I like Jane Russell: she was not an exciting actress, but she was glamorous and likable. She was never less than competent, and her self-possession gave her natural authority. She was capable and relaxed with good actors (like Robert Mitchum); the better her co-stars were, the better she was. As Calamity Jane in “The Paleface,” she had surprisingly great chemistry with Bob Hope, whom she adored. I think it’s her most accomplished performance — it’s a real star turn. She’s funny, sexy, beautiful and in complete command of the material. When her co-stars weren’t good (like Jack Buetel (“The Outlaw”) and Elliott Reid (her love interest in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”)), her own self-assurance prevented her from being dragged down by their incompetence, but she wasn’t skillful enough or sufficiently witty to improve second-rate material. She only made two pictures with Mitchum, but she admired him enormously and they remained friends for the rest of his life. Robert Osborne once interviewed the two of them for TCM’s “Private Screenings” series. Mitchum, who had been charming and voluble before the interview began, became as loquacious as a clam when the cameras began to roll. Osborne couldn’t get more than a few words out of him.
Osborne: You don’t have a favorite Robert Mitchum film?
Mitchum: I don’t think so. They don’t pay me to see ’em.
Russell [sees that Osborne is unhappy with the response — cheerfully]: I just like Robert Mitchum movies . . .
Russell had to do all of the talking, and she spent much of the interview praising Mitchum’s talent, loyalty and above all his amazing intelligence. It was hard to watch — Osborne was clearly discomfited by Mitchum’s implacable silence — but I couldn’t help being impressed by the way Russell handled the situation. She did everything in her power to give Osborne the interview he had a right to expect — short of trying to shame Mitchum into conversation. Such an attempt wouldn’t have worked, of course, but she had the presence of mind to realize it. She knew Mitchum was smarter and more talented than she — she said so repeatedly; she knew he had more interesting stories to tell. But he wasn’t in the mood to talk, so she covered for him and did her best to be entertaining and cheerful. It was a demonstration of her natural generosity and pragmatism; it was also (I don’t want to make too much of this) valiant.
It’s her presence of mind, her sanity, that sets her apart from the other sex goddesses. She’s the most level-headed of the bunch. She was, in fact, quite unlike any other screen siren. She never played a bubblehead (like Jean Harlow, Betty Grable and Marilyn) or a nervous wreck (like Marilyn and, sometimes — howlingly — Lana Turner and Joan Crawford). In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” when Russell pretends to be Marilyn in a courtroom scene, the result isn’t good or funny: she’s too self-assured and untroubled to impersonate a woman with Marilyn’s catalogue of neuroses, and, paradoxically, too unimaginative to play a nitwit. Nor did she play rapacious man-traps (like Ava Gardner and early Crawford).
Ava Gardner often played women who liked sex for its own sake, but in every case that I know of, these characters were vicious home-wreckers, murderesses or sociopaths; moreover, the lewdness of these femmes fatales was invariably presented as unmistakable evidence of villainy. Cruelty was always a part of the kind of sex she was after. In “East Side, West Side,” for example, the pleasure Ava gets from having sex with James Mason is all bound up with her sadistic desire to hurt his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) — a woman she has never met. She’s not after money or position: she’s only after sex, but the only sex she likes is the kind that makes another woman wretched.
Jane Russell was the only screen siren who enjoyed being a sexy woman without being a bitch, who liked having sex for the pleasure of it, without being a tramp, and who never fretted about her reputation, her libido or her ability to look after herself. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t a siren: she never lured a man to his doom, only to her bed, where she showed him a good time then dumped him when she’d had enough. Sometimes she even fell in love. That’s why her sexiness is nearly always refreshing, even in the dopiest pictures. She’s always in full command of her sex appeal, never a victim of it. The wolf who won’t take no for an answer is bound to get knocked insensible with the nearest blunt object. In this scene from “Macao,” Mitchum comes to her rescue, but there’s little doubt she’d have solved her own problem — and just to show she’s not impressed, she lifts Mitchum’s wallet while he kisses her. “Now we’re even,” she says. The opening scenes of this picture are so entertaining, it sets up the expectation that the rest will be equally enjoyable. Take my word for it: it isn’t. Alas.
Before I forget — that drunken salesman is Harold J. Kennedy. He appeared in pictures rarely, and usually without credit; he worked more often in the theatre (rarely on Broadway, mostly in summer stock). He had a long career, both as an actor and a director, and ended up working with a lot of major stars — usually on their way up, or far along their journey to oblivion. In 1978, Doubleday published his hilarious, vulgar memoir, “No Pickle, No Performance: An Irreverent Excursion from Tallulah to Travolta.” (Kennedy was not afraid to drop names.) His writing is approximately like his acting in “Macao” — Peter Bogdanovich once asked Jack Benny if it was true that Ernst Lubitsch used to act out all the parts the way he wanted them done. Benny said, “Yes.” “Was he a good actor?” “Well . . . ” Benny replied, “He was broad . . . but you got the idea.” That’s Harold J. Kennedy.
Later in the picture, Russell sings “One for My Baby,” which is one of the few times she got to do anything complicated in a movie. She does a lot of things right, beginning with not making a beeline for self-pity — she fights the self-pity, allows it to sneak up on her instead. Very nice, that — but again, she’s too sane and sensible to get deep under the skin of the song. Have a look:
Part of her problem is focus: she keeps looking skyward. Who’s she singing to? I don’t think she figured that one out completely — it makes the emotion vague and renders everything less than perfectly candid. I don’t really blame her: that’s what a director is for. Anyhow, she’s got the right idea, but she doesn’t quite put it across.
I mentioned in an earlier post that Ida Lupino did a great croaking version of it in “Road House.” Here’s that performance: