Jane Russell: On the Dark Side

Jane Russell: Folm Noir movies  The Las Vegas Story (1952), and Macao (1952)Guest blogger Karen Burroughs Hannsbery writes:

When I think of film noir fatales, Jane Russell is not necessarily the first name that springs to mind. Known mainly for her singing and comedic talents, as well as her voluptuous figure and coal black mane, Russell nonetheless made her mark in the realm of film noir, appearing in three features in two years – His Kind of Woman (1951), The Las Vegas Story (1952), and Macao (1952).

The first of Russell’s noirs, His Kind of Woman, focused on an exiled syndicate boss, Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr), who hatches a plot to assume the identity of professional gambler and ex-con Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum).  Offered a cool fifty grand to leave the United States for a year, Dan travels to Mexico to await further instructions, where he encounters a motley crew of characters, including pretentious film star Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), a former Nazi (John Mylong) who spends his days playing chess with himself, and Russell’s character, Lenore Brent, a singer posing as an heiress. Lenore and Dan manage to find time to fall for each other as Ferraro furthers the execution of his nefarious plan, and when Dan is forced aboard Ferraro’s yacht, Lenore enlists the assistance of the movie actor to help save her man.  All’s well that ends well when Cardigan storms the boat, Dan kills Ferraro, and he and Lenore wind up together in the final reel. Although Russell was a visual treat in her lavish, form-fitting gowns, the film did only moderate business at the box office and was slammed by critics – the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune labeled it “nonsensical melodramatic hodgepodge,” and the critic for the New York Times – while noting that Russell was “strategically sheathed in some opulent gowns” – rather nastily (and unfairly!) blasted the film as “one of the worst Hollywood pictures in years.” It was no classic, certainly – but it was lots of fun.

Next up for Russell on the shadowy side of the screen was The Las Vegas Story, where she appeared as a former Vegas singer and wife of a wealthy businessman (Vincent Price, again) who is desperate to raise a large sum of money to cover his role in an embezzlement scheme. On their way to Los Angeles, the Russell and Price duo, Linda and Lloyd Rollins, stop off in Vegas at Lloyd’s insistence, where he tries to use his wife’s pricey necklace to rack up some cash at the gaming tables. Meanwhile, Linda visits one of her old haunts and encounters her former lover, David (Victor Mature), now a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department. As the sparks fly between Linda and her old flame, the action elsewhere heats up as well – we learn that a private detective (Brad Dexter) is trailing Linda and Lloyd. Linda gets kidnapped by the detective, a helicopter chase (!) ensues, David kills the detective and saves Linda, and the two former loves head off in the sunset together while poor Lloyd faces a future marred by multiple embezzlement charges.

Another box-office disappointment, The Las Vegas Story fared even worse with the critics than Russell’s first noir – the kindest review appeared in Variety, where the critic stated, “Mature and Miss Russell take advantage of an occasional bright piece of dialog tossed their way, but overall can’t do much with the characters.” (Yes, that was the kindest review.)

In her final noir appearance – and my personal favorite of the three – Russell played (what else?) a singer, Julie Benton, who has recently arrived in the “quaint and bizarre” East Asian colony of Macao, along with Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), an ex-GI wanted for murder in the states, and Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix), a New York detective posing as a salesman. Although Julie filches Nick’s wallet shortly after their first encounter, the two soon fall in love and find themselves embroiled in a complex series of events focusing on Trumble’s efforts to arrest a local gambling house owner for murder. Panned by critics as “conventional,” and “routine,” Macao was nonetheless highlighted by an exotic setting, more than a few memorable verbal exchanges between the characters, and first-rate co-stars including Gloria Grahame, Brad Dexter, and Thomas Gomez.

Once billed as “Mean! Moody! Magnificent!” Jane Russell may not be remembered for her brief sojourn into the dark world of film noir, but she demonstrated during her lengthy screen career that she was more than just a pretty face and an enviable physique. It was perhaps co-star and longtime pal Robert Mitchum who best summed up her lasting appeal and innate talent when he said, “Jane Russell is an authentic original.”

And she was.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of Shadows and Satin, a blog devoted to her two cinematic passions: pre-Code Hollywood and the film noir era.  She has written two books on film noir, Femme Noir:  Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and is the editor-in-chief of the bimonthly, hard copy film noir newsletter, The Dark Pages

  • JIM RICK

    I LOVED ALL HER FILM NOIR…BUT I THINK JANE WAS THE REAL STAR OF “GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES”, EVEN IF MARILYN WAS THE MOST WATCHED AT THE TIME….GREAT AT COMEDY…..AND SHE COULD SING…..

