophia Loren,” says Jane. “Because she is a girl who has had so many hard knocks in her life, she has depth and feeling and warmth that will help her come through the big buildup she is getting with flying colors.”
It’s heartening to know that, when it comes right down to cases, the dear old public, supposedly so gullible to the flashy type of sex buildup, really rejects it, in the long run, where it is the genuine qualities of talent and character that count, as proven by Jane Russell’s record of top stardom for over a decade.
It was producer Harry Tatelman who summed it up best: “Jane’s the kind of a dame any man would like to have as a woman—on a permanent basis. She sustains interest and gives a real sense of permanency. She has a big heart and a big mind and those values will stand out anywhere.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1957