Twenty-year old Jane Russell was Howard Hughes’ own personal discovery for the project. There was no mistaking which assets of hers he was drawn to. During the production of “The Outlaw,” Hughes engineered the now-famous wire bra to lift Jane Russell’s cleavage for the camera. The funny thing is, although the bra was the foundation for what we know as the “push-up bra,” Ms. Russell never wore it once in the film. Instead, the actress rewired one of her own bras, and with the clever costume design, Ms. Russell was dressed in wide-collared, low-cut blouses and belted skirts to accentuate her hourglass figure. No matter how Ms. Russell dressed, her cleavage was one of the biggest scandals in motion picture censorship at the time. However, Ms. Russell’s cleavage was not the only objectionable find in “The Outlaw.”
The film was finished in 1941 but that was only half the battle. When shooting was completed, the film was sent to the Production Code Administration, but it was rejected and sent back to Hughes with a list of demands for “reshoots” and cut sequences. This included an alteration in the script’s ending in which Billy The Kid was proven innocent of the crime he was being hunted for and a “bedroom” sequence “Rio” (Russell) has to warm the injured Billy The Kid. This first round of “reshoots” reportedly cost Hughes over $120,000.
However, this was only the start of the continuous dance Hughes would have with the PCA. Even when “The Outlaw” was released for limited screenings in San Francisco, California and New York, the PCA still hounded Hughes to cut and reshoot. During the next five years Ms. Russell was kept on Howard Hughes’ payroll until “The Outlaw” was released to theaters. “[he] had me doing publicity every day, five days a week for five years.” Russell once said about the situation.
In 1947, the United States allowed a screening of “The Outlaw” and the film received terrible reviews, referring to it as one of the biggest flops in history. Ms. Russell’s performance as “Rio” was equally judged in a negative light. But that did not stop her. After her lengthy film career, Ms. Russell wrote an autobiography titled “Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours,” where she finally revealed her opinion on her performance in “The Outlaw” and she wrote one word, “terrible.”
We cannot discredit Howard Hughes and his genius, but “The Outlaw” is not his best work. If you want to watch a kitschy western melodrama, this film is chalk full of it. If you want to watch this film to see the sensuous persona which made Jane Russell a star, this is obviously the film to watch. However, the real question you have to ask yourself when watching the film is, would you choose a horse over Jane Russell?