This year marks the 70th anniversary of The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ controversial Western that ran for one week in 1943 before Production Code violations brought it down. No matter – by that time, the film had already produced a major star in Jane Russell, all thanks to one man who had nothing to do with the movie itself: photographer George Hurrell.
In his stunning new book, George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992, author Mark Vieira recounts the legendary sessions when the most influential portrait photographer in the history of cinema turned Russell, a 21-year-old receptionist from the Valley, into a pinup goddess. Hughes enlisted Hurrell in 1941 when The Outlaw was first completed and immediately faced objections from the Production Code Administration (PCA) over what were deemed scandalous shots of Russell’s bosom. Never one to be outsmarted by the system, the reclusive mogul decided to launch a massive PR campaign so the American audience would demand to see the film in theaters.
Hurrell had just opened his own studio on Rodeo Drive and was the most in-demand portrait photographer in Hollywood, having launched, salvaged or immortalized the careers of dozens of screen sirens, from Joan Crawford to Greta Garbo to Norma Shearer. Hurrell had quickly set himself apart from his contemporaries in both technique and personality. His innovation with boom lighting and pencil retouching created a quality of image never seen before – though many imitations would follow. But it was his on-set demeanor that really made the images possible.
“Hurrell just had no shame, no fear. He was just wild, he was crazy,” Vieira tells The Hollywood Reporter. A photographer himself, who had the tremendous opportunity to work beside Hurrell before he passed away in 1992, Vieira observed firsthand the way Hurrell would disarm his subjects and see immediately through to their best features.
“He had an unerring eye for composition. He would just aim that thing and you get these lines that would be fighting each other ordinarily and it’s just all working together to bring your eye right to the center of the photo, where he wants it to go,” says Vieira. Hurrell was “completely iconoclastic – he broke all the rules – and yet he made it work.”
And so it went when Russell Birdwell, Howard Hughes’ publicist, brought Jane Russell to the Rodeo Drive studio for several portrait sessions. Since Russell’s first scene in The Outlaw finds her character hiding out in a barn with Billy the Kid, Hurrell decided to stage a similar scene with Russell posing on her back in a haystack. He was very careful to make her feel comfortable, despite the suggestive setting. In fact, Vieira had the opportunity to speak with Russell herself about that experience back in 2010, and though it was hard for her to differentiate those particular sessions among the many she sat through in that period, she appreciated that Hurrell “didn’t make her do vulgar things – bend over, all that kind of stuff," says Vieira. "He wanted her to be sexy, but he wasn’t being exploitive, which she had experienced quite a bit.”
The same might not be said for Hughes, who had engineered a special seamless bra for Russell to wear in the film, but which she did not actually use, unbeknownst to him. Hughes certainly got what he paid for in Hurrell, however. His portraits of Russell soon landed in every imaginable magazine in the country.
“No campaign was as far-reaching as that one,” speculates Vieira. “Not even Gone With the Wind.”
He writes that even Hurrell himself didn’t realize how impactful his work with Russell had been until he enlisted in the Army a year later and discovered the pictures pinned up in “every boat, every locker room, every latrine” he visited. Jane Russell was a household name, even though the film wouldn’t find wide release until 1946. Forty-some years later, Vieira attempted to make a print from a negative from one of Hurrell’s sessions with Russell, and he was astounded by what he discovered.
“You’ve never seen negatives so scratched-up in your life. You could tell the thing had been printed thousands, and thousands, and thousands of times.”
Although Hurrell’s career had its share of highs and lows – lows often precipitated by an innate restlessness that haunted him throughout his life – he enjoyed a resurgence in his later years, thanks in large part to collectors, Vieira among them, who saw in his work an “ideal of beauty” not often valued in the popular “gotcha” celebrity photography of today.
“There was a gentility and graciousness of that era,” recalls Vieira, “and he was part of it.”