Classic Movie Travels: Betty Grable
Betty Grable was one of World War II’s most celebrated pin-up girls, in addition to being a gifted actress, singer, model, and dancer. A top box office star, she was one of the highest-paid women of her day.
Elizabeth Ruth Grable was born on December 18, 1916, in St. Louis, Missouri, to John and Lillian Grable. She was the youngest of three children. Her siblings were Marjorie and John Grable.
Grable was nicknamed “Betty” from an early age and was simultaneously pressured by her mother to work in the entertainment industry. She entered beauty contests and won many of them, though she possessed a fear of crowds. Grable also suffered from sleepwalking.
At 12 years old, Grable and her mother traveled to Hollywood, where Grable studied at the Hollywood Professional School and Ernest Blecher Academy of Dance. Grable lied about her age to secure film roles, claiming that she was 15 years old. She made her film debut as an uncredited chorus girl in Happy Days (1929).
In the following year, Grable worked under the pseudonym Frances Dean and signed with Samuel Goldwyn, making her one of the initial Goldwyn Girls. As a result, she appeared in small movie roles, including Whoopee! (1930). Though she was also uncredited in this role, she led the film’s opening number.
By 1932, Grable signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. There, she attended acting, singing, and dancing classes through the studio’s drama school. Her first credited screen role was in Probation (1932). She could also be seen carrying out minor film roles in Cavalcade (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), and Follow the Fleet (1936).
During this period, Grable married former child star Jackie Coogan in 1937. Unfortunately, Coogan was dealing with a lawsuit against his parents pertaining to the loss of his childhood earnings, which added stress to their relationship. They divorced in 1939.
After RKO, Grable moved on to a contract with Paramount Pictures. She appeared in a string of college films, including This Way Please (1937) and College Swing (1938). This led to her being typecast as a student in other film roles.
In 1939, she appeared with her then-husband Coogan in Million Dollar Legs (1939), which gave Grable her nickname. The film did not perform well and Grable was released from her contract.
By 1940, Grable was tired of the entertainment industry and considering retirement. She was invited to go on a personal appearance tour, which she accepted. This tour brought her to the attention of 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. He was impressed by her work on Broadway and cast her as the female lead in Down Argentine Way (1940), with Grable replacing Alice Faye in the role. Grable’s performance of “Down Argentine Way” is a memorable moment in the film.
Thanks to the success of Down Argentine Way, Grable was cast in Tin Pan Alley (1940) alongside Faye. Despite tabloids touting a rivalry between Grable and Faye, both Grable and Faye admired each other and remained friends until Grable’s passing.
After casting Grable in musicals, Fox placed her in more dramatic roles for A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941) and I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Both films were career successes for her, though Grable would go on to thrive in the musical genre. Grable soon found herself the number-one box-office draw.
In 1943, Grable posed for her iconic pin-up shot for photographer Frank Powolny. She posed in a one-piece bathing suit with her back to the camera, peering over her shoulder. This pose was effectively chosen for Grable, who was pregnant with her first child. The picture was released as a poster and became the most requested photo for G.I.s stationed overseas, surpassing Rita Hayworth’s famous 1941 photo.
At the same time, Grable married trumpeter Harry James in 1943. The couple had two children: Victoria and Jessica. While their marriage lasted for 22 years, it was challenged with alcoholism and infidelity, leading to divorce in 1965.
Grable went on to star in Pin Up Girl (1944) and Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe (1945). She also appeared in The Dolly Sisters (1945) with June Haver, since Fox was promoting Haver as Grable’s blonde bombshell successor.
After Grable departed Fox, the studio struggled financially. She returned to Fox to appear in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947), though the film was not a success for the studio. Her role in Mother Wore Tights (1947), however, was a hit.
By the 1950s, Grable worked to renegotiate her contract with Fox, in pursuit of stronger scripts and more varied roles. She appeared in Meet Me After the Show (1951), though soon went on strike when Fox refused her a higher salary and more autonomy in selecting film roles. Due to her strike, she was replaced by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and by June Haver in The Girl Next Door (1953). When she reconciled with Fox, she starred in The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953), but the film was a flop.
Next, Grable appeared in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) with Monroe and Lauren Bacall. Tabloids falsely told of a rivalry between Grable and Monroe but the two got along. Grable later refused a lead role in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), which led to her being suspended from her contract again. After making a few more film appearances, her last role would be in How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955) for Fox.
After working in films, Grable developed a live act in Las Vegas, Nevada, performing at various hotels with then-husband Harry James. She went on to star in different stage productions in Las Vegas, including Hello, Dolly. She also reprised her role on Broadway in 1967.
Grable was also romantically involved with dancer Bob Remick. They remained together until her passing.
Grable passed away from lung cancer on July 2, 1973, in Santa Monica, California. Her funeral occurred two days later and was attended by her two former husbands and many of her Hollywood peers. “I Had the Craziest Dream,” featured in Springtime in the Rockies (1942), was played on the church organ in her memory. Grable is entombed at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. She was 56 years old.
Grable’s childhood home at 3858 Lafayette Ave., St Louis, Missouri, no longer stands. By 1940, Grable and her mother were residing at the Essex House, which is an Art Deco landmark. It stands at 160 Central Park South, New York, New York.
Grable also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, located at 6350 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, Missouri.
Grable’s image is featured as nose art on Sentimental Journey, a B-17G Flying Fortress bomber, based at the Commemorative Air Force Museum in Mesa, Arizona. The bomber is featured at various airshows throughout North America. The Commemorative Air Force Museum is located at 2017 N. Greenfield Rd., Mesa, Arizona.
A bust of Grable is displayed in the Hall of Famous Missourians, within the Missouri State Capitol. The building is located at 201 W. Capitol Ave., Jefferson City, Missouri.
In Hollywood, Grable has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring her work in films. The star is located at 6525 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
Additionally, Grable’s handprints and leg prints were immortalized in the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre, located at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.