Today is the 103rd birthday of the stage and screen triple-threat Betty Grable. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Betty Grable
OCCUPATION: Film Actress, Pin-up
BIRTH DATE: December 18, 1916
DEATH DATE: July 2, 1973
PLACE OF BIRTH: St. Louis, Missouri
PLACE OF DEATH: Santa Monica, California
REMAINS: Buried, Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, CA
HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME 6525 Hollywood Blvd.
ST. LOUIS WALK OF FAME
BEST KNOWN FOR: Betty Grable was a musical film star and popular pin up model, after starting as a chorus-line dancer in the 1930’s.
A Hollywood movie studio dubbed the 1943 pinup of actress Betty Grable “the picture that launched a million dreams.” The term “pinup” was coined to describe the photographs of female actresses and singers that would decorate the barracks and planes of countless soldiers during World War II (1939–45). Entertainers remaining on the home front during the war used their celebrity in a variety of ways to advance the war effort. The most famous pinup to come out of World War II was Grable’s. Her photograph, showing Grable from behind in a bathing suit, peering over her shoulder and smiling playfully with her hands on her hips, represented the girl back on the home front for thousands of homesick soldiers and reminded them daily of what they were fighting for. It is regarded as second in popularity among wartime photographs only to the American flag-raising scene at Iwo Jima.
Ruth Elizabeth Grable was born on December 18, 1916, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the third child born to Lillian Hofman and John Conn Grable. One son, John, died early in 1916. Betty’s father, who went by the name Conn, was a stockbroker, and her mother focused her energy on show business aspirations for her daughters. When Betty’s older sister Marjorie showed a lack of talent and interest, all of Lillian’s attention shifted to Betty. Betty was enrolled in a variety of performing arts lessons and classes before she turned four years of age. At the age of three she attended the Clark’s Dancing School. If there were no amateur shows or auditions available, Lillian would arrange impromptu gatherings to put Betty on display. Before long, the family moved to the west side of St. Louis and took up residence in the exclusive Forest Park Hotel on Lindell Avenue. There Betty was enrolled in the elite Mary Institute.
As a youth, Betty made many vaudeville (theater combining comedy, song, and dance) performances. She was eventually seen in St. Louis by a talent scout from Hollywood, California. The scout told Lillian to bring Betty to Hollywood. Soon the family was packed into a seven-passenger, custom-built Lincoln automobile that Conn had purchased for the journey. Upon arrival on the West Coast, Betty was enrolled at the Hollywood Professional School. She attended the Ernest Belcher Academy for her dancing lessons and the Albertina Rasch School for her acting classes. When the Great Depression hit, Conn had one of the worst professions in the country, as a stockbroker. However, he found a way to keep enough funds available for Betty to remain in Hollywood. Lillian continued taking her to auditions and parading her before casting directors. She transported her to beauty contests and to appear in theater shows until Betty answered a chorus call at Fox Studios for a film called Let‘s Go Places. Since the minimum age for chorus work was fifteen, Lillian signed false identification papers so that thirteen-year old Betty was hired.
When Betty’s true age was discovered by Fox, she was fired. Lillian immediately drove Betty over to the casting offices of Goldwyn-United Artists. Producer Samuel Goldwyn (c. 1879–1974) signed Betty to a contract, and her first job was to sing the opening line in the first scene of the 1930 musical Whoopee! Bit parts continued for the next three years until Betty finally landed a featured spot in the RKO musical The Gay Divorcee in 1934. RKO signed her to a second contract and dyed her hair platinum blond. However, Betty continued to seesaw between bit parts and leads. She began a series of campus-themed films that identified her for years to come as the wholesome, vivacious, all-American coed. RKO dropped their young starlet’s contract in the spring of 1937 after her budding romance with former child star Jackie Coogan (1914–1984) became a news item. Betty and Jackie were married in November 1937, shortly after Betty signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures.
The Coogan marriage brought a great deal of attention and some fame, but the couple divorced in 1940. Betty Grable was now becoming known to the world on her own, and Paramount began giving her leading roles. A run on the Broadway stage in the 1939 musical hit DuBarry Was a Lady landed Grable on the cover of Life magazine and made her a household name. Grable signed with Twentieth-Century Fox in 1940, and it was there that she received her big break as female lead in Down Argentine Way (1940). Her fan mail was enormous and she rapidly became the hottest property on the Twentieth-Century Fox lot. Grable’s stardom came through musical comedies, but it was her “million-dollar legs” that would make her the pinup girl of all pinup girls during World War II.
The year 1939 was a golden year for Hollywood, with big stars lighting up the silver screen. In Europe, things were growing darker as German forces, led by dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), invaded Poland. The war came earlier to Hollywood than to the rest of America because of the large number of British entertainers working there. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, many returned almost immediately to England. Others delayed their departure to finish films. They then answered the call to respond as members of the British Commonwealth to do their duty for king and country. It would not be until December 1941 that World War II would shatter the calm in Hollywood for American entertainers.
