Jane Russell, a stunning beauty whose eye-popping curves made her the screen siren of choice for a generation of American troops at war, died on Monday at the age of 89.
The Gentlemen Prefer Blondes star was discovered by chance when producer Howard Hughes spotted her working as a receptionist at his dentist’s office, just as he was seeking a heroine for his new film, The Outlaw.
The 1943 movie launched Russell’s career and her reputation as a sex symbol, as its sensuous poster depicted significantly more of her ample assets than was considered seemly at the time.
Her seemingly never-ending legs and large bosom dominated the screen, and propelled Russell into stardom with an aura of scandal.
Censors expressed concern about the cleavage on display in the movie, forcing Hughes to cut feet of film. The film didn’t get a full release until 1946, when it was a box office smash.
“There was absolutely nothing wrong with the picture,” Russell later told Christianity Today in an interview that emphasised her religious faith. “It was an amazing time. But all it was about was some cleavage!”
Russell soon became an iconic sex symbol for young American soldiers deployed abroad during World War II, who pinned up sultry pictures of the actress in their barracks.
Among the most famous was the near-scandalous poster for Outlaw, which featured Russell reclining on a haystack with her skirt hitched up near her hips, her shirt open past her breastbone and a revolver in her hand.
Cementing her Hollywood status was the 1953 hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which she shared the screen with Marilyn Monroe.
Russell played the idealistic but responsible brunette to Monroe’s flighty and naïve blonde, and the movie created a lasting friendship between the two actresses, even though Russell earned 10 times as much as Monroe.
After an impressive roster of movie appearances, including the 1955 sequel Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Russell’s film career fizzled in the 1960s.
In the decade that followed, she abandoned the movies for the small screen, appearing in television commercials for bras and in music hall shows in Las Vegas and New York.
Film critic Leonard Maltin wrote on his website that Russell had tried hard to lose the sex-symbol image.
Russell “was much more interesting than she was ever allowed to be onscreen. She embraced religion years ago but never tried to force it on people she met… She was genial and good-humoured,” he wrote.
Kim Davis, the executive director of a California child advocacy group with which the star had been associated, said Russell had died “peacefully at home” in the presence of her children, according to her daughter-in-law.
Born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Minnesota, she was the eldest of her parents’ five children, and their only daughter.
The family later moved to Burbank, California, and her father, a former soldier, died at 46, before Russell’s career took off.
She was no stranger to acting when Hughes discovered her. Her mother belonged to a travelling actors’ troupe, and Russell studied piano and theatre, including with famous Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaia. She had also modelled.
Married three times, Russell went through one divorce and was widowed twice. In famously liberal Hollywood, and despite her sex symbol image, she was a rare defender of Christian and Republican values.
Russell described herself as vigorously pro-life, after having undergone a botched abortion at 18 that left her unable to have children. She and her first husband, American footballer Bob Waterfield, adopted three children.
In the 1950s, she founded the World Adoption International Fund to help match families with children at a time when adopting foreign children was uncommon in the United States.
“I was born to be married. A family life helps everything, and also my belief in Jesus,” she told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper in a 2007 interview.
She jokingly told Christianity Today in 2009 that she could be described as “a mean-spirited right-wing conservative Christian bigot.”
“I’m not bigoted about race at all. I am bigoted about those idiots that are trying to take the Ten Commandments off the wall (in courtrooms), the Bible out of school and prayer even out of football games.”Filed under: Arts & Entertainment