RIP jane russell

Just recently I was remarking to a friend that there are two films that drive grad students in my program crazy, as they get taught (and so then we ourselves have to teach them) every semester. The two films? Citizen Kane and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

And honestly, I can only take so much Kane. But Gentlemen? Somehow, I never mind rewatching it—in fact, I even look forward to its expected showing every semester.  It is Marilyn Monroe’s finest hour, and an excellent example of the glories of Technicolor, to say nothing of the way it so delightfully illustrates and subverts—often simultaneously—issues of the male gaze, female social roles, sexuality, and class, without losing for a moment its sense of raucous fun. But the main reason I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

Why, Jane Russell, of course.

As Dorothy Shaw, Russell is one of those rarest of entities in 1950’s Hollywood cinema—a beautiful woman brashly confident about her sexuality, who always makes quite clear that she has little use for Lorelei’s diamonds and would much prefer “a beautiful hunk o’ man.” And yet, despite the normally unforgiving judgment of the Production Code which insisted that even the slightest whiff of sexual immorality be punished tenfold (usually involving some kind of creative combination of searing heartbreak and a spectacular death scenes), Dorothy somehow manages to ends up with her selected man at the alter right in time for a happy ending.

[I love her breathy version of “Bye Bye Baby,” and listen to it regularly]

Of course, the film’s now-infamous musical sequence “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?,” with Russell jauntily trapezing through the barely-clad bodies of the Olympic team in a black jumpsuit and matching heels, is more than enough to ensure her an immortality of a certain type…

But just as much as her role in Gentlemen, Russell will be remembered for the manner that her career was launched, namely the barely-there décolleté that so fixated Howard Hughes during the making of The Outlaw, sparking a public furor that marked one of the first, legitimate blows to the Production Code when the film was eventually released in 1946 (too bad all of the hullabaloo still resulted in a rather dull film).  But the films that I have special affection for the two films that Russell made at the beginning of the 1950’s paired with Robert Mitchum: His Kind of Woman (Farrow, USA, 1951), and to a slightly lesser extent, Macao (von Sternberg, USA, 1952). Ludicrous but atmospheric, neither of the films are particularly good, but Russell always seemed game for each and every absurd plot development that’s thrown her way, and her sly vivacity pairs nicely with Mitchum’s perpetual sleepy-eyed bemusement.

[It’s almost worth watching His Kind of Woman solely for a stunning, extended tracking shot through a hotel bar that ends, if my memory serves correctly, with Mitchum unexpectedly arriving at Russell’s character. Not that that is the film’s only charm—far from it.]

[Being a von Sternberg film (with more than a bit of uncredited help from that other poet of cinema, Nick Ray), Macao is almost an inevitably beautiful film, even if the story doesn’t quite live up to it.]

Back when I collected autographs, I sent away a photograph to Ms. Russell, of which she graciously returned.  It has always been one of my favorites of the entire collection.

RIP, Jane Russell.

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16 thoughts on “RIP jane russell

  1. A swell salute to Jane Russell! She was a good sport and in ‘Blondes’ she has a rare chance to show off her skill as a
    comedienne w perfect timing and nuance. I’ve seen ‘Macao,’ but never ‘His Kind/Woman.’ Now there’s rental. Mitchum & Russell are an inspired duo. Hawks buffs of a certain age (today nearing death) are flummoxed by ‘Blondes.’ Research shows that Andrew Sarris in 1962 wrote that MM & Russell were presented as an “inhuman extension of human grossness.” (Whaaat?) And Russell’s “number w an array of sexless musclemen is Hawk’s “comment on male narcissism and homosexuality.” (Calling Dr Freud…) Hawks was a provocateur: he knew exactly what he was doing and got away with it. (The Sarris quotes are from a Hawks piece in Films & Filming, July and August, 1962, and also in a Hawks anthology edited x Joseph McBride, ‘Focus on Howard Hawks’).
    My Time Out Film Guild sums up ‘Blondes’ as “smashing,” which it is. Nuts to Carol Channing who played the MM role on Broadway.

