Monday, June 14, 2021

Mean... Moody... Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend by Christina Rice

Mean... Moody... Magnificent!
Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend

by Christina Rice
University Press of Kentucky
ISBN: 9780813181080
June 2021
392 pages

“The movie star turned out to be devastatingly human.” 

Jane Russell was larger than life. A bonafide movie star. She first made a splash as the sultry lead in Howard Hughes' western The Outlaw (1943). The marketing campaign for that film lasted years thanks to Hughes' penchant for controversy and control. She was dubbed the "motionless picture star" as she traveled to promote her first film for months before its release. The wait was worth it because it cemented her place as a Hollywood celebrity. Russell was an entertainer through and through. She had great screen presence, could sing and had a figure that caught the attention of moviegoers, something Hughes had banked on from the very beginning. Russell was under contract with Hughes for over 30 years, working with him at RKO and beyond, and was often loaned out to studios when she wasn't making a film for her boss. While Hughes was controlling and their working relationship could sometimes be contentious, Russell remained loyal to her boss, a trait that Hughes both valued and rewarded. The pinnacle of her acting career was her co-starring role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) opposite Marilyn Monroe. Taking the role was a total gamble. Russell had to be okay with being overshadowed by her costar. And just like The Outlaw, this gamble paid off. 

Russell collaborated with Robert Mitchum on two noirs for RKO: His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952). The two had great chemistry on screen and off-screen became lifelong friends. Russell was great to work with and even had a core team from RKO that she took with her on other studio gigs. She married three times, first to Robert Waterfield, a professional football player with whom she later ran Russ-Field Productions. Russell was deeply religious, passionate about adoption and lived to perform. After making Darker Than Amber (1970), she retired from films. In the years that followed, Russell performed on stage and on television, wrote a memoir, gave interviews about her career and made countless appearances. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 89.

Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum in His Kind of Woman (1951)

June 21st marks the 100th anniversary of Jane Russell's birth and to celebrate we have Mean... Moody... Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, a delightful book from the capable hands of librarian, researcher and archivist Christina Rice. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a big fan of Rice's biography Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel. It's one of my top favorite classic film biographies so needless to say I had high expectations for Rice's biography on Jane Russell. Rice did not disappoint.

Mean... Moody... Magnificent! paints the portrait of a complicated woman who stumbled upon fame and soon found her calling as an internationally renowned entertainer. As Rice says in her book, Russell was "more of a movie personality than a serious actress,... [she] could electrify a screen and was a true star of the old studio system.” I really admire how Russell found her confidence to perform even as she was being objectified for her naturally curvy body. One could say that Russell and her body type paved the way for curvaceous entertainers to come, like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. 

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

“During production Jane adopted Marilyn as a kind of kid sister, exhibiting a tremendous amount of empathy for Monroe, who was experiencing the same type of amped-up sex symbol publicity Jane had been enduring for over a decade.”

Russell's religious beliefs were often in conflict with her actions, something Rice adeptly explores in the book. There is lots to garner from this biography including how Hollywood packaged and promoted their movie stars for public consumption, how sometimes movie stars were made from being in the right place at the right time, and how networking and close working relationships were key to survival in this cutthroat industry. This biography is laid out chronologically with each chapter focusing on a particular theme. This made the book flow very well. Rice's research shines through and her storytelling skills make this for an engrossing read. There's lots of great behind-the-scenes information, especially as it relates to how Russell was styled for her movies. Even if you're not particularly interested in Jane Russell as a person, this is still a must read for anyone who loves stories from old Hollywood.

This is my first review for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for a copy of the book for review.

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