Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Girl With the Million Dollar Legs

The most famous pin-up of all time.


All right, she lacked the dramatic chops of a Bette Davis.  Ginger Rodgers or Eleanor Powell could out dance her.  Judy Garland and half the thrushes in Hollywood were better singers.  She worked in one, maybe two really great pictures and a slew of colorful but so-so musicals.  But for 15 years Betty Grable was, in the words of Garson Kanin, This Year’s Blonde at 20th Century Fox sandwiched in between the one she replaced—Alice Faye—and the one who eclipsed her—Marilyn Monroe.  And over all those years the American public adored her.  Even more amazingly, so did her co-stars and rivals.
She was born Elizabeth Ruth Grable on December 18, 1916 in St. Louis, Missouri to a middle class couple, John and Lillian Grable.  Her mother was stage struck and lived out her dreams through her youngest daughter, who she enrolled in Clark's Dancing School at the age of three over the next few years she studied—and excelled at both tap and ballet.  When Betty was 12 years old in the tradition of other stage mothers—Jean Harlow’s being the prototype—Lillian abandoned her father and headed to Hollywood.
It was 1929 and still the dawn of the talkies.  Musicals were all the rage.  Lying about here daughter’s age Lillian quickly got her daughter a part in the chorus of Fox’s all star extravaganza Happy Days, best remembered as the first feature film shot entirely in a in a wide-screen format, the studio’s new Grandure screen.  The Stock Market Crash meant that outside of New York City theaters could not afford to invest in new projection equipment and screens causing William Fox to lose control of his company which was then merged with rival 20th Century Pictures.  Young Betty appeared in a blackface number.
With her first studio kaput, Lillian decided to join the rush to peroxide, bleaching her daughter’s hair platinum blonde a la Jean Harlow.  Half of the girls in town were making the same transformation.  But it worked.  Betty got a contract at the Samuel Goldwin Company as one of the famous Goldwin Girls.  In Eddy Cantor’s big musical Whoopee! the budding chorine attracted enough notice to be made the first face in the opening number, Cowboys.  Soon after the film’s 1930 release the studio discovered her mother’s age deception and Betty’s contract was canceled.

As a 14 year old Goldwyn Girl.
Over the next couple of years she found occasional work at various studios in uncredited walk-ons or in the chorus.  In 1932 she got a break of sorts and signed a contract with RKO.  For the most part the roles were no bigger, but the work was steady.  In the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 1934 film The Gay Divorcee 17 year old Betty was prominently featured in the number Let’s K-nock K-nees.  Small speaking roles also began to come her way, finally getting 7th billing in the Frank Morgan comedy vehicle By Your Leave.  But Grable did not seem to be making headway at the studio.  She was also used in a string of theatrical shorts.
Grable’s contract at RKO was allowed to lapse, but she was quickly snapped up at Paramount where her fortunes improved.  The vivacious young blonde was perfect for the lead in one of the studio’s bread-and-butter specialties—low budget college comedies.  She got star billing in a parade of them in the late 30’s—including Pigskin Parade in 1936, This Way Please in 1937, College Swing  in 1939, and Man About Town 1939.  While working at Paramount, Gable married former child star Jackie Coogan in 1937.  The studio took advantage of the publicity to pair them in Million Dollar Legs, a film whose only claim to fame was giving its star her nick name.
During their marriage Coogan was going through his historic and epic legal battle with his parents over the fortune he had made as a child star and which they absconded with.  It was a bitter and emotionally draining experience and took a toll on the marriage.  The couple divorced in 1940.
It looked like Grable’s movie career might be over, too.  She was so tired of playing coeds in interchangeable pictures that she walked out on her Paramount contract in 1939.  She was sure she would never work in pictures again—and was just fine with it.  Being a movie star had been her mother’s dream, not hers.  So she headed to New York City where she was cast as the ingĂ©nue in the Cole Porter musical DuBerry Was a Lady starring Burt Lahr and the leather-lunged Porter favorite Ethyl Merman.  Grable’s singing and dancing were a revelation and she walked away with better notices than the leads.
Her success caught the attention of Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox who was in a jamb.  His studio’s biggest star, Alice Faye, fell ill on the eve of the start of shooting on what was to be the studios major musical of the year—a movie that was being made at the express request of the White House, no less.  Down Argentine Way was to be the first of many Fox films made to implement the film industry-wide Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America at the behest of the administration which was worried about German influence in the hemisphere.  One of Zanuck’s hottest male stars, Faye’s frequent partner Don Ameche had been cast in the lead and Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda was signed for her first American film.  It was slated to be shot in glorious Technicolor with a big budget.  Time was money.  He could not wait for Faye to recover.  He rolled the dice and signed Grable for the part.
11 years after she first set foot on a Fox soundstage as a black-face chorus girl 24 year old Gable was back at the studios successor as a star.  Like most Fox musicals, the plot was paper thin—Ameche played the son of a wealthy Argentine horse breeder who falls in love with an American heiress to whom he could not sell a champion horse because of his father’s feud with the girl’s family.  He returned to Argentina, she followed, father disowned son for associating with her, son saved father’s ranch by secretly riding in a big race.  All was forgiven.  All of this interspersed with lively musical numbers.  It was the Fox formula for barely disguising revues with silly romance plots.  But the public loved it—and Grable who practically jumped off the screen with her sheer joy of performing.  She got rave notices.  The movie was Fox’s top grossing film of 1940 and Grable catapulted overnight to be the studio’s greatest asset.
As a side note, the film was not only a failure in Argentina, which the studio and government hoped to woo away from Nazi influence, but it was so culturally tone deaf and misrepresentative of the country that the government officially protested and there were near riots at movie theaters. 
Back in the states, Zanuck, who knew how to do these things, threw everything his studio publicity machine could gin out to build up his new star.  In no time at all Grable was a household name, her pictures everywhere in fan magazines and newspapers.  Studio flacks breathlessly reported that she was “voted the best figure in Hollywood” and other such trivia.  Yet despite her obvious good looks and sex appeal, from the beginning her appeal was not a fem fetal or heart breaking vamp, but as a friendly and available girl next door.  Guys adored her and women wanted to be her pal.

