December 18 was the birthday of Betty Grable (Elizabeth Ruth Grable, 1916-1973).
Others will no doubt disagree, some vociferously, but I have always deemed the Grable phenomenon to be something like the Tulip Mania, and “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Apparently, you had to be there. I was aware of her most famous cultural product, her World War II pin-up photo, long before I ever saw her in a movie, and I’ve always been perplexed by its appeal. It’s well known for having been the most popular pin-up among American servicemen, exceeding even pix of Rita Hayworth in popularity, and I frown, for while I can work myself into paroxysms of unseemly enthusiasm over Hayworth, for all I care this picture of Grable might as well be Whistler’s Mother. And perhaps that is a piece of it; it’s not just about sex, maybe not even about sex at all. She looked “American” or something, she looked like your wife or girlfriend, or what you wish your wife or girlfriend looked like, I guess. I don’t want an answer; I definitely don’t want your answer — particularly if you weren’t there.
If I am unmoved by her modelling career, her screen presence barely registers in my imagination. She was in the top ten of Hollywood box office stars for a dozen years, the highest paid female in 1946, the highest paid entertainer in 1947. I’ve seen her in a ton of movies and only with the greatest of mental effort can I summon her in the mind’s eye. It seems to me the 1940s were the acme for aesthetic blandness in the cinema. “Wholesome” female stars like Grable, June Haver and Alice Faye in disposable musical vehicles. The subversion of all that sort of pap was what gave film noir, the best cinematic thing going in the ’40s, its power. And of course noir is what had staying power. Those money-making Fox musicals Grable starred in were anchored to fleeting trends. They’re not timeless; you have to excavate them and put yourself in the shoes of the not-very-discriminating audiences of 70 years ago.
And so it takes a while to discover her. She stars in no timeless classic on the order of Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz that everyone is practically obligated to watch. I think the best known movies of her headlining period are How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), in which she is less memorable than Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, William Powell, David Wayne or Fred Clark; and, to a lesser extent, Down Argentine Way (1940), in which she is less memorable than Carmen Miranda, Don Ameche, Charlotte Greenwood, and J. Carrol Naish. I’m not being purposefully contrary. She has no personality. You want a movie star with no personality?
I find myself much more partial to the movies of the early period of her career, though she’s not the star of them. She was only 12 when she began appearing in the choruses of musicals in the very earliest years of talkies. At 13 or 14 she was a Goldwyn Girl, appearing in Eddie Cantor pictures like Whoopee! (1930), Palmy Days (1931) and The Kid from Spain (1932). She has featured but anonymous bits in numbers in the Fred and Ginger musicals The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Follow the Fleet (1936). At the same time, she was already being cast as “the girl” in comedies. As early as 1932 she has a decent role in Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hold ‘Em Jail (1932); she teams up with the pair again in The Nitwits (1935). She’s in the 1934 Columbia Short Elmer Steps Out with Walter Catlett and Anita Garvin.
Late 30s musicals seems to be a sort of pivot. There’s Pigskin Parade (1936), famous for being Judy Garland’s breakout film, which puts her in an ensemble that includes Jack Haley, Patsy Kelly, Stuart Erwin, Grady Sutton and Tony Martin. College Swing (1938), puts her alongside Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, Martha Raye, Edward Everett Horton, Ben Blue, Jackie Coogan (to whom she was married from 1937 to 1939) and Jerry Colonna. By Give Me a Sailor (1938) she is third billed to Hope and Raye; and in The Day the Bookies Wept (1939) she co-stars with radio comedian Joe Penner.
In Million Dollar Legs (1939) she is the star of a cast that’s got Donald O’Connor, Jackie Coogan, Buster Crabbe and Peter Lind Hayes. And such personality as Grable is purported to have seems to stem from this picture and what it advertises. She was known for possessing extraordinary legs. This ought to make her approximately twice as interesting as Darren McGavin’s lamp in A Christmas Story, but somehow doesn’t.
From 1939 through 1940 she appeared on Broadway in the original production of DuBarry was a Lady with Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman. This seems to have raised her cache, although she was not cast in the screen adaptation.
There follows all of these exceedingly unmemorable and interchangeable show biz musicals: Tin Pan Alley (1940), Footlight Serenade (1942), Coney Island (1943), Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1945) and When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948). Probably my favorite of her performances is in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), probably because Preston Sturges is directing her to be Betty Hutton.
In 1955 she refused to appear in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and was replaced by Ethel Merman. Sliding in popularity at the box office, Fox dropped her contract. In 1956, she hoped to be cast in the screen adaptation of Guys and Dolls, but wasn’t.
After this she worked entirely in live performance and television. From 1943 through 1965 she was married to big band leader Harry James. Lung cancer took her at the young age of 56 in 1973. By this time, she was essentially a trivia question about the ’40s, trapped in that iconic poster like a fossil trapped in amber. It was in practically every book about the Hollywood cinema, even when her actual movies weren’t. This was not true of a great many of her contemporaries.