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By Kendahl Cruver

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Jane Russell Publicity Photo1954 Jane Russell Star Pictures Premium PhotoJane Russell broke into the movies because of two natural assets and her willingness to flaunt them, but in movies such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “The Paleface” she demonstrated a solid talent for wisecracking that gave her stunning looks a special kick.

She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell in Bemidji, Minnesota on June 21, 1921. Her father was a US Army lieutenant and her mother was a former actress. Jane was the only daughter; she had four brothers. Her father was stationed in Canada and the family lived there for most of Jane’s childhood. When he was out of the service, they moved to California.

Though her main ambition was to be a designer, Jane shared her mother's interest in acting. She appeared in many high school plays. She had to put her design career ambitions aside when her father suddenly died in 1937. After graduation, she took a job as a receptionist in a doctor's office to help support the family. She also did some modeling on the side

In 1940, hoping to break into film, Jane took acting classes, at first briefly at Max Reinhardt's Theatrical Workshop and then for a longer period at the Maria Ouspenskaya drama school. That same year, Howard Hughes discovered Jane and signed her to a seven-year contract.

Her first movie was one of the most notorious in Hollywood history; Hughes had signed her to the contract because he wanted her for the part. "The Outlaw" was supposed to be the story of Billy the Kid, but the main attraction was Jane in a low-cut blouse. Though it was made in 1940, the racy shots of Jane kept it from release for six years. When it finally did make it to theaters in 1946, it was for a brief run. By the time it was finally widely distributed in 1950, Jane had practically made a career of publicizing the movie.

Jane always struggled to make a place for herself in Hollywood. Though most of her early roles painfully exposed her inexperience, she showed an early aptitude for comedy opposite Bob Hope in “The Pale Face” (1946). The rest of her films didn’t do much to support her limited, but still worthy talent. She enjoyed some success in the sequel, “Son of Paleface” (1952). Then she accomplished her best performance opposite Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953). Here she was a perfect sarcastic foil to Monroe's bubble-headed Lorelei Lee.

The mid-fifties were professionally frustrating for Jane. With hopes of securing better roles for herself, she formed a production company with her first husband, high school sweetheart Robert Waterfield. When that venture proved unsuccessful, she turned to television roles.

Jane Russell & Robert Mitchum Publicity PhotoJane Russell & Cornel Wilde Publicity PhotoIn the late fifties, Jane created a successful touring solo act. She also made her first appearances in stage productions. In 1964, she attempted a film comeback in a handful of character parts. She was good in a brief cameo in “Born Losers” (1967, the first Billy Jack movie), but once again she was unsatisfied with the roles she received. She retired from films after making “Darker than Amber" in 1970.

Love had also been rocky for Jane in those years. She and Waterfield had divorced in 1968. Though she met and married actor Robert Barrett the same year, he died of a heart attack less than a year into the marriage. She finally found lasting love when she married John Calvin Peoples in 1974. They are together to this day and living in Sedona, Arizona.

In the seventies, Jane became famous to a new generation for being the spokesperson for Playtex bras.  She also appeared in a handful of TV shows, but for the most part, she was finished with acting.

Though Jane’s contributions to film are worthy, her efforts on behalf of children are even more important.  The Women's International Center (WIC) presented her with the Living Legacy Award in 1989, for her life-long work as an advocate for children. She was not only an adoptive parent herself (two children from an early marriage to her childhood sweetheart), but she had arranged for the adoption of approximately 38,000 children through her own organization, WAIF.

The assets that inspired Howard Hughes to bring Jane Russell to the screen will always be associated with her, but in her life, she has proven herself to be a truly remarkable person and far more than a pin-up girl.
Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about classic actresses for  Watch for profiles like this each month in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Jane Russell Pages:

Denny Jackson's Jane Russell Page -- The Actress With A Real Talent For Acting!