In her second outing for Fox, Tin Pan Alley, Grable was paired with Faye in a typical show biz story set against the background of World War I with the two women playing a sister act each in love with one half of a song writing team played by John Payne and Jack Okie.  Faye was paired with her previous co-star Payne, an established leading man and Grable with comic Okie.  That made Faye the lead of the slender story, but the two actresses equally shared duties in the vital musical numbers.  Some observers thought that the rivals for the Fox crown would quickly be at each other’s throats.  On the contrary the quickly became close friends and remained so for the rest of their lives. 



  
War time Queen to Technicolor.
In her next outing Grable was indisputably the queen bee playing one of a trio of Texas sisters on the prowl for rich husbands in Miami.  If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because Grable would revisit a version of it in one of her last and most famous films.  In Moon Over Miami she pursues and was pursued by two leading men—Ameche again and boyish Robert Cummings.
With a war on, Zanuck decided to test Grable’s potential for dramatic roles in her next two films, A Yank in the RAF opposite Tyrone Power and the film noir I Wake Up Screaming opposite Victor Mature.  Critics were surprised that she acquitted herself honorably in the role of a murdered woman’s sister who becomes the main suspect’s only ally in proving his innocence.  It has since won a cult following of fans of the genre.  But contemporary ticket buyers weren’t having any of it.  The film failed.  And the studio rushed Grable back into the frothy musical the public wanted.
Song of the Islands opposite Mature in much lighter fare and Footlight Parade with Mature and John Payne followed in 1942.  Fans were pleased. 
But her next film that year changed Grable’s life.  She was paired again with Payne for a show biz romance called Spring Time in the Rockies with Cesar Romero as a dance partner, and Carmen Miranda for colorful comic relief and specialty numbers.  More importantly the film also featured bobby soxer heartthrob trumpeter Harry James and his big band.  The behind the scene romance was between Grable and the band leader, not her leading man.  Many consider it one of Grable’s best films from this era. 
Grable married James in 1943 at the peak of her popularity.  She was the number one box office draw in the country that year.  She quickly got pregnant.  She was beginning to show when she was scheduled to do a pin-up photo shoot for the studio.  Which is why the most iconic photo of her ever taken shows her from the back in a swim suit looking flirtatiously over her shoulder.  The shot became a poster and the most popular pin-up of the war, a fixture in barracks, aboard submarines, and famously painted on the nose of a B-17.  Grable said she was just the girlfriend a lot of lonely boys never had in real life.  She was deeply touched by the attention of all of those GIs and answered thousands of letters personally, enclosing autographed pictures.  She dreaded when some of her letters were returned with the notification that the addressee was dead or missing in action.
She and James were married for more than twenty years and had two daughters.  The marriage was often rocky because of James’s serial infidelity and heavy drinking.  After the Big Band Era faded and so did his income, James lost much of Grable’s fortune at the track and with bookies.  That was the last straw.  She divorced him in 1965.
After a short pregnancy break Grable was off to one of her busiest periods.  War time audiences wanted diverting entertainment and Betty was the girl to provide it.  There was Coney Island with George Montgomery and Romero and Sweet Rosie O’Grady with Robert Young. 