America’s declaration of war in 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, changed Hollywood’s emphasis. Many male performers enlisted in the military, and those left behind looked for ways they could contribute on the home front. Millions of dollars were raised by war bond rallies, and Grable took part in many of them. When the Hollywood Canteen opened on October 3, 1942, Grable performed and then joined other stars in dancing with the young soldiers before they headed off to war. For those soldiers not fortunate enough to have danced with Grable at the Canteen, a substitute phenomenon was about to be born.
The pinup picture of Betty Grable taken by photographer Frank Powolney was copied an estimated five million times and would be owned by one out of every five U.S. servicemen during the war. It was the first, and certainly the best-known, pinup of World War II. The renowned poster had her in a swimsuit, looking back over her shoulder with a mischievous smile. It proved inspirational to those in the middle of war. Other stars soon produced pinups, but Grable was without question the most popular. Hollywood had other glamour queens during the war and loved to give them labels. “The Girl With the Peek-a-Boo Bangs” (Veronica Lake [1919–1973]),
“The Sweater Girl” (Lana Turner [1921–1995]), “The Oomph Girl” (Ann Sheridan [1915–1967]), and “The Sarong” (Dorothy Lamour [1914–1996) were all popular. Their photographs would adorn barracks walls, smile from foot lockers, and, in pocket size, be carried into battle. Hand-painted reproductions of the same popular photographs would decorate both the inside and the outside of bombers, boats, and Jeeps. By November 1943 it was announced that Betty Grable ranked first in photo requests by military personnel, with Teresa Wright second, and Rita Hayworth third. Fox insured Grable’s legs for a million dollars with Lloyd’s of London, creating a great deal more publicity.
Before beginning work on the film Coney Island (1943), Grable participated in a war bond drive throughout most of the western states. During filming she captained the “Comedians'” football team, which played for war charities at the Los Angeles Coliseum. They played against the “Leading Men,” captained by Rita Hayworth. Grable also took her turn visiting hospital wards to help wounded servicemen forget their troubles. Her famous legs made another wartime contribution during a nationwide bond drive in Pulaski, Virginia. A pair of nylon stockings she had worn were sold, with a certificate of authenticity, to the highest bidder for $110,000.
All of Grable’s films were exercises in wartime escapism, and in 1943 she made a major leap in popularity from the number eight to the number one female star of the times. Grable married band leader Harry James (1916–1983) that summer and they had two daughters. With her pinup success and continuing lead in lavish musicals, Grable became the highest-paid star in Hollywood and one of the wealthiest women in America. Grable was variously described as “the gal with the gorgeous gams,” “the girl with the million-dollar legs,” or the girl with “the limbs that launched a thousand sighs.” She did not mind at all, as she and her contemporaries in Hollywood took their wartime role very seriously.
Grable’s career gradually declined after the war ended. By the mid-1950s musicals were no longer popular and television was becoming common in every household. Grable’s final film was released in 1955. She then left Hollywood to concentrate on stage and nightclub work. Her most notable tour was in the Broadway musical Hello Dolly in 1967. She and Harry James divorced in 1965. Grable continued her lifetime work of entertaining until her death from cancer on July 2, 1973.
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
How to Be Very, Very Popular (22-Jul-1955)
Three for the Show (24-Feb-1955)
How to Marry a Millionaire (5-Nov-1953) · Loco Dempsey
The Farmer Takes a Wife (12-Jun-1953) · Molly Larkin
Meet Me After the Show (15-Aug-1951)
Call Me Mister (31-Jan-1951)
My Blue Heaven (15-Sep-1950) · Kitty Moran
Wabash Avenue (31-Mar-1950)
The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (27-May-1949) · Freddie
When My Baby Smiles at Me (10-Nov-1948)
That Lady in Ermine (24-Aug-1948) · Francesca
Mother Wore Tights (20-Aug-1947) · Mother
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (4-Jan-1947)
The Dolly Sisters (Nov-1945)
Diamond Horseshoe (2-May-1945)
Pin-Up Girl (25-Apr-1944)
Four Jills in a Jeep (17-Mar-1944) · Herself
Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1-Oct-1943) · Madeleine Marlowe
Coney Island (16-Jun-1943) · Katie Farley
Springtime in the Rockies (6-Nov-1942) · Vicky Lane
Footlight Serenade (1-Aug-1942)
Song of the Islands (5-Feb-1942) · Eileen O’Brien
I Wake Up Screaming (14-Nov-1941) · Jill Lynn
A Yank in the R.A.F. (26-Sep-1941) · Carol Brown
Moon Over Miami (18-Jun-1941)
Tin Pan Alley (22-Nov-1940) · Lily Blane
Down Argentine Way (11-Oct-1940) · Glenda Crawford
The Day the Bookies Wept (15-Sep-1939) · Ina Firpo
Million Dollar Legs (14-Jul-1939)
Give Me a Sailor (19-Aug-1938)
College Swing (29-Apr-1938)
Pigskin Parade (23-Oct-1936) · Laura Watson
Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose (18-Sep-1936)
Follow the Fleet (20-Feb-1936) · Singer
Old Man Rhythm (2-Aug-1935)
The Nitwits (7-Jun-1935) · Mary Roberts
The Gay Divorcee (12-Oct-1934) · Guest
Child of Manhattan (11-Feb-1933)