Janes Russell, a Pioneer for Christians in Hollywood

Jane Russell Pioneer for Christians in Hollywood

“I love the Lord”  is a beautiful statement that summed up Jane Russell’s philosophy.  While she was  best known for musicals, Westerns, and adventure films, too little has been said about her strong belief in God and how she has practiced her faith.  Hopefully this story will end some of that and to salute her for her deep spiritual beliefs.  Jane herself did not want to be depicted as a “holy” person, she approached  her belief with a realistic view and a sense of humor.  That is very important and reminds us of a favorite cartoon.  In it God is being interviewed by a Jay Leno type TV host.  He is asked What do you consider your greatest creation?  God’s reply “A sense of humor and it is a shame so few Christians use it.”

Jane Russell was raised by a devoted Christian Bible teaching mother who had been a stage actress before she was married (so she wasn’t worried when her daughter later became an actress).  Her husband died at 47 years of age, leaving her with Jane and four younger brothers, an eight-acre ranch, four horses and a cow.

Jane gave her heart to the Lord at age 6, received her baptism at the age of 12, and in her late teens discovered the wiles of what she calls “the world, the flesh, and the devil”.  But the Lord was faithful, never left her side through thick and thin and opened many controversial doors that led to things He wanted her ultimately to accomplish, through the motion picture business, the stage, recordings, and night clubs.  (“All things work together for good…”)

Though Jane  was known for her tall beauty, she would never compromise her Christian moral standards to please  a  studio.   She  says,“   In  those  days  there was a decency code that kept us safe.”  She speaks fondly of her mother who was a “fabulous” bible teacher.  “Mom made the Word come alive,” remembers Jane.  “That stayed with me forever.”

It was when Jane was modeling, that an agent came by the photo studio and “swiped” a head shot of her.  It was shown to movie studios and Jane was called to test for an upcoming movie that needed a half Irish/half Mexican actress.  Soon she was contacted to be awarded the leading role in The Outlaw.  There was a three year publicity campaign that touted Jane Russell in particular and it was a  “smash in the box-office.”

Jane went  on to star in a string of popular movies working with Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, and others.  Two of her most famous films were Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe and Paleface with Bob Hope.

“Bob Hope was a ball to work with…he was even funnier off screen than on, and everything was  relaxed except his chocolate eyes which never stopped  darting, never missed a  thing.”   During World War II and after she spent time touring air bases and army camps with Bob Hope, entertaining the soldiers and refreshing them with hope and light-hearted humor. ”It was wonderful to work with Bob,”  Jane said wistfully,  “And we felt such a sense of privilege about  our work with the troops.”

In all, Jane made two dozen films  with memorable performances in Macao, Montana Belle, Son of Paleface, The French Line, The Tall Men, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Fate is the Hunter, as well  as the two most famous mentioned above.  There were also many TV appearances including a starring role in The Yellow Rose.

In the early days of Hollywood, says Jane, “Studios had control of everything.  You did what they wanted you to do, or you didn’t get paid.”  The studios also had a Brean office, later called the Hayes office, where they checked everything about the morality of the movies.  At one point the studio wanted Jane to wear a bikini and she immediately protested.  She refused and left the set, “but the studio scrambled and quickly came up with a one piece alternative.”

Jane Russell admitted that it is hard for young Christians to make it in Hollywood today.  However, Jane herself  “fought the good fight, and kept the faith” in a Hollywood not always ready to accept her views.

Her own beliefs began to develop at an early age  thanks to her mother. She jokes about one person who she modeled after. “I have always been in love with C.S. Lewis and said he was to be my next husband. But the man up and died many years ago.”  She appreciated, through reading Lewis, how  terrible her  life  would have been and  how bad she would have been if she didn’t  believe in the Lord.  Books have meant a great deal to her and once, while in the hospital, the positive writings of Norman Vincent Peale had meaning for her.  However, no book has been more important to her than the bible.

It was while Jane was attending the Hollywood Presbyterian Church that it was suggested that meetings be started in the homes of people in show business who had a problem attending a strange church. Guest ministers were invited to meet with the groups and there was bible study, prayer,  and singing. With Jane, Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, and Colleen Townsend were the first to organize these meetings and they called themselves The Hollywood Christian Group.  They were soon joined by Rhonda Fleming and meeting once a month they were joined by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Donald O’Connor, Hugh O’Brien, Peter Potter and many others.  Marilyn Monroe attended once when making a film with Jane, but unfortunately did not return.  Jimmy Dodd, Western actor and Emcee on Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club was so moved as a member of this group that he became a minister.  The lives of many were touched and there are more such groups operating today.