The war time morale-booster Four Jills in a Jeep shot in black and white was a quick break from her Technicolor extravaganzas.  Former co-star Carol Landis, Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair were the four girls on an early war USO tour to England and North Africa.  Grable and Alice Faye each provided numbers via the devise of cutting in with Armed Forces Radio broadcasts of the show Command Performance USA.
Grable also detoured from her usual vaudeville era nostalgia show biz setting for 1944 Pin Up which took full advantage of her fame as a GI heart throb with Martha Raye in comic support and an unknown, John Harvey as a leading man—a devise meant to hint that any ordinary Joe in uniform might have a chance with the gal in the glam picture.
It was back to period show biz fluff in Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe with rising crooner Dick Haymes and The Dolly Sisters paired again with John Payne and co-staring a rising June Haver.
At war’s end Grable took more than a year off to be with her small children.  She only made a single, uncredited cameo as a fan of her husband in the musical comedy James stared in opposite Maureen O’Hara Do You Love Me.
She came roaring back in 1947.  Fox hyped her return with the announcement that the company had insured her legendary legs for $1 million with Lloyds of London.  Grable re-entry was a period piece not set in show business, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim in which she played the first female employee in a shipping company office, a typewriter—the name of both a new-fangled office machine and the girl who operated it once again opposite Haynes.
With frequent post-war partner Dan Dailey

Later that year she was paired for the first time with a new partner, lanky song and dance man Dan Daley who would play a big part in the next phase of her career.  Many regard   Mother Wore Tights as one of the highlights of her career.     In When My Baby Smiles at Me the new screen duo took a slightly darker turn as Daley played a burlesque star paired with Grable who brought down both of them with his alcoholism.  Daley’s performance drew a surprise Oscar bid that edged Humphrey Bogart out of contention in The Treasure of Sierra Madre.  Grable was also fine and handled her dramatic scenes with touching vulnerability.
The Beautiful Blond from Bashful Bend was a Preston Sturgis comedy with Cesar Romero.  Sturgis, Zanuck, and Grable all clashed on the set, rare for Grable who had a reputation for being an uncomplaining trooper.  The film was only moderate success, below the box office bonanza of most Grable films.  The strain with Zanuck may have been the first sign of trouble in paradise.
Fox was noted for recycling material and in 1950 had Grable do a virtual reprise of Coney Island under the guise of Wabash Avenue with Mature and Alice Faye’s husband Phil Harris.  Next she and Daley were re-teamed for a contemporary show biz piece as a husband and wife team who yearn for children in My Blue Heaven.   Call Me Mister took the pair to post war Japan where Grable is to perform her USO act for occupation troops, including her former flame Daley.  The film was enlivened with choreography by Busby Berkley.    
Meet Me After the Show with McDonald Carey, Eddie Albert, and young Rory Calhoun was another Fox re-make and only marginally successful.  After taking another year off, Grable returned to seek the role of  Lorilei Lee  in the film version of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. But Zanuck gave the part to his new bombshell, Marilyn Monroe.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Instead he assigned her to a remake of the classic The Farmer Takes a Wife which had starred Janet Gaynor and Henry Fonda in his first film role, and paired her with Calhoun in the lead.  It was her first out and out flop in years cooling her strained relations with Zanuck.
In 1954 she returned in a big way in How to Marry a Millionaire, an upgraded re-make of her Moon over Miami re-set in New York.  She was teamed with Lauren Bacall and Monroe.  Grable got top billing, but Monroe dominated the poster art.  Just as her early pairing with Alice