Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happy Birthday again, Jane!


I first posted this about Jane Russell on her 86th birthday, but as she turned 89 on the 21st I thought it was time to restate my contention that she was one of the greatest, as well as most underused, of all forties stars.
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As I've said before, the forties seem to me a plain golden age retrospectively, but at the time, their brashness and obsession with novelty showed clear signs of decline.
Few of the stars who came to prominence then mean as much to me as those of the thirties. But Jane was an exception.
It’s too bad that audiences first got to know her – without being able to judge her talents fairly – merely as a novelty.
Was any actress ever more glamorous? Has any other quite matched her mixture of sophisticated allure, cynicism and self-mockery? Has any other been so obviously made for the movies she never got to be in? Even Veronica Lake got to be in This Gun For Hire, and the key, and the dahlia; Ava got The Killers...
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As everyone knows, Jane was launched on a wave of publicity in 1943 when she made her debut film The Outlaw for Howard Hughes. The tagline ‘mean, moody, magnificent’, and that iconic image of her reclining in a barn, wearing a cantilevered bra designed for her by Hughes himself, were more than enough to make her name, but the exclusive contract with Hughes was probably the worst thing that could have happened to her professionally.
When the film finally emerged in 1946, after years of censorship battles, audiences discovered it was an ordinary, not terribly sexy western but Russell, against all expectation, was terrific, and had thus effectively wasted the previous three years.
To some extent she made up for lost time but was always stifled by her Hughes contract, within which she became queen of the parallel universe of RKO in great fun but ultimately undeserving projects like Underwater! (to date the only film to have been premiered underwater) and The French Line, the latter containing probably the sexiest song and dance number ever filmed. (And to think audiences originally saw it in 3-D!)
Few were aware of her true capabilities, but they came out every time to see the red lips, the long legs, and a pair of breasts she could have held up banks with.

The Monthly Film Bulletin neatly summed up her persona and appeal around this time: "A slouching Amazon, her clothes appear to stay put just as long as she agrees not to burst out of them; essentially a good sort, she has an ever-annihilating sneer for the false, the pretentious and the fresh."
With better handling at a better studio she might have been the best thing in forties cinema. Look at her more serious films for Hughes, like Macao or His Kind of Woman, for a fairer sense of what she can do.
In both she was fortuitously paired with Robert Mitchum, the one really first class male lead Hughes managed to get his hands on. They were compared to Bogart and Bacall, but you only have to watch a few minutes to start imagining what she would have been like at Warners, trading innuendoes with Bogart or snarling at Edward G Robinson, placed professionally within the frame, and stylishly lit and photographed in black and white.

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Instead, Hughes gave her Victor Mature.
The Las Vegas Story, a convincing variation on Casablanca, is probably her best film for Hughes, with terrific support from Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael; she sings "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and looks incredible. But there’s still something indefinably elsewhere about the Hughes atmosphere, and it seems unfair to make her fall passionately for Mature. With Mitchum on hand for this one it would be an acknowledged minor classic.
Unsurprisingly, she was at her best in loan-outs, revealing a natural gift for comedy with Bob Hope in The Paleface and for musicals in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe. (And if gentlemen really prefer Marilyn to Jane then I’m glad I’m not one.)
Her best performance overall was probably in the Somerset Maughamish The Revolt of Mamie Stover, but by the time she made it in 1957 her career was winding down. What should have been her best years were spent twiddling her thumbs or idling through substandard material for Hughes.

Jane, who describes herself cheerfully as “a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian” and has shrewdly speculated that Hollywood wackos like George Clooney and Tim Robbins are probably “not well”, is still cheerful and active. She apparently performs regularly in an amateur revue called ‘The Swinging Forties’ staged near her home in Santa Maria, which she devised as a means of keeping herself and other elderly local residents from getting bored.
If you want to toast her birthday with a triple bill, go for Las Vegas, Blondes and Mamie Stover. But try to slot in the ‘Looking for Trouble’ number from The French Line, too. Hughes knew what he was doing in one respect at least.