Out of The Hollywood Christian Group came some very innovative music. Jane’s friend Connie Haines had long wanted the  putting together of a gospel pop quartet. Connie was considered the number one female swing vocalist with a successful career with the big bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey plus as a recording, radio, and film star.   In 1954 one of their group members, Beryl Davis, asked for help in raising money for her Episcopal church.  Beryl was from England and also a pop star having performed with Glenn Miller and George Shearing.  Connie was to sing, however Jane Russell and Della Russell  (the wife of Andy Russell-no relation) wanted something to do other than as Jane said “stand there with egg on my face”.  So Connie suggested they sing a church spiritual, Do Lord.  Jane and Connie being Baptists had the fun of teaching Catholic Della and Church of England Beryl how to sing a chorus of Do Lord.

A representative of Coral records heard them and asked them to record the spiritual.  They reported to the studio, however were frustrated after many takes as they didn’t jell.  Then Jane suggested “Let’s pray.  Come on, you guys” she urged both singers and band members “join hands.”  One more take and when they listened to the playback the owner of Coral Records came in saying, “That’s a million dollar seller if I ever heard one.”  High praise from Bing Crosby.  From then on they prayed before every performance.  “No pop label had ever recorded anything like it” Jane was to write in her autobiography and “It sold over a million.”

Later when Della Russell had to leave the group a friend of Rhonda Fleming’s called Connie and said how much Rhonda would like to be a part of it.  Jane reported that “Rhonda fit right in” though her classical training made it difficult for her to substitute “Lord” for “Lawd” in Do Lord.

The called themselves simply The Four Girls and were soon known by the media as “the most beauteous quartet of hymn singers ever assembled”.  They did TV’s Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello on Easter of 1954.  This led to invitations to appear on TV shows including Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Arthur Murray, and numerous others.  They went on to other record successes such as “I’m Really Living,” “Old time Religion,” and “Jacob’s Ladder”. They also recorded a hit album Make A Joyful Noise.  The CD of this album may be purchased through Amazon.com

Jane Russell was  a strong believer in prayer and knew that more than once it saved her life including one night when she was attacked in her own home. One thing she especially prayed for was children.  She had no idea that God would answer that prayer thousands and thousands of times.

During the war years Jane married football star Robert Waterfield  and during that twenty three years she and her husband adopted three children. Her second husband, Roger Barrett, died three months after her marriage, and finally she married John Peoples, to whom she stayed married for twenty-five years until his death in 1999.  Between the two of them, Jane remarks with amazement, they had eight children, fifteen grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.

Jane created her own special organization called WAIF in 1955.  The name referred to children without homes.  This organization placed about 51,000 children with adoptive families.  She went all over the nation and overseas as a fundraiser and spokesperson putting her faith to work.   The chapters for the original program have closed with the exception of the one in Los Angeles now known as “Operation Children”.  This group holds four parties a year for four different groups of children and prospective children.  Adults and children intermingle, eat, play games, and get to know each other in a park.  This approach has helped new families to be formed.

Jane also championed the passage of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment of 1953, which allowed children of American  servicemen born overseas to be placed for adoption in the United States.

According to some critics, Jane devoted more energy to WAIF than to maintaining her movie stardom.   At various points of her career, she took years off of movies to attend to family and ministry matters.  Her priorities were clear and often very public.

She  admitted that “taking a stand  for Christ” can create enemies in Hollywood unless you’re a big star, however she believes that first you must “establish your credibility,  then preach your message.” Jane did this with her own autobiography, Jane Russell,  My Path & My  Detours  (Franklin Watts, Inc. 1985). It  is an honest witness of her life and she is frank about the highs and lows in her life. This beautiful witness to her faith is filled with numerous prayers that taken  alone would make a worthy addition  to any collection of prayer books.   The book is punctuated with warmth and humor that helps you get in touch with the real person.

February 28, 2011 Jane went to be with the Lord.  However her mark still remains in Hollywood, not as an actress or singer, but as a leader among Christians in Hollywood.  There is a strong Christian movement in filmdom today that we are grateful for and there can be little doubt that one of the early sparks that set off this flame was Jane Russell.


Dr. Fred Eichelman About Dr. Fred Eichelman

Dr. Fred Eichelman is a retired educator and one of the founders of Point North † Outreach, a Christian media organization. He is the editor of its publication, Point North † Tidings. For information about this organization or to subscribe to receive it free on-line, contact: dreichelman@yahoo.com or visit: www.PointingNorth.com

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  • http://francinelocke.com/ Francine Locke

    This is the first thing I have read this morning & I am inspired and in awe of
    this amazing woman of God! In today’s media we are force-fed the dirt on people in the limelight, what an incredible role model Jane Russell has been with her life!

  • Nancy Stafford

    Wonderful feature of an amazing woman! Thank you for this!