    An unsung hero of the feature is the genuis choreographer Jack Cole who influenced Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, which both admitted. Cole mentored Gwen Verdon and Buzz Miller, among others.
    His dances are frankly sexy, impudent with a bow to the Hindu beat and modern jazz. Cole gave us Rita Hayworth peeling off her gloves in ‘Gilda’ (“Put the Blame on Mame”) and, after ‘Blondes,’ MM insisted that he do her numbers in other pix. His Bwy shows include ‘Kismet,’ ‘Man of LaMancha,’ ‘Funny Thing Happened..’
    Anyway: all the dance work in ‘Blondes’ is brilliant. And the movie looks better w each passing year.

    As for Jane Russell, your column reminds us that she’s remembered for more than two reasons.

    1. I’ll be teaching Gentlemen in a few weeks, so I really need to look up some of those early reviews–especially since I taught Sarris a few weeks ago. That does make me curious about more contemporaneous reviews of the film, and whether the qualities that I (and I think many others) so appreciate and love now are the ones that would have made it distasteful back in the 50’s especially. But you’re absolutely right, the film just keeps getting better and better as time goes on.

      You’re dead on about Cole. If I was forced to pick a favorite individual sequence in all of cinema, the Gilda striptease would definitely be in the running. Without a trace of hyperbole, I’d say it’s the single sexiest thing ever captured on celluloid.

      I’m not going to say that His Kind of Woman is some kind of hidden treasure or anything, but definitely check it out if it ever crosses your path.

  2. My kicker line above is Obstructed! So I repeat, your nifty col reminds us that Jane Russell is remembered for more than two reasons.

  3. NF “Woman” due tamara. Rottentomatoes mixes original w new reviews of ‘Blondes.’ It came out 60 yrs ago, the hissyfits were 50 years ago…one can chart the sexual-cultch evolution within US by the reviews. We’ve kum a long way but not far enough. Puritanism has fuked America. I’m reading Stendhal on ‘Love,’ and ya know wot?? In early 1800s he slaps US for being Bible-brow-beat. OMG…. I shivered….THAT was over 200 yrs ago.

  4. One can chart the sexual-cultch evolution within US by the reviews. We’ve kum a long way but not far enough. Puritanism has fuked America. I’m reading Stendhal on ‘Love,’ and ya know wot?? In early 1800s he slaps US for being Bible-brow-beat. OMG…. I shivered….THAT was over 200 yrs ago.

  5. “Love’ Stendhal, Penguin Classics. Bible remark, p. 164. He asks: ‘Is the Bible enough to have caused so much unhappiness?’, among Americans. Answer: Yes!

  6. Watched ‘His Kind..’ It opens with very Film Noir scenes and then drifts, back & forth, into sendup screwball. Some good lines. Mitch sez, ‘Do you sleep with your eyes open or shut.’ And near the end when Jane sez she has ‘something to say,’ he overlaps, ‘I’ll say one thing for you — you never talk about yourself.’ I hooted. It’s like 2 diff movies were being shot on the back lot. No matter how hard Mitch gets pummeled x thugs, he’s still ready to sprint. I call it Noir Ga-Ga. But why not…Jane, as you note, is always game. Good ole RKO.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it! Most people say that Price is the highlight of the film, but I personally found him rather tiresome. And yes you’re absolutely right–I remember thinking during those shooting scenes “is this still the same film?” It was such a jarring change of tone/pace.

      And isn’t the last third of the film bizarre? It’s already so blatantly S&M, and Mitchum has his shirt off for most of it… I’ve often used the film as an example of a film that kind of complicates Mulvey’s assertion that all classic Hollywood films force a[n implicitly heterosexual] male gaze.

  7. Price is tiresome. His Shakespeare spouting seems like a ‘steal’ from ‘My Darling Clementine.’ (The actor who spouts there). I read or heard somewhere (extended dvd?) that the pic had reshoots and was, at times, improv’d on the set, which is easy to believe. I was startled by the s/m “lashing” of Mitch — it’s so over-top.Until mid60s there are very few shirtless actors onscreen and then only for seconds. This “noir ga-ga” is indeed a curio. Not the least of which is Mitch ironing his money! I can’t think of any actor who could handle (deadpan) same scene today–.

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