Image Credit: John Kobal Foundation/Getty ImagesJane Russell, the Hollywood silver-screen siren who ignited a tinder box with Howard Hughes’ bosom-heaving 1943 western The Outlaw, died on Monday at age 89. But the legacy she leaves behind will always be more than just the sum of her ample parts. The raven-haired beauty was only 19 and working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office when the notorious ladies’ man Hughes spotted her and cast her as Rio MacDonald, the smoldering girlfriend of Sheriff Pat Garrett, in The Outlaw. Overnight, she was catapulted from obscurity to infamy, thanks to the movie’s poster, which featured Russell reclining suggestively on a haystack, holding a pistol in one hand and implying a world of sin with her curves. Censors went apoplectic and the Roman Catholic Church protested the film, but it was too late — a star was born.
Because of Russell’s physical assets — and the way Hughes displayed them — The Outlaw did not receive a national release until 1950, seven years after it was completed. Hughes, the dashing and world-famous aviator-turned-Tinseltown producer, was said to have designed a special brassiere for Russell for the film to contain and best show off her 38D chest. (Russell maintained afterwards that she never actually wore it). As a film, The Outlaw doesn’t hold up to some of the era’s best westerns, but because of Russell’s death-defying curves and come-hither gaze, it’s become an indelible piece of movie history.
Riding her red-hot overnight stardom, Russell soon became one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood. She signed a seven-year deal with Hughes (who obviously knew a good thing when he saw it) and soon shared the screen with Bob Hope in 1948’s The Paleface, Robert Mitchum in 1951’s His Kind of Woman, and Frank Sinatra in 1951’s Double Dynamite — a title that contains a less-than-subtle play on words. She would become one of the biggest sex symbols and most bankable starlets of the post-war era, even if the films themselves never really bothered to show off her acting chops. Her best films from the ’50s are 1952’s Macao (again, with Mitchum) and 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — a musical comedy that paired the bombshell with and equally va-va-voom counterpart, Marilyn Monroe. Talk about Double Dynamite!
During the ’50s and into the ’60s, Russell began to sing more and more in her films, which led her toward a fruitful singing career that included both pop and gospel songs. Her last big screen role was a smallish part in the 1970 detective thriller Darker Than Amber. Afterwards, she continued to perform in Las Vegas and occasionally on stage. But her biggest second act came from her role in the ’70s as a celebrity endorser for Playtex’s Cross-Your-Heart bras for “full-figured gals.” (The role fit her like a… glove.) Russell also became increasingly more active in spreading the gospel and conservative politics, which alienated some of her fans, but won her others. In 2003, she referred to herself as “a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.” Russell, who began her career as a divisive figure, remained one until the end.
To check out a gallery of classic Jane Russell photos from the Life Magazine archives, click here.