Born December 18, 1916
St. Louis, Missouri
Died July 2, 1973
Santa Monica, California
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.
A star is born
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 (1929–41) 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.
Unlike Betty Grable, who enjoyed an established Hollywood career by the time World War II (1939–45) erupted, Jane Russell (1921–) largely launched her entertainment career by appealing to servicemen at home and abroad during the war. Businessman and Hollywood producer Howard Hughes (1905–1976) discovered the young actress when casting for his western film, The Outlaw, in 1940. The thin plot was centered on the outlaw legend Billy the Kid (1859–1881), but Russell's curvaceous figure was clearly the focus of the film. The Outlaw began under the direction of Howard Hawks, but he was soon replaced by Hughes, who had never directed a film but knew what he wanted to see. Because of his inexperience, each scene took thirty or forty takes and one scene took more than one hundred. The entire film required nine months instead of the customary six to eight weeks to shoot. When the picture was finally finished, Russell began posing for publicity stills. Hughes used the photographs to further draw attention to Russell and her physical features.
The Outlaw would launch Russell's career as a sex symbol at a time when most Hollywood actresses' roles were rather wholesome and innocent. The film was almost immediately banned by the Motion Picture Association censors because of the controversy over its sexually explicit content. The film tested the limits of public morality at the time. The footage showing Russell's cleavage provided the most crucial issue in the controversy surrounding the film's limited public showing. Although The Outlaw was approved in the spring of 1941, Hughes decided not to release it immediately and instructed his publicity agent to promote Russell into a national celebrity. He intended to take advantage of the extended publicity to generate additional interest in the film. The delay over the film's release left Russell in limbo as an actress, but she continued sitting for an endless series of promotional photographs.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, changed the direction of Hughes's publicity campaign. Now it was aimed at the army, navy, and the marines. Russell went out daily to various military posts and posed with planes and tanks, aboard ships, and with servicemen everywhere. One air force outfit called themselves "Russell's Raiders" in her honor. She would also spend hours in the studio posing in front of the camera in bathing suits, negligees, and shorts. The series of photographs soon became pinups that decorated countless war camp walls on the home front and abroad. In one popular pinup, Russell is reclining suggestively on a stack of hay with pouting lips and her loose-fitting peasant blouse from The Outlaw. A second, and more famous, pinup depicts Russell in her peasant blouse with the right shoulder strap slipped down, sitting in a pile of hay that looks as if it had recently been rolled in. Russell's early career was built on barracks' walls during World War II. After the war, The Outlaw was released nationally in 1946 and Russell went on to a successful Hollywood career.
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.
Wartime pinup queen
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; see entry]) 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.
For More Information
Hoopes, Roy. When the Stars Went to War: Hollywood and World War II. New York: Random House, 1994.
Russell, Jane. My Path and My Detours. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.
Warren, Doug. Betty Grable: The Reluctant Movie Queen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.
"Betty Grable." The Roger Richman Agency, Inc. http://www.hollywoodlegends.com/betty-grable.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
"Betty Grable." St. Louis Walk of Fame. http://www.stlouiswalkoffame.org/inductees/betty-grable.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
Nationality: American. Born: Ruth Elizabeth Grable in St. Louis, Missouri, 18 December 1916. Education: Attended Mary Institute, St. Louis; Hollywood Professional School; Ernest Belcher Academy; Albertina Rasch School. Family: Married 1) the actor Jackie Coogan, 1938 (divorced 1941); 2) the musician Harry James, 1943 (divorced 1965), daughters: Victoria, Jessica. Career: Child vaudeville singer and dancer; 1929—her mother arranged for her film debut at age 13, in Let's Go Places; Fox contract annulled when her age is discovered; 1930–32—contract with Goldwyn; 1932—member of Ted Fiorita's Band as vocalist; worked for RKO and Paramount during the remainder of the 1930s; 1935—toured with Jackie Coogan in vaudeville show; 1940—in featured role on stage in Du Barry Was a Lady; 1940–53—contract with 20th Century-Fox; on television in Twentieth Century; 1960s—on stage in various productions, including Hello, Dolly!, 1965–67. Died: 2 July 1973.
