“The Outlaw” is a Western film that premiered in 1943, directed by Howard Hughes and starring Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell, and Walter Huston. It was a crucial turning point in Russell’s career, propelling her to become a sex symbol and a prominent figure in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the movie encountered several obstacles prior to its release, including being banned from theaters. Ultimately, it took two years to bring the film to the public due to the controversy surrounding Russell’s bust. Join FactsVerse as we uncover the controversies that surround the film’s release.
Howard Hughes designed a new bra for Jane Russell.
The film had a rather complicated production history due to censorship issues, particularly regarding the emphasis on Jane Russell’s breasts.
Despite having a relatively minor role in the film, Hughes became infatuated with Russell and her figure, believing it would be a significant asset in promoting the movie. He was notorious for his love of beautiful women, and he was determined to showcase Russell’s ample assets on the big screen. Due to that, the film’s focus shifted from the story of Billy the Kid to the character of Rio, who was portrayed as a sultry woman that shared a bed with both Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. Hughes wanted to showcase Russell’s bust without any visible signs of support, such as bras, which were typically used to create a flattering silhouette for women’s clothing during that time.
However, Hughes was dissatisfied with the available bras on the market, as they all showed through Russell’s loose-fitting peasant blouses. Thus, he took it upon himself to design a bra that would be seamless and invisible under her clothing. As the story goes, he sketched the design on a notepad, and it became the prototype for a seamless push-up bra.
Russell, however, was not initially on board with Hughes’ design. She preferred a more natural look and only agreed to wear the bra after she learned that the Production Code Administration had deemed her cleavage too prominent. In the end, she wore her own padded bra to create the seamless effect Hughes had intended, albeit with tissue paper instead of his design.
Hughes’ obsession with Russell’s breasts was not only evident in the bra he designed but also in the way he filmed her. The camera frequently lingered on her cleavage, and the script contained several suggestive lines about her figure. These actions ultimately led to the film receiving intense scrutiny and censorship, with the Production Code Administration demanding extensive edits before allowing the movie’s release.
Despite completing filming in early 1941, Russell spent nearly two years doing continuous publicity for the film, which marked her debut on the big screen. She posed for countless photos and was dubbed the “motionless picture actress.” With the help of publicist Russell Birdwell, Hughes used provocative photos of Russell, including infamous “haystack” shots, to capitalize on the moral outcry over her bustline. Hughes ordered the images to be edited to make it appear that Russell’s blouse was ripped and her skirt hiked up, which made her appear braless with gravity-defying assets. The photos became infamous and contributed to a decade of sensational headlines, censorship, bans, and delayed release dates for the film. The photos also helped to make Russell a favorite pinup among American GIs in World War II.
In an attempt to gain widespread attention, Hughes leaked salacious details about the movie to the general public, including religious and conservative groups. Naturally, this generated enormous enthusiasm among the population and caused cinemas to scramble to book screenings. The generated public outcry and demand resulted in the brief release of the film in theaters before it was officially approved.
The publicity surrounding the controversy focused on Russell, with her image displayed on huge billboards in San Francisco prior to the 1943 premiere, asking the question, “How would you like to tussle with Russell?” This stirred up further excitement and drove more people to see the movie, resulting in a successful but short-lived run in San Francisco before it was withdrawn again due to the lack of required cuts in most scenes. However, Russell was frustrated with Hughes using her in this way and was mortified when she saw gigantic billboards of herself in San Francisco for the premiere.
While his publicity stunts were successful, they also led to a highly public battle with the censors that would last for years and eventually go to the courts. Unsurprisingly, many of the reports about the movie’s sultry star were also spread by Hughes himself.
While The Outlaw may seem like a tame Western on paper, it’s actually a story with a sultry and controversial plotline. The movie centers around a stolen horse, with Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday as the heroes. However, the real drama unfolds when they both become involved with Rio, an alluring woman who shares her bed with both of them. Hughes initially had grand aspirations for The Outlaw, hoping to create an important film. However, as production dragged on, the movie devolved into a messy, unremarkable project that served as nothing more than a platform to showcase Jane Russell’s sexuality.
