Hollywood Codebreakers: Censors ‘Outlaw’ Jane Russell’s Bust

“We’re not getting enough production out of Jane’s breasts,” Howard Hughes complained to his cinematographer, Gregg Toland. The business tycoon and Hollywood producer had chosen an unknown teenager named Jane Russell to star in his new western The Outlaw, and in daily after daily, he kept flagging her scenes. Hughes wanted his star’s chest prominently on display, but he didn’t want to see any evidence of structural support. This made most bras of the era completely unacceptable. So Hughes decided to draw one himself.

As the legend goes, Hughes took out his sketchpad and designed a forerunner to the seamless push-up bra, one that wouldn’t show through the loose peasant blouses that dominated Russell’s wardrobe. By Russell’s account, it was “ridiculous and uncomfortable” and she never wore it. To trick her boss, she simply covered the seams of her own bra with tissues. “He could design planes,” she later wrote, “But a Mister Playtex he wasn’t.”

Even without the gravity-defying bra, this failed Mr. Playtex managed to shoot hours of exploitative footage. There are scenes where Russell bends over a dresser, where she writhes in a haystack, where she writhes in the water, and one sequence where she twists in bondage, gagged and begging to be released. This “artistic” choice ultimately landed Hughes in serious trouble. The eccentric billionaire would end up defending his fixation with Russell’s bosom before the PCA, and a judge in federal court.

On paper, The Outlaw is hardly salacious. The western is two hours of drama over a stolen horse, starring familiar folk heroes Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. But when these men aren’t fighting about the horse, they’re fighting about Rio, the sultry woman who shares a bed with both of them. Hughes apparently had aspirations of making an “important” film when he first shopped The Outlaw. But as production progressed, the movie morphed into a messy slog that served as little more than a sexy debut for Russell. It didn’t help that Hughes, when his original director Howard Hawks walked, insisted on helming the picture himself.

Hughes first screened The Outlaw for the PCA in 1941, just as Breen was packing up for his brief stint at RKO. Even though he was almost out the door, Breen made sure to tell Hughes in no uncertain terms that the movie was “definitely and specifically in violation of our Production Code.” He boiled his objections down to two key issues: “the inescapable suggestions of an illicit relationship between the ‘Doc’ and Rio, and between Billy and Rio; and the countless shots of Rio, in which her breasts are not fully covered.” The hint of casual sex — and hint is a generous word — was certainly inescapable. Doc and Rio are unambiguously living together, a fact made explicit when Doc brings unconscious Billy to his home and Rio nurses him back to health. She slowly falls for him, but their relationship begins earlier than that, on disturbing terms. Billy and Rio first encounter each other in a barn, where Rio is hiding with a gun. She’s aiming to shoot Billy as revenge for killing her brother, but he overpowers her and rapes her. “Hold still lady, or you won’t have much dress left!” he yells over the darkened shot.

Later, when Rio is inexplicably falling for him, she hops into his sick bed to “get [him] warm.” Once Billy is lucid again, the pair invent excuses for Rio to stay behind while her aunt Guadalupe runs errands in town. It’s obvious from their glances and playful tussling what they’re doing when Rio’s aunt is away — Guadalupe herself is well aware of the tryst. In most of these scenes, the camera and Russell’s posture emphasize her decolletage. If Hughes could think of a reason for Rio to bend or heave in any given moment, he took it. And if he couldn’t, he usually just did it anyway.

Hughes was in for a fight, as Breen’s March 1941 memo to his boss, Will Hays, made clear. “In my more than ten years of critical examination of motion pictures, I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio,” he wrote. “Throughout almost half the picture, the girl’s breasts, which are quite large and prominent, are shockingly emphasized, and in almost every instance are very substantially uncovered.” But Hughes was a stubborn man with unlimited financial resources, so he appealed his case to the MPPDA.

Hughes’s publicity man Russell Birdwell argued the case before the jury. He pointed his audience to a collection of so-called “cheesecake shots” from current studio releases. These publicity images were intended to be pinup photos, where an actress from Paramount or RKO’s latest would put on a short skirt and pout, often with a ridiculous prop. Bunny ears, cupid arrows, and witch hats were all on the table. Through these photos, Birdwell argued that Hughes wasn’t doing anything different than his peers in Hollywood. His whataboutism worked. The MPPDA decided The Outlaw could have its seal, with only minor deletions. It was issued in May of 1941.

But Hughes didn’t seize on this ruling and rush The Outlaw into theaters. State censors were demanding deeper cuts, ones that Hughes was apparently reluctant to make. So he stalled. Then Pearl Harbor happened. Hughes was too busy signing war contracts and tinkering with new planes to work on his western. It sat on the shelf for two years.

Hughes’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, quit in frustration. But Hughes could finance exhibition himself. He chose the Geary Theater in San Francisco for the initial run, locking in February 5, 1943 for the big premiere. Audiences were already eager to see Russell onscreen. Birdwell had hyped the new actress so successfully that in one three-week period, she appeared on the cover of 11 national magazines. The Outlaw was on track to be a cash cow, but Hughes shocked everyone by pulling the movie from exhibition barely a month after its first single-theater run. The Outlaw would not return again for three years. But when it did, the PCA would not soon forget it.

If Birdwell and Hughes’s first publicity run had been a little crude, their 1946 campaign was downright tawdry. Billboards asked, “How would you like to tussle with Russell?” and “What are the two greatest reasons for Jane Russell’s rise to stardom?” A skywriter flew over California, spelling out The Outlaw and drawing two huge circles, each with a dot in the middle. Even fellow producers found it unseemly. “The whole campaign of this picture is a disgrace to the industry and I am on the verge of publicly attacking Howard Hughes with a blast in the newspapers,” Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, wrote to Breen, who was by now back on the job.

The airplane boobs weren’t great, but Hughes’s biggest mistake was claiming his movie was “exactly as filmed” in advertisements. The Outlaw was running with a Code seal and the requisite cuts that came with that, but Hughes was selling a different story. He was a uncompromising producer who spit in the faces of censors, a true renegade determined to give the people what they want. This spin would cost him. The PCA’s complementary organization, the Advertising Code Administration, charged Hughes with “openly and repeatedly” violating ad guidelines. Since the producer would not budge, the censors essentially served Hughes with a cease and desist. Breen penned the orders from the MPPDA, now the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA), himself:

Hughes sued the MPAA in federal district court, demanding $5 million in damages. He invoked the First Amendment as well as anti-trade laws, claiming the MPAA was simultaneously curbing his free speech and conspiring “to suppress competition.” He requested an injunction against the MPAA to prevent the group from revoking his seal and shutting him out of theaters. Hughes did obtain a temporary injunction, one which allowed The Outlaw to continue playing, pending a later hearing. But in this later hearing, Judge John Bright ruled against Hughes, dismissing his claims of conspiracy and free speech violation. Hughes’s appeal failed and that fall, the MPAA formally removed the seal from The Outlaw. Mainstream theaters dropped it, but the movie continued to play independent theaters, adding to its already impressive box office haul.

The PCA hadn’t heard the last of Hughes. He’d return with another splashy campaign just a few years later, one that yet again centered on Jane Russell’s anatomy. Hughes could afford to be this brazen in every sense of the word: he was fabulously, independently wealthy, allowing him to push through roadblocks that would normally stop a similarly shameless producer. He was also a bit of a Hollywood “outsider,” an eccentric who devoted only some of his time to cinema. The matters of decorum and process that people like Darryl Zanuck held dear meant little to Hughes, a businessman, investor, and aviator who rarely asked for permission. But while Hughes was a unique case, other producers would eventually mirror some of his tactics, particularly independent distribution, to great effect.

Our next movie comes from a Hollywood insider — a screwball comedy genius, in fact. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Preston Sturges presents a patriotic, small-town girl named Trudy. After a wild night with some soldiers, Trudy wakes up to find herself pregnant by one of them. She’s just not sure which one. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek busted Code conventions in its plot synopsis alone, yet surprisingly, it passed the PCA with relative ease. We’ll discuss how next week on Hollywood Codebreakers.

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Editor and writer. Formerly on staff at Thrillist and Maxim.com. Freelancer everywhere.