Sex Symbol and Christ Follower
She was one of the most celebrated sex symbols of the 1940s—and she was also a born-again Christian who hosted Bible studies in her home.
Jane Russell was only 19 years old when she signed a seven-year contract with legendary movie mogul Howard Hughes, and she spent most of those seven years waiting for her first film to be released. The Outlaw was produced in 1941 and had a limited release in 1943, but it didn't play to a wide audience until 1946—largely because of a controversy over the way the film drew attention to Russell's figure.
Russell's second film, Young Widow, also came out in 1946, and after that, she stayed fairly busy on the big screen until the late 1950s, co-starring with the likes of Bob Hope (The Paleface), Roy Rogers (Son of Paleface) and Marilyn Monroe (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) in movies that capitalized not only on her appearance, but on her tough-gal persona.
Russell, 87, hasn't acted in a movie since 1970, but she still grants interviews for documentaries and TV shows. Her latest appearance is in Hollywood on Fire, a documentary (released to DVD last week) about Christians working in the movie industry; for the most part, the film focuses on current professionals—Cory Edwards, Chuck Norris, Eric Close, and others—but Russell helps to keep the film rooted in Hollywood's past, as well.
She spoke to Christianity Today Movies by phone from her home in the Santa Maria Valley in California.
What sort of religious background did you have?
Jane Russell: I gave my heart to the Lord when I was five. And my mother, who had been a stage actress, became one of the best Bible teachers I ever heard. I had four brothers, and we heard a Bible story every day. Things happened later in my life where I thought I knew what I was going to do, but instead, these things happened—I call them the Lord's accidents. They're not accidents to him at all, he's got it all planned, but it turns you around and you're doing something you didn't think you were going to.
Like getting into the movie industry?
Russell: Yes, because he sure got me in there.
One of your first films, The Outlaw, was held up for a few years …
Russell: Oh yeah, there was a big fuss.
Because the studio portrayed you as a sex symbol? That seems like the sort of thing churches might have a problem with. As a Christian, how did you see that?
Russell: Well, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the picture. The guys had gotten me on location, and I was just trying to do whatever they needed. They had two pails put down and they said, "Now Janie, you come down and pick up the pails." Well, I had the normal costume thing on, so I leaned down and picked up the pails; I had no idea what they were doing, and I sure found out.
I went to the director, Howard Hawks, in tears, and he said, "Now listen, you're a big girl now, and you've got to take care of yourself. And when anybody asks you to do something that makes you nervous, you say 'No,' loud and clear." Well that was the best thing anybody ever said to me. And after that, the photographers would get up on a balcony or something, and they would ask, "Now Janie, walk under here," and I would stand there with my hands on my hips and say "No," and they would pack up their gear and go. It was an amazing time. But all it was about was some cleavage!
Did anybody at home or at church ask you about that? Did they ever say, "Jane, why are you doing this kind of movie if you're a believer?"
Russell: Well, we never belonged to a denomination. It was always Bible, Bible, Bible. And the fact that my mother had been an actress was very helpful. She knew that acting was not of the devil, which some of the churches thought. You weren't supposed to go to movies, in some churches, and we never belonged to one, and my mom knew better. So fortunately, I was not invited out of a church.