Tuesday, May 21

The WWII Pinup Queen

Yes, the WWII Pinup Queen, the one who put the smiles on the faces of all those GIs.  She was Betty Grable.    She was the big noise from the 1940s... the one from that photograph that went on the sides of planes and in soldiers' lockers.  She said about herself that she couldn't dance all that well, couldn't sing all that well either and there were plenty of dames who were better-looking

She may be right on that one, but she could sing and dance quite nicely and she looked great with that peaches and cream complexion, that welcoming smile and the blonde hair piled high on the top of her lovely head.  The lady was a force.  Interestingly enough, she was always a rather reluctant actress and more than once threatened to quit and did, in fact, take some long sabbaticals.

So if she was often reluctant, then how did she rise to such heights?  C'mon, think about it.  What's the standard answer?  The mama.  It was the mama.  She had the stage mother of them all (although the tag is interchangeable).  Mama wanted her baby girl in show biz.  To that end, when Betty was only was four, she was already taking dancing lessons and would soon start oiling her pipes and in time Mama would even bleach her hair a platinum blonde.  Mama would do most anything.  She made the rounds of the studios after the family moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles.  She would lie about Betty's age and would occasionally be found out and Betty would be canned but Mama persevered.

A signature look

Ultimately her mother's dogged ways would pay off and in 1929 Betty began making films when she was 12.  She had some talent, yes, but she also had an angelic face, was polite to everyone and always willing to try anything.  Most of her early films were utterly forgettable with a couple of exceptions. 

She managed to sneak into small roles in two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers' films, 1934s The Gay Divorcee and 1936s Follow the Fleet, and in 1939 she appeared in Million Dollar Legs in the starring role.  In was a prophetic title because in the 1940s, when she was wildly famous, her beautiful legs would be insured for a million dollars and the claim was she had the most beautiful gams in Hollywood.

Everything changed in 1940 when Darryl F. Zanuck, mastermind at 20thCentury Fox, took notice of her.  She was at the time thinking about kicking Hollywood in the ass and heading for the hills.  Her brief marriage to former child star Jackie Coogan was soon to result in divorce although she would rather have been happily married and a mother.  But Zanuck was nothing if not persuasive and he got what he wanted. 

Betty would be the musical queen of the lot from the fading days of reigning Fox star Alice Faye to the advent of Marilyn Monroe.  Ironically, Betty would costar with both of them and in each case there would be rumors of bitchery and feuding but it was never the case.  And a lot of that harmoniousness is surely due to Betty who was as sweet and natural and un-movie starish as they came.  There would, however, be one incident, with one actress, that proved the exception but that was five years away.

When Faye had to drop out of 1940s Down Argentine Way, Betty stepped in and wowed everyone at the studio and everyone not at the studio.  Betty hardly had time to breathe when she joined Faye and Fox's boy singing wonder-- and a frequent Grable costar-- John Payne in 1941s Tin Pan Alley, another smash.  To see these two yummy blondes together singing and dancing to The Sheik of Araby remains to this day one of my favorite movie musical moments.

The boys loved this face

Grable was so popular already with the public that Fox couldn't get her into musical films quickly enough.  The sad fact is that when one now looks back at her career, she made a great number of silly musicals, many of which had identical plots as others of her films.  There would be subtle story changes, maybe different location and leading man and voila!, you had another Grable movie.  She knew this, too, and begged for more dramatic parts.  In 1941 she got two of them, back-to-back.

First up was A Yank in the R.A.F. starring Fox's male answer to Grable, the blindingly handsome Tyrone Power.  He plays an obnoxious pilot during WWII who comes across an old flame, Grable.  Then she went into, I think, one of her best films, I Wake Up Screaming, with Fox hunk Victor Mature with whom she had an affair.  It was the story of her sister's murder and Mature is implicated but Betty doesn't believe he did it and they set out to find the killer.  It was film noir, Baby, and you know what they did for me.  Neither film was as popular as her musicals and the public wanted Betty singing and dancing and arguing onscreen with her male costars.  She would never do another drama. 

