Icon Jane Russell enters the spotlight once again

Thursday: Scene by Scene: Jane Russell - (BBC Four, 8pm)

By Claire Cartmill
Wednesday, 3rd August 2022, 5:00 pm

We know what you’re thinking – why on Earth would we want to watch a repeat of a programme first broadcast in 1999?

The answer is simple – because it’s wonderful.

Survivors of the golden age of Hollywood are now few and far between, so if we get an opportunity to hear any of them talk about their experiences, we should grab it with both hands.

A few weeks ago, BBC Four repeated The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood, a six-part documentary from the 1980s, in which Ed Asner narrated the studio’s rise and fall, helped by testimony from some of those who witnessed it, including Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn.

Since then, the channel has continued to broadcast classic films on Thursday evenings, often accompanied by a factual programme or two. This week, it’s the turn of Jane Russell to enter the spotlight.

Between 1996 and 2003, critic and film-maker Mark Cousins presented Scene by Scene, an occasional series in which Hollywood luminaries talked through key moments in their careers, as illustrated by clips from memorable movies. Martin Scorsese, Sean Connery, Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall are just a few of the participants, but we’re about to see the episode featuring Russell which, as previously mentioned, was made 23 years ago.

Back then she was a sprightly 77; she passed away in 2011 at the grand old age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of amazing screen performances.

Born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell in Minnesota in 1921, she originally intended to become a designer, but urged by her mother, who had trod the boards in her pre-marriage days, she began to study acting, eventually settling in California, where she was signed to a seven-year contract by eccentric mogul Howard Hughes.

Her film debut came in the notorious western The Outlaw; Hughes is said to have designed a bra that would show off her figure to its fullest. She later revealed that it was so uncomfortable, she discarded it.

Russell went on to star in a number of forgettable movies, but retained her appeal as a pin-up. Eventually better roles came her way, including the film noirs His Kind of Woman, The Las Vegas Story and Macao. But it’s for her musical hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that she is perhaps best known.

In Scene by Scene, Russell discusses making it as well as her relationship with co-star Marilyn Monroe. What’s more, there’s a chance to see the film immediately after the programme at 8.45pm.

Despite enjoying a long and successful career, Russell would probably say her proudest achievements came in raising her three adopted children (she was unable to have any biological offspring due to a botched abortion in her teens) and the founding of Waif, an organisation dedicated to placing children with adoptive families.

She also successfully fought alcoholism – but then Russell was always a fighter, one who is certainly worth remembering, even if it’s via documentaries that may initially seem past their sell-by date.