Jane Russell dies at 89- screen siren had sensational debut in 'The Outlaw'
Her provocative performance in the 1943 Howard Hughes film — and the publicity shots posing her in a low-cut blouse while reclined on a stack of hay bales — marked a turning point in moviedom sexuality. She became a bona fide star and a favorite pinup girl of soldiers during World War II.Jane Russell, the dark-haired siren whose sensational debut in the 1943 film "The Outlaw" inspired producer Howard Hughes to challenge the power and strict morality of Hollywood's production code, died Monday at her home in Santa Maria, Calif. She was 89.
Russell, who would later turn her sexy image to comic effect in films with Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and other major stars, had respiratory problems and died after a short illness, her family said.
Russell's provocative performance in "The Outlaw" — and the studio publicity shots posing her in a low-cut blouse while reclined on a stack of hay bales — marked a turning point in moviedom sexuality. She became a bona fide star and a favorite pinup girl of soldiers during World War II. Troops in Korea named two embattled hills in her honor.
She went on to appear in 18 more films in the 1940s and '50s and, though only a few were memorable, she remains a favorite from the era for her wry portrayals of sex goddesses who seem amused by their own effect.
"Such droll eroticism is rare in Hollywood, and we are lucky that she was allowed to decorate so many adventure movies," film historian and critic David Thomson wrote of Russell, whom he called "physically glorious."
Among Russell's better films are "The Paleface," in which she plays the spirited Calamity Jane opposite Hope's feckless dentist in a spoof of "The Virginian"; and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," a musical in which she is brunet gal pal Dorothy to Marilyn Monroe's gold-digging Lorelei Lee. In the latter, the two stars perform a razzle-dazzle production number of the Jule Styne-Leo Robin hit song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."
Russell appeared in a few films in the 1960s and ended her movie career in 1970 playing Alabama Tigress in "Darker Than Amber," a film version of John D. McDonald's mystery novel. She replaced Elaine Stritch in "Company" on Broadway for several months in 1971, but her career after that was mostly limited to nightclub, stage or other live appearances.
To later generations, Russell — who once famously had a brassiere designed for her by Hughes — was known as the "bra lady" for her role as a spokeswoman for Playtex bras for "full-figured women."
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and moved to Southern California with her family as an infant. After graduating from Van Nuys High School, she was working as a part-time model and receptionist when her photo was noticed by a casting agent working for Hughes. The mogul was conducting a nationwide search for a beauty with ample breasts for the part of Rio McDonald, who falls for Billy the Kid in "The Outlaw."