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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