Movie Stars: Grable, Bette–America’s Most Durable Pin-Up Girl

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Updated May 3, 2021
Betty Grable Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: Middle; father, stockbroker

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Film Debut: Chorus girl in  Happy Days (1929), at 12

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Screen Image: character actor

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I had spent all of last week in bed with pin-up girl Bette Grable.  Let me explain: a friend of mine is an avowed fan and he owns over 25 DVDs of her quite large output.  I borrowed 12 of those and watched two a day, trying to figure out the essence Grable’s screen mystique–what social factors explain her unusual longevity as a top movie star.

Betty Grable was not only Hollywood’s most popular pin-up girl–she was the industry’s most popular female star, appearing on the list of the Top Ten Box-Office Stars more often than any other actress, including Doris Day.

Grable is best remembered for her wholesome image and appealing demeanor.  Though even by standards of the time she was never gorgeous looking, the camera liked it–she was extremely photogenic.

16 Aug 1954, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA --- 8/16/1954-Hollywood, CA- Pin-up queen Betty Grable kicks up her heels in a scene from "Three for the Show." She's back in a dancing role in the movie after letting her famous legs rest in several films. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

16 Aug 1954, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA — 8/16/1954-Hollywood, CA- Pin-up queen Betty Grable kicks up her heels in a scene from “Three for the Show.” She’s back in a dancing role in the movie after letting her famous legs rest in several films. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Analyzing her career shows that Grable was definitely not an overnight success. She paid her dues and rose to the top gradually, after being in the business for well over a decade.

There are two key factors to Grable’s star durability:

First, the possession of several skills, she could sing, dance, and act, though she was not particularly deft in any one of them.

Perhaps more important is her screen image, the fact that she was modern by standards of the 1940s, when women began to have some impact on the economy as men were fighting in WWII.

Independent, Gainfully Employed Femme

betty_grable_2Grable was one of the first screen women to be  gainfully employed. She not only earned her own living but also supported her entire family. Whether or not she was romantically involved or married, she could always take care of herself.

 

 

 

 

 

Hollywood’s Shapeliest Legs

Grable’s iconic bathing suit photo made her the top pin-up girl during World War II.  It was later included in Life magazine project, “100 Photos that Changed the World”.

Alongside Marlene Dietrich, Grable was famous for having the most beautiful legs in Hollywood.  Her legs were insured by Fox for $1,000,000 with Lloyds of London. The studio publicity had always displayed her legs, promoting her perfect proportions: thigh (18.5″) calf (12″), and ankle (7.5″).

Grable’s Stage Mother

Elizabeth Ruth Grable was born on December 18, 1916, in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of three children of Lillian Rose and John Conn Grable, a stockbroker. She was of Dutch, English, German, and Irish ancestry. Nicknamed “Betty” as a child, she was pressured by her mother into becoming a performer. Her mother entered Betty in multiple beauty contests, and winning many of them got her considerable attention. 

She was propelled into acting by her ambitious mother. In her first role, as a chorus girl in the Happy Days (1929), Grable was only 12, and thus underage for acting from a legal standpoint.  But since the chorus line performed in blackface, it was impossible to tell her age. It was her mom–a typically aggressive stage mother–who decided about a complete make-over, including dyeing her hair into blonde.

betty_grable_1For Grable next film, her mother got a contract using a false identification, but having been caught, she was fired.

Grable was cast as a ‘Goldwyn Girl’ in Whoopee! (1930), starring Eddie Cantor. Though Grable received no billing, she dominated the opening number, “Cowboys.”

Grable then proceeded with a series of small parts at different studios, including the Oscar-winning The Gay Divorcee (1934), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in which she made an impression in the song “Let’s K-nock K-nees”.

In the late 1930s, Grable signed a contract with Paramount, starring in several B-level movies, playing co-eds and other fluffy parts. This typecasting damaged her career, and delayed her rise to stardom.

mother_wore_tights_4_grableIn 1939, Grable appeared with her then husband Jackie Coogan in Million Dollar Legs.  After small parts in other Hollywood movies, Grable gained national attention for her stage role in Cole Porter’s Broadway hit “Du Barry Was a Lady.”