Films as Actress:
Let's Go Places (Mirth and Melody) (Strayer)
Happy Days (Stoloff); Fox Movietone Follies of 1930 (The New Movietone Follies of 1930) (Stoloff); Whoopee! (Freeland) (as chorus girl)
Kiki (Taylor); Palmy Days (Sutherland) (as chorus girl); Ex-Sweeties (Neilan—short); Crashing Hollywood (Arbuckle—short)
The Greeks Had a Word for Them (Sherman); Lady! Please! (Lord—short); Hollywood Luck (Arbuckle—short); Probation (Second Chances) (Thorpe); The Flirty Sleepwalker (Lord—short); Hollywood Lights (Arbuckle—short); Hold 'em Jail (Taurog); Over the Counter (Cummings—short); The Kid from Spain (McCarey)
Cavalcade (Lloyd); Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (Girl of My Dreams) (Marin) (as orchestra member); Melody Cruise (Sandrich) (as stewardess); Child of Manhattan (Buzzell); What Price Innocence? (Shall the Children Pay?) (Mack); Air Tonic (White—short)
Hips, Hips, Hooray! (Sandrich); Love Detectives (Gottler—short); Business Is a Pleasure (Cline—short); The Gay Divorcee (The Gay Divorce) (Sandrich); Student Tour (Reisner) (as Cayenne); By Your Leave (Corrigan)
The Spirit of 1976 (Jason—short); The Nitwits (Stevens) (as Mary); A Night at the Biltmore Bowl (Goulding—short); Old Man Rhythm (Ludwig) (as Sylvia); A Quiet Fourth (Guiol—short)
Collegiate (The Charm School) (Murphy) (as Dorothy); Follow the Fleet (Sandrich); Don't Turn 'em Loose (Stoloff); Pigskin Parade (The Harmony Parade) (Butler) (as Laura Watson)
This Way Please (Florey) (as Jane Morrow); Thrill of a Lifetime (Archainbaud) (as Gwen)
College Swing (Swing, Teacher, Swing) (Walsh) (as Betty); Give Me a Sailor (Nugent) (as Nancy Larkin); Campus Confession (Fast Play) (Archainbaud)
Man about Town (Sandrich) (as Susan); Million Dollar Legs (Grinde); The Day the Bookies Wept (Goodwins)
Down Argentine Way (Cummings) (as Glenda Crawford); Tin Pan Alley (Lang) (as Lily Blane)
Moon over Miami (Lang) (as Kay Latimer); A Yank in the R.A.F. (King); Hot Spot (I Wake Up Screaming) (Humberstone)
Song of the Islands (Lang) (as Eileen O'Brien); Footlight Serenade (Ratoff) (as Pat Lambert); Springtime in the Rockies (Cummings) (as Vicky)
Coney Island (Lang) (as Kate Farley); Sweet Rosie O'Grady (Cummings) (as Madeleine Marlowe)
Four Jills in a Jeep (Seiter) (as guest); Pin Up Girl (Humberstone) (as Lorry Jones)
The All-Star Bond Rally (Audley—short); Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe (Diamond Horseshoe) (Seaton) (as Bonnie Collins); The Dolly Sisters (Cummings) (as Jenny Dolly)
Do You Love Me? (Ratoff) (as guest); The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (Seaton) (title role); Hollywood Park (short) (as guest)
Mother Wore Tights (Lang) (as Myrtle Burt)
That Lady in Ermine (Lubitsch) (as Francesca/Angeline); When My Baby Smiles at Me (Lang) (as Bonnie Kane)
The Beautiful Blond from Bashful Bend (Sturges) (as Freddie Jones)
Wabash Avenue (Koster) (as Ruby Summers); My Blue Heaven (Koster) (as Molly Moran)
Call Me Mister (Bacon) (as Kay Hudson); Meet Me after the Show (Sale) (as Delilah)
The Farmer Takes a Wife (Levin) (as Molly Larkin); How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco)
Three for the Show (Potter) (as Julie Lowndes)
How to Be Very, Very Popular (Johnson)
On GRABLE: books—
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Pastos, Spero, Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable, New York, 1986.
Billman, Larry, Betty Grable: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1993.
McGee, Tom, Betty Grable: The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs, Vestal, New York, 1994.
On GRABLE: articles—
Gorney, J., "Betty Grable 1916–1973," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1973.
Gaines, Jane, "In the Service of Ideology: How Betty Grable's Legs Won the War," in Film Reader, no. 5, 1982.
Stars (Mariembourg), March 1989.
Golden, Eve, "All This and World War Two," in Classic Images (Muscatine), January 1993.
Kendall, Robert, "Betty Grable: the Girl with the Million Dollar Legs," in Classic Images (Muscatine), December 1995.
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Betty Grable was truly a potent force in 1940s Hollywood. For 11 consecutive years (1941–51), she ranked among the film industry's top stars. During the 1940s there was no more popular female movie star in the world. Grable's most successful films were lavish formulaic Technicolor musicals, beginning with Down Argentine Way in 1940. In all, she appeared in some 22 of these color spectacles, all for Twentieth Century-Fox, including Song of the Islands, Springtime in the Rockies, Coney Island, Sweet Rosie O'Grady, Diamond Horseshoe, and Mother Wore Tights. All ranked among the most popular films at the box office for their respective years of release.
One cannot overemphasize the economic importance of Betty Grable during the 1940s. Except for Tyrone Power in 1940, and Gregory Peck in 1947, no other Fox player ever made it into the annual poll of the film industry's top ten stars. Grable's Technicolor musicals, with their high and consistent revenues, powered Fox from years in the red in the late 1930s to a position just behind Paramount Pictures in the film industry's race for profits.
More than any film star of the 1940s, Grable was able to move beyond her films to become a universally popular icon. Few, even in this day and age, have not seen her picture in the pose as the attractive blond in a white bathing suit coyly peeking over her shoulder, flashing a million-dollar smile. Hers was the image of a woman sexy enough to satisfy the longings of homesick soldiers, yet wholesome enough not to cause protest by their fathers and mothers. Grable's face appeared everywhere: on the covers of Time and Life, spread across the pages of countless movie fan magazines, and adorning the sides of B-22 bombers and PT boats.
Twentieth Century-Fox's publicity flacks contributed to and created an image of the girl next door, always struggling to make do. She was viewed as an actress without much natural talent. Fox always took the opportunity to point out her limitations—not a very good dancer, an adequate singer, and even a not-so-classic beauty. But in retrospect, the talent was always there. She could dance well; see, for example, her athletic romp with Gwen Verdon in Meet Me after the Show. As a singer, she could sell a song with her small, but clear voice. She generated her share of popular songs, including the classic "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." As an actress, she stuck to what she could do well, avoiding roles that clashed with her image.
In 1945 she ranked among the highest salaried individuals in the United States; a decade later she was a has-been. In 1951, Twentieth Century-Fox abandoned her and moved to another sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe. Grable turned to the dinner theater circuit, only emerging again into the national spotlight with a replacement role on Broadway in Hello Dolly! during the late 1960s before her tragic death at age 56 of lung cancer.