A banner year came in 1943.  Betty made Springtime in the Rockies and would end up marrying one of her costars, bandleader Harry James.  It's always been said Betty absolutely adored the man and while they were married for 22 years, had two daughters, shared a love for horse-racing and kicking back, Harry was a drunk and a womanizer.  He had a rather public affair with Helen Forrest, one of his band singers who popularized the song I Had the Craziest Dream, which greatly distressed Betty.

The famous photo

This was the year that she took the famous photo that whacked out all the GIs, the one in the white bathing suit, hair piled high on her head, from the back, looking over her shoulder.  It was not known for awhile that the reason the shot was the way it was was because Betty was pregnant.  This was also the year that Grable first made the list of the 10 top money-making stars and she would be on it every year through 1949, more than any other female star.  Can you believe it?  Do you know the female stars of the 1940s?  It was an incredible accomplishment.

She would star in such musical extravaganzas such as Moon over Miami, Song of the Islands, Footlight Serenade, Coney Island, Sweet Rosie O'Grady, Pin Up Girl (duh) and the popular Diamond Horseshoe with one of the most popular singers of the time, Dick Haymes, whom the suits were trying to make into a movie star.  Most people would have a difficult time distinguishing one film from the other or perhaps finding them distinguishable at all but Betty was the darling of the public and they clamored for more.

They hardly spoke to one another

In 1945 she made what I think is the best musical she ever did, The Dolly Sisters.  These were real-life Hungarian twin sisters who came to America in the early 1900s and dazzled the Broadway community.  The film made no mention of the twin angle and was highly fictionalized to showcase the singing-dancing talents of Grable and Fox newcomer June Haver.  You would never guess it by watching the film, but Haver is the actress Betty intensely disliked and they rarely spoke unless on camera.  Most in the know directed the problem at Grable and it was assumed she was jealous of the new girl.  Regardless, this is my favorite of all Grable's films with John Payne aboard and songs such as I Can't Begin to Tell You and I'm Always Chasing Rainbows, and it was a monster hit.  I went nuts watching and listening to the two of them warbling and wrangling.  Unashamedly I'll call them of one of filmdom's best pairings. 

I didn't care for the majority of her films after The Dolly Sisters, not finding them with much originality.  She did do several with dancer Dan Dailey that were quite popular, but certainly no great shakes in the screenwriting department.

Before her movie career completely ended in 1955, she made one film that is surely the most famous one she ever did... How to Marry a Millionaire.  Not only had Betty already been dethroned by the new girl, but that girl would be her costar, Marilyn Monroe.  It didn't hurt that Lauren Bacall was also along for the ride, a familiar one about three roommates out to snag rich husbands.  Let me count the times this plot has been done.  But it was a huge hit especially in the new Cinemascope.  Monroe was apparently nervous about working with Grable but sweet Betty, with her usual grace, said, Don't worry, Honey, I've had my time.  Now you have yours.  Their billing became a slight issue but was resolved when it was decided Betty would be top-billed on the screen while Monroe would be in print ads.

Grable, Bacall, Monroe

Eventually Harry James drove her kind of crazy and she divorced him.  It's been said she was still in love with him but could no longer tolerant his behavior.  She would go on to do some television (Carol Burnett and Tennessee Ernie Ford come to mind) and would wind up playing Hello Dolly, Born Yesterday and Guys and Dolls on the stage.

Sadly she was only 56 when she died of lung cancer in 1973.  She was a life-long puffer.

Betty Grable could not have a movie career today if she did the same kind of musical films she did in her heyday.  There would be no place for her.  She was the WWII Pinup Queen for good reason.  She was lovely to look at and it was wartime.  Seeing her photos and her films made people feel good.  By the mid-1950s, fickle Americans wanted to let go of all that and Betty went, too.  But while her light was bright, she made everyone forget their troubles and I always did like that about the movies.

The Directors: Joshua Logan

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