Sunday, August 29, 2021

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

MEAN...MOODY...MAGNIFICENT! JANE RUSSELL AND THE MARKETING OF A HOLLYWOOD LEGEND is an excellent biography of the actress by Christina Rice. It was published this summer by the University Press of Kentucky.

Rice, who also authored the very interesting ANN DVORAK: HOLLYWOOD'S FORGOTTEN REBEL, spent half a decade researching Russell's life. The deep research and the author's engaging writing style combine for a "must read" biography.

I especially enjoyed the look at Jane's pre-stardom life growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Considering that the people she was writing about are long gone, Rice provides a remarkable level of detail about Russell's background. Russell's family, including four boisterous younger brothers, helped make sure that she remained level-headed even after Hollywood came calling.

The book particularly made me contemplate the vagaries of fate, as a photograph of Jane led to an audition with director Howard Hawks and eventual movie stardom, beginning with THE OUTLAW (1943), produced by Howard Hughes. Jane's life was, of course, completely changed by this series of events. How many others might have become stars but for a missed chance? As the title suggests, the book is a fascinating look at the creation of a Hollywood star.

The book begins with an excellent story about the advice Hawks gave Jane after she was unhappy about a photography session with the news media. He told her not to ever do anything against her better judgment: "You're in charge of you. No one else." Along with her family and religious faith, that wise advice helped keep her feet on solid ground.

For reasons detailed in the book, Russell's film career was initially slow getting off the ground, though her longtime employer, producer Hughes, successfully kept her name in the news for years.

Starting out with no experience but learning from some of the best in the business, Russell grew into a remarkably adept movie personality. By her third film she was credibly more than holding her own doing comedy opposite Bob Hope in THE PALEFACE (1948). She also had wonderful chemistry with leading men including Robert Mitchum, Victor Mature, Jeff Chandler, and Clark Gable, and best of all was her pairing with Marilyn Monroe in the delightful GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953).

As Rice points out, at times Russell's life was a series of contradictions. Despite her religious beliefs, Russell had an abortion which left her unable to conceive again (the father was rumored to be John Payne); after that event she recommitted to her faith. Eventually an adoptive mother of three, she put much of her considerable energy into adoption advocacy.

Russell's life may have looked glamorous to outsiders yet was filled with challenges. Her longtime marriage to pro football player Bob Waterfield was an up-and-down relationship which at times veered into domestic violence; she also endured the unexpected death of her 47-year-old second husband less than three months after their marriage. Her daughter Tracy attempted suicide as a teen; in the '70s son Buck was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Alcoholism and drunk driving would also be issues at points in Jane's own life. She passed away in 2011.

Through it all, Jane still comes across as a spunky and confident woman whose offscreen persona seems to have been quite similar to the friendly woman seen on the big screen. I especially enjoyed new-to-me details about Jane's private life, such as the description of the Mid-Century Modern home she designed, and I also appreciated learning more about her side career singing Christian music.

While Jane often speaks for herself in the book thanks to quotes from her 1985 autobiography, the author's research goes far beyond that, including interviews, periodicals, Los Angeles Public Library files, and even DVD commentary tracks.

MEAN...MOODY...MAGNIFICENT! is 392 pages including an index, end notes, bibliography, and filmography. It contains 94 black and white photos. While I picked up on a couple minor typographical errors, they were nothing out of the ordinary in current-day publishing. This is a very nicely produced, attractive book in addition to being a pleasure to read.

I thoroughly enjoyed MEAN...MOODY...MAGNIFICENT!  I learned a great deal about Jane Russell and  enthusiastically recommend it.

Thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of this book. 

The above photograph of author Christina Rice was taken by me at the book's June launch event at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood.


Blogger barrylane said...

Jane's autobiography also details her relationship with Louis Hayward during the making of Young Widow. An addendum to that, as her career slowed down in the late fifties, she babysat for Dana, Louis, and June's son. She was, just a fine person.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's a lovely anecdote about Jane babysitting. Thank you so much for sharing that. I love hearing that someone I enjoy onscreen was a good person offscreen as well.

Best wishes,

2:20 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Great review Laura! I love Rice's biographies and I hope she'll do more.

5:09 PM  

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