 

When her Paramount contract ended, Grable decided to quit acting.  In a 1940 interview, she said: “I was sick and tired of it.  I’d made up my mind to leave show business altogether. So I retired, and then came an offer, unsolicited, to go on a personal appearance tour. I went. Next thing I knew, Mr. Zanuck (head of Fox) had seen my picture in the paper and offered me a contract at a lot more money. I took it. Then came Buddy DeSylva with a part in his Broadway show Du Barry Was a Lady. Mr. Zanuck said I could take it if I wanted to. I did. The show was successful.”

A series of random accidents and coincidences helped pushing Grable way up the stardom scale.  Fox’s major star, Alice Faye, fell ill just before Down Argentine Way (1940) and the studio asked her to replace the then reigning queen.  As she recalled: “I was drafted to fill her shoes. If that’s not luck, I don’t know what you’d call it. But that’s how it’s been all my life. I’ve had contracts with four studios in 10 years and each time I left one or was dropped. I stepped into something better.”

Grable: Fox’s Top Star

Grable became Fox’s top star, replacing Faye, due to appearances in such successful Technicolor musicals as Down Argentine Way (1940), Moon Over Miami (1941) (both with Don Ameche), Springtime in The Rockies (1942), Coney Island (1943) with George Montgomery, Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943) with Robert Young, Pin Up Girl (1944), Diamond Horseshoe (1945) with Dick Haymes, The Dolly Sisters (1945) with John Payne and June Haver.

Coney Island, Walter Lang’s musical starred Grable at the peak of her popularity.  Set at the turn of the century, the musical tale has mediocre songs by Ralph Rainger and Leon Robin, but is likable and harmlessly entertaining. The romantic triangle consists of Grable, torn between the man who baked her and made her a star (Robert Montgomery) and rival (played by Caesar Romero). The film was nominated for Best Scoring of a musical (Alfred Newman), but the winner was Ray Heindorf for “This Is the Army.”

Mother Wore Tights (1947), Grable’s most popular film, co-starring was with her favorite actor, Dan Dailey, cast her as a strong independent woman, a wife-mother who returns to work, leaving her kids with their grandmother.

In 1943, Grable posed for her famous pinup photo, which (along with her movies) became popular fare among GIs fighting in World War II. The image was taken by studio photographer Frank Powolny.  The particular pose and angle were chosen to hide the fact that Grable was pregnant at the time.

Starting in 1942, Grable was named one of the top 10 box office champions for 10 consecutive years. For 7 of those 10 years, she was the top female-box office star.  In

1943, she was named the numero uno movie box office attraction. By the end of the 1940s, alongside Barbara Stanwyck, Grable was one of the highest-paid females in Hollywood, receiving $300,000 a year.

Studio chief  Zanuck placed his star in expensive Technicolor films, and the hard-working Grable made 25 musicals and comedies in 13 years.

Her postwar musicals included: That Lady in Ermine (1948) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948) again with Dailey, Wabash Avenue (1950) (a remake of Grable’s Coney Island) with Victor Mature, My Blue Heaven (1950), and Meet Me After the Show (1951).

After WWII, Grable tried to adapt to the changing tastes and minds of post WWII America.  In 1953, she co-starred in How to Marry Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe, who was being groomed by Zanuck to replace Grable as the Fox’s resident sex symbol. Far from feeling threatened, on the set of that movie, Grable famously said to Monroe, “Go and get yours, honey! I’ve had mine.”

Grable starred in Three for the Show (1955) with Jack Lemmon, one of her last musicals.  In the same year, she made her last Fox film, How to Be Very, Very Popular, with Sheree North.

She wanted to play Miss Adelaide in the screen version of the musical Guys and Dolls, but producer Samuel Goldwyn opted for Vivian Blaine, who had originated the role on Broadway.

She made the transition to TV and starred in Las Vegas. In 1967, she took over the lead in the touring company of Hello, Dolly! She then tarred in a short-lived musical Belle Starr in London in 1969. Grable’s last role was Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (the Oscar-winning role of Judy Holliday in George Cukor’s 1950 film), at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida in 1973.

Grable married former child actor Jackie Coogan in 1937. He was under stress from a lawsuit against his parents over his childhood earnings, and the couple divorced in 1939.

In 1943, she married trumpeter Harry James, and had two daughters.  Their marriage, which lasted 22 years, was rife with alcoholism and infidelity, ending in a 1965 divorce.

Grable entered into a relationship with dancer Bob Remick, 27 years her junior, with whom she remained until she died in 1973.

Grable was a Republican who supported Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election.

Grable died of lung cancer on July 2, 1973, at the age of 56, in Santa Monica, California.