  • VINCENT SANTANGELO

    RUSSELL WITH A GOOD STORY AND DIRECTOR AND LEADING MAN COULD DELIVER THE GOODS. SEE “BLONDES”, “FOXFIRE” MAMIE STOVER, THE TALL MEN, HOT BLOOD. SHE COULD WISE CRACK WITH THE BEST OF THEM AND SHE AND MITCHUM MADE QUITE A TEAM. IF SHE HAD BEEN OFFERED BETTER STORIES AND DIRECTORS, SHE WOULD HAVE DELIVERED. NEXT TO BOB HOPE, SHE EXCELLED. SHE IS AN ICON.

  • Juanita Curtis

    I have only seen Macau but would love to check out the other two as Vincent Price is always excellent.
    Can I subscribe to your newsletter the Dark Pages?

  • goarmy

    Russell and Mitchum well cast in a series of fun movies.
    Nonetheless, my favorite noir movie is Out of the Past. And wasn’t Jane Greer the most underated noir femme fatale ?

    • Laurence Almand

      I have often wondered why Jane Greer did not become a major star, having beauty and talent in abundance. Perhaps she was typecast in Film Noir…..

  • Grand Old Movies

    Jane Russell was underrated in noir; she had that kind of hard, glittery glamour that fits the noir universe (particularly in nightclub scenes requiring a honky-tonk toughness). “His Kind of Woman” is certainly a mulligan’s stew of a film, but Mitchum and Russell have a great rapport, and Vincent Price is hilarious as a ham actor who saves the day (a must-see for Price fans).

  • Susan

    My favorite Jane Russell film might be considered a kind of silly choice because it doesn’t fit film noir or the musical criteria. It is a kind of adventure movie that was probably made to take advantage of her physical beauty and our need for evil shark scare experiences. You can tell all these things from the poster art that was created to advertise this hokey but wonderful movie, Underwater! The poster shows Jane swimming beneath the surface of the deep blue, with a menacing shark behind her. Ms. Russell’s costars were Richard Egan and Gilbert Roland as gorgeous companions involved with pirate treasures. The best part of the film (after Jane’s appearance of course) is the wonderful song Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. The whole thing is fun as long as you can overlook the limp story, the sad sets-indoor beaches & boats etc, the weak dialogue, the dumb pirates, and, and, and……But Jane is wonderful.

  • richard finn

    It was interesting to read about Russell’s sojourn into film noir. It was also interesting to run into roles played by Vincent Price other than in the horror genre, for which he is best remembered. But his career was much more varied, including being killed by Charlton Heston in the “10 Commandmants”.

  • Errol Jones

    I have copies of all three of these films and play them often, because Russell and Mitchum were so great together. I also agree..she sure could sing and that she was ‘the best’ of the duo in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. She was an ‘original’ never to be carbon copied! You might also include THE LAS VEGAS STORY, to these type of films that she made.

    I was surprised, in an interview on Turner Classic Movies, along with Mitchum, she was asked if there was ‘one film’ that she wanted so much, but lost out on. That was the story of Lillian Roth..”I’LL CRY TOMORROW”. The role went to SUSAN HAYWARD, who was ‘perfect’ for that role. But many other actresses were in want of that role, including JUNE ALLYSON, who they almost cast. JUNE ALLYSON as LILLIAN ROTH?? I just don’t get that one at all. Jane could have done a better job than Allyson..but Susan was still the best bet for that demanding role.

  • Eugene Amodeo

    Jane Russell was an icon. I couldn’t see anyone else playing with Bob Hope in The Paleface and Son of Paleface. I only wish she could have made an appearance at the Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood before she passed away.

  • Woody

    No one going to mention ‘The Outlaw’(1943), which was her breakthrough role?

    • Laurence Almand

      THE OUTLAW was the first film she made, and was shelved for two years because of censorship problems. Having seen it only once, happily, I can understand why she disliked working for Hughes. The picture is just B-junk, despite being a huge hit at the time. In almost every scene the camera is pointed down at her generous cleavage.

  • Jack Devereux

    Jane Russell was one of those actresses known, primarily, for being a heavy chested honey and not for her mad skills as a thespian. It was her good fortune that she got paired with Robert Mitchum in several film noir dramas. ‘His Kind of Woman’ is a highly entertaining film. Mitchum and Russell work well together but, it is Vincent Price who steals the show with one of his more outrageous performances that’s at least equal to his character in ‘Champagne for Caesar’.

  • Louis

    Jane was one of my first loves. I was in the
    4th grade, but I had taste and an eye even then.

  • Tom S

    I love Macao and watch it on DVD once a month. Also Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a great film and despite it being remembered as Marilyn’s film, my eyes are always drawn to Jane. Also does anyone know if The French Line is out or coming out on DVD?

    • Tobiasreid

      So far no word on “The French Line” being released on DVD. but send an email to Warner Home Video suggesting they release a RESTORED AND UNCUT AND UNCENSORED Blu-Ray of THE FRENCH LINE.  service@wbshop:disqus 
      .com or hit up their Facebook page…probably a better way of voicing your opinion!

  • Alex Riddick

    When you see Jane Russell in a her these great Film Noir you know the film is going to hot and steamy. She just is just right for this haunting style. You also know there is going to be smart talk and perhaps some stealing.

  • Alex Riddick

    When you see Jane Russell in a these great Film Noir you know the film is going to be hot and steamy. She is just right for this haunting style. And you know there is going to be smart talk and perhaps some stealing and singing.

  • John Quinlan

    I loved all three of them. Film Noir is a favorite of mine

  • sugarpussoshea

    For sheer caustic comments to her male co-stars – I see her counter-part as Jean Harlow. Just a gr8 dame in every sense of the word. But with Jane, you get the singing and dancing as in Gentlemen prefer Blondes – where the Brunette came in first place. Loved her noirs with Rbt Mitchum. Also, enjoyed her sarcastic “grandma” personality in “The Tall Men” with Clark Gable. Just a gr8 gal…

  • You Wanna Know About Darkness?

    I’m still angry about them censoring The French Line. It was a crime against nature’s bounty! There should be no statute of limitations on this and the offenders should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  • john

    She was great in all these movies. Sexy, funny and the perfect foil for her many leading men. Did I mention that she was very lovely too.

  • Kirk

    Jane Russell is to me the epitome of the 1950′s woman, tough smart and knowingly sexy. Russell and Mitchum although they only made two movies together are my all time favorite Hollywood screen couple.

  • Ken Roche

    Yes, a beautiful, multi-talented Woman, and quite amazing that she had the strength to survive in the industry with her Christianity intact. It’s been suggested that Bob Mitchum tested her faith, but ended up respecting her for it – and a lifelong friend. Wish there were more of her calibre, todays screens are less without her.

  • Tom Webb

    I pretty much agree with all of the comments above. I also think Jane was great in Noirs– especially with Mitchum, as they worked so well together, and complimented each other’s personalities. I also agree that her film persona was similar to Jean Harlow’s- the feisty, sexy lady, who can trade barbs with the leading man, but still be a warm-hearted, loyal friend. I love “Macao,” but also like “His Kind of Woman” a lot, too. It is a disjointed film– not surprising, considering its production history– but is still lots of fun. As many have pointed out, Vincent Price really steals that film, with his wonderful, over-the-top performance as the ham swashbuckler actor (I feel that that performance was based on Errol Flynn, who Price had worked with twice, and knew well. “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” in 1939, and “The Adventures of Captain Fabian,” that same year of 1951. I think Price liked Flynn a lot, but also knew Errol could be over-the-top himself. His performance in this film seems like a simultaneous homage, and parody, of Flynn’s film performances– sort of like Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year.” And something Flynn did himself, in a number of films– poking fun at his on and off-screen images. I’ve always wondered why no one comments on this Flynn-Price connection, in relation to this film).

    Anyway, this is a Russell thread. She was wonderful, in everything, whether it be musicals, noirs, or adventure films. She and Gable were another great teaming, in “The Tall Men.” They played off each other wonderfully well, too, and had a similar on-screen relationship to the one Gable had with Harlow, back in the ’30s. I’ve read that Gable liked Russell a lot, and found her to be a ‘regular gal,’ just as he found Harlow to be.

  • Reid

    Warner Home Archive is releasing, THE LAS VEGAS STORY on DVD sometime in the summer of 2012.   It supposedly has been remastered from the original negatives!  

  • Bruce Reber

    In one of her last screen appearances JR plays the mother of one of the girls being terrorized in “The Born Losers” (1967), the very first Billy Jack movie. Check it out sometime.

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  • Laurence Almand

    Russell was the classic Hollywood manufactured star – a product of Howard Hughes’ (warped?) fantasies and bosom fetishism. Originally a receptionist in a dental office, she was spotted by Hughes and put under contract. Most of her films were done on loan-out to other producers.
    Her best role, in my opinion, was the brunette foil to Marilyn Monroe in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, where she held her own with the blonde bombshell.

  • NavyVet6468

    Jane Russell, was a very beautiful actress. Her daughter Mariska Haggerty, who stars in the tv series ‘Special Victims Unit’ is also very beautiful. Mariska, has her mother’s features, especially her eyes.

    • mamachirp

      Jane Mansfield, not Jane Russell, is Mariska’s mother.