And no wonder it faced significant obstacles in its release due to censorship concerns raised by the Production Code Administration (PCA) and its director, Joseph Breen. The film was completed in 1941 but not released for another two years due to the conflict between Hughes and the PCA. The film’s publicity material featured Jane Russell’s ample bosom prominently, which made the PCA uneasy. Breen’s objections centered on the film’s suggestion of illicit relationships, the numerous shots of Russell’s uncovered breasts, and the promotion of Billy the Kid as an unpunished criminal.
However, Hughes was an ambitious man with plenty of financial resources at his disposal. So, he took his case to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA). His publicist, Russell Birdwell, presented the case before the jury and argued that the provocative photographs in The Outlaw were no different from the actresses from other studios. He successfully convinced the MPPDA to grant The Outlaw its seal of approval, with only minor cuts. Even with their court victory, Hughes didn’t rush to release the film, as state censors demanded further cuts. Apparently, Hughes was hesitant to make them, so the release was stalled. In spite of that, Hughes still attempted to sneak an uncut version of the film past various state censor boards after Breen left his position at the PCA. This plan backfired when local authorities demanded even more cuts than the PCA, which led to 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, facing a hefty fine if they released the unapproved version of the film.
Hughes continued to fight against the censors for the rest of 1941, then, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, and he had to shift his focus to signing war contracts and working on new planes. As a result, The Outlaw sat on the shelf for two years.
Final release & success
In 1943, just before the San Francisco premiere of “The Outlaw,” there was an uproar over the risqué billboards featuring Jane Russell. The Motion Picture Council of San Francisco complained to the PCA, calling the billboards a “very disgusting portrayal of the feminine star.” Hughes was even threatened with arrest if he didn’t remove the billboards.
Despite the controversy, the film was re-released in 1946 with a national run in mind. However, it was denied a certificate of approval by the MPAA and faced bans and protests across the country. Nevertheless, the film’s distributor, United Artists, embarked on an elaborate promotional tour, and wherever the film went, it generated both outrage and interest.
Ultimately, it was Hughes’ own arrogance that led to the film’s rejection once again. He boasted that the film was exactly as filmed, insinuating that all the reported indecent scenes were included, despite the fact that many of them had been edited out.
As a result, the Advertising Code Administration filed a lawsuit against him for false advertising and won. This caused all the major film distributors to abandon the movie, but local independent theaters continued to show it.
Despite the censorship challenges, the controversy surrounding the film only helped increase its notoriety, making it a commercial success. The film earned over $5 million (equivalent to $760 million today). Its release was also notable for introducing Jane Russell as a Hollywood star, thanks in no small part to Howard Hughes’ fixation on her physical appearance.
Wave of success
Jane Russell was an American actress and singer who gained notoriety as a sex symbol in the 1940s and 1950s. However, she was more than just a pinup girl, as she proved her talent as a capable actress and singer throughout her career.
One of her breakthrough roles was in the box-office hit The Paleface (1948) alongside Bob Hope, where she had the chance to show off her vocal skills. The movie’s success led to a sequel, Son of Paleface (1952).
Russell’s most well-known role came in 1953 when she starred in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes alongside Marilyn Monroe. The film was a critical and commercial success, and Russell’s performance in the song “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” was particularly noteworthy. She also starred in the sequel, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), further showcasing her talents as an actress and singer.
Russell’s musical talents extended beyond the movie screen as well. In the 1940s, she performed on bandleader Kay Kyser’s radio show, and later embarked on a successful musical career that included both solo and group recordings as well as appearances on the nightclub circuit. She even made her Broadway debut in 1971, replacing Elaine Stritch in the musical “Company”.
In addition to her work in movies and music, Russell was known for her activism on adoption issues. She founded the World Adoption International Fund to aid American adoption of foreign-born children and was herself the mother of three adopted children.
Russell’s autobiography, “Jane Russell: My Path & My Detours,” was published in 1985, providing readers with an inside look at the ups and downs of her life and career. Despite her passing in 2011, Russell’s impact on Hollywood and the entertainment industry is still remembered and celebrated today.
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