Perhaps best known for her lead role opposite Marilyn Monroe in the classic musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Jane Russell made her Hollywood debut a decade earlier—in a film that proved so scandalous it took some two years to pass the censors.
The movie in question was The Outlaw, a classical western melodrama telling the story of a fictional encounter between Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid. Russell played Rio McDonald, a sexy femme fatale intent on avenging her murdered brother. Directed by Howard Hughes, the movie finished shooting in 1941 but was found to breach Hollywood’s increasingly strict decency rules ahead of its release.
One of the chief problems with the movie, the censors decreed, was that the characters were seen to “sin on film” without also being seen to be adequately punished; but an even greater problem concerned Russell’s anatomy. Hughes had wanted to make the most of curvaceous female lead, and so had designed a specialized brassiere for her to wear on screen to emphasize her figure. An illustration of one of the movie’s most provocative scenes used in the movie’s promotional material—in which Russell was shown lying on a bed of hay, with her shirt daringly pulled down over one shoulder—likewise fell afoul of the censors. Faced with a catalog of problems, 20th Century Fox promptly pulled the release of the film. Hughes stood to personally lose hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.
Rather than sit back and see the film indefinitely shelved, however, Hughes decided to buy into The Outlaw’s scandalous reputation. Anonymously, he and his team began telephoning women’s groups, church ministries, and countless other conservative organizations all across America, informing them that Hollywood was gearing up to release a shockingly provocative film. Protests were promptly sparked all across the country and the resulting controversy created enough buzz to secure The Outlaw release to theaters for a single week in 1943, before it was pulled down due to its violations of the Production Code.
Having the film taken down one week after its release only served to prolong the buzz surrounding the movie, and by the time it was finally passed by the censors and achieved a full release—some five years after it was completed, in 1946—the movie netted an impressive $3 million at the box office.