Early Days at the Movies
Real Women in
The Seventh Art's Seventh Heaven
So What Happened
POETRY AND PROSE
Howard Hughes Wasn’t
Welsh showed me a photo of himself in the sixties. All bouffant hair, flairs and simp expression. So much for the hard man he likes to think he is.
‘You look like a big girl’s blouse’, I said.
‘Not bad’, says Welsh, ‘if it’s Jane Russell’s.’
The Outlaw was made in the year of my birth (1943) but not released till six and a half years later when, by a strange concordance between Stendhalian reckoning and Sheehan’s Apologetics, my moral age was about to begin. I don’t know why my mother brought me to see it, anymore than why ten years later she and my father queued outside the Lee cinema for High Society (1956). Only holy movies were considered suitable for children. I remember one about a much put-upon donkey, and The Song of Bernadette (1943, reissued 1950, the Marian Year) for Jennifer Jones’s numinous irises rather than Arthur Miller’s script. It was too soon for Quo Vadis (1951) but not for Cecil B de Mille’s first go at The Ten Commandments (1923), which my godmother took me to see, counting them off, as they were broken. Aunt Lily only believed in music.
I can still hear my mother telling the plot of The Outlaw to Kitty the maid. As Kitty was the regular moviegoer it was usually the other way round. She always spoke of the movie stars, not the characters (‘So Larry Olivier said, my kingdom for a horse’). When my mother cited Billy the Kid, Kitty sighed ‘Jack Beutel’. Jane Russell’s character must have been herself because they both called her Jane Russell. I could only think of her, being of ages with Stendhal (alias Henri Brulard) when he loved to cover his plump little mother with burning kisses. His ardour compelled her to put her clothes back on. She died in childbirth before he reached seven, and so started his moral life and its bane, loving women the wrong way (De L’amour, 1823).
The two Howards - Hawks and Hughes - directed The Outlaw and fought over Jane Russell’s breasts. Hughes insisted on closer and closer close-ups so he could get a better look, even though he was only seeing them on the telephone (as a boy I saw rugby internationals on the radio and so I understand). Hawks, on the other hand, wanted to keep them at a distance like Mayan pyramids - long shots that lingered like the sentences of William Faulkner (on the writers’ payroll but not credited). When Gregg Toland, the cameraman, suggested they take one breast each and get on with it, Hawks dropped out and Hughes finished the movie.
lies dying. ‘Why am I always cold?’ he says. Jane
Russell, big enough to be his
mammy, pulls off her pullover. ‘I’ll get you
warm.’ And so she did. In the
scene before that, a cock called
‘Why did the silly bird do that?’ she says.
‘He smelt blood. And was going to peck out Billy’s eyes’, says Mimi.
you’, says Jane Russell and twists
The seminal warming was left to the imagination. But readers of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) will remember the Rose of Sharon who had lost her baby opening her blouse to the starving old man. ‘You got to’, she said.
Once the blood drains back and Billy’s on his feet again, he wants to barter Jane Russell with Doc Holliday for Red, the horse they both love and neither owns. The deal goes wrong because Red nuzzles Doc’s hand, a claim Billy honours. Moreover, Jane Russell isn’t for Billy to auction, being Doc’s intended (someone’s gambling debt?), and when Billy chooses Doc rather than her to ride off into High Noon they don’t get far. Jane Russell had put sand in their canteens and Pat Garrett on their trail. She follows at a safe distance and, when the sheriff’s posse has them truly cuffed, Jane Russell punches Billy into a cesspool, holding him down long enough to drown. Pat pulls her off, wanting Billy alive so he can do the glory killing himself. Nearly dead, the Kid sits against a tree, wondering about women.
The plot thickens, but doesn’t quite gel. That must have been the point when I stopped listening to my mother, or when Hughes took over, director and direction lost at the same time. I remember the jealousy, so perfect for a farce (minds and horses keep changing). Pat Garrett, jealous of Billy who took Doc, his ex-best friend, away from him: Doc of Billy who took his girl: Billy of Pat because Doc and him go back a long way, and of Doc as Red wants him: and Jane Russell’s jealous of the horse.
‘Of all the low-down tricks’, says Pat Garrett when his double-cross with guns backfires. It’s trigonometry without the safety catch of answers at the back. You have to trust Gregg Toland’s euclidian camera angles (he shot Citizen Kane the year before) to appreciate the action. Doc Holliday, in the face of Pat Garrett’s avowed friendship, walks between him and Billy the Kid and takes the bullet in the heart. He didn’t fire, believing Pat, who doesn’t believe him until it’s too late. This brings The Kid and Pat together. And they bury Doc, but not the hatchet (‘The trouble with you, Billy is you trust nobody. I don’t know what’s to become of you, I honestly don’t’).
Pat offers Billy the Doc’s horse and six-shooters in exchange for his colts, explaining everybody will think that he killed The Kid, so the law would not bother Billy anymore and it wouldn’t do him any harm. Too much of a bargain, thinks Billy, and hands them over. ‘Dat's the spirit’, says Pat, pulling the guns on Billy, only to find himself on the wrong end of the barrel. Billy, seeing the firing pins had been removed, had switched his own with Doc’s. ‘Dirty little cheat. Of all the lowdown tricks’, says Pat, the trapped rat.
am Billy the
Kid, cool, as Jane Russell’s cleavage is hot. I want to start
a new life. I tie
Pat Garrett to a post beside the grave of Doc Holliday, plunking
Doc’s hat on
Pat’s head, a trademark Holliday touch, always the gentleman.
I leave his guns
just out of reach, and, giving Jane Russell a condescending nod, saddle
sidle off, but stop at the crest of the hill to look back and throw
Russell another nod, lingering long enough for it to dawn on her that
yup for her to jump up behind. Her features contort into a smile so
that only Doc Holiday could have believed it, and he’s dead.
She leaps on and
off we ride into a studio dust-storm without any luggage. The End
Doc’s grave. ‘Here lies Billy the Kid, killed by
Pat Garrett, July 13,
returning to Jane Russell’s smile (I note the breasts in
passing). Her face,
a contour map that could have
proved the world was flat, existed like
And yet, when Jane Russell realises Billy the Kid wants her, her smile for an instant is a sister of Sue Lyon’s in Lolita (1962), lolling on the lawn, mouth half-open, gawking at ‘the great big handsome hunk of Hollywood manhood’ that another HH (Humbert Humbert) thought she saw in him. Willfully yours. But not for full possession.
never worked again in
Jane Russell ooh-la-la’d herself out of her Hughes contract. He was distracted, designing and building The Spruce Goose, the largest plane ever. But Jane Russell’s maiden flight in The Outlaw was more successful than The Spruce Goose because, even though it didn’t quite get her career off the ground, it wasn’t her last. On Billy the Kid’s anniversary, July 13, 1947, The Spruce Goose failed to rise high enough to avoid the balloons floated in celebration.
Release meant she had to put up with Bob Hope films until getting to play second pulpeuse to Marilyn Monroe for Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953). Jane Russell’s career was mainly supporting roles. She put the blame on Mame, for Rita Hayworth was her Montgomery Clift.
Kitty asked, ‘I wonder what happened to them?’
Jane Russell went to
Legend has it that Billy and Jane had six children – Jane, Billy, John Henry, Redmond and two Howards. This kept Jane Russell busy while Billy the Kid got bored with poncey Santa Fé and took to tequila. It’s a bit like the afterlife of Lolita with her Dick. Billy should have shot himself Hemingway style but instead chose suicide endura in his ‘little ease’ like Howard Hughes, dropping dead ‘in legal captivity of a coronary thrombosis’ while on hunger-strike four days before being tried for molesting a minor. He left a note. ‘Trust nobody.’ Jane Russell was happy to see the back of him.
When Welsh was on his hippie world tour he stole a blouse from the washing-line and the woman caught him. He said it reminded him of Jane Russell’s and she brought him into her trailer truck and gave him a glass of milk. I wonder if Welsh has read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?