It is not enough to merely remark upon the passing of Jane Russell that “they don’t make them like that anymore.”
The truth is, they never made them like that. Jane Russell was a cruise missile in a world of firecrackers, a Great White Shark of a sweater girl with a bawdy sense of humor about herself, and she cut an imposing figure in the films she made.
The thing about a death like this is while I am certainly sorry to hear about it, she’s been out of the public eye for the past 25 years already. The last onscreen appearance she made was an episode of “Hunter” in the mid-’80s. She was never the most prolific actress, and the majority of her iconic work was done in the first fifteen years of her career, with much of her fame coming from TV appearances as herself and tabloid headlines when she was young.
Yes… as a male with a pulse, I absolutely admire the young Jane Russell for the volcanic sexual charisma she brought to films like “The Outlaw,” “Macao,” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” but she also had a wicked sense of comic timing, and that’s what makes these performances endure above and beyond the visual splendor.
Watch her here in this scene from “The French Line” as she announces that she is looking’ for trouble. She found it, too, because they had to reshoot the scene before they could release the film in America:
I mentioned “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” above, and it’s one of those films that delivers so much entertainment value that it’s hard to pick just one moment that sums it up. I’ve always liked this number, “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” which is all Russell:
And you can’t go too wrong with Marilyn Monroe and Russell together in another of the film’s big sequences:
Howard Hughes was said to be obsessed with her, and I can certainly understand why. She was so preposterously built that when “The Outlaw” was first submitted for release, it was shelved, and eventually took two years to find its way to theater screens after being heavily re-cut to turn down the heat a bit.
It’s hard to believe that her last feature film appearance was in 1970, when she appeared in “Darker Than Amber,” one of the few attempts so far to turn the Travis McGee series into films. In the books, Trav lives at a marina and one of his neighbors is nicknamed “The Alabama Tiger,” and maintains a sort of non-stop houseboat party. In the film, Russell appeared as “The Alabama Tigress,” and while I would normally grouse about a needless change to the source material, I can’t honestly complain about someone putting Jane Russell in their movie.
I wish she left a bigger body of work, and I wish more directors had figured out what to do with her, but Russell will ultimately be remembered as a visual icon, even if she never quite had the right roles to make full use of the talents she brought to the table.
Jane Russell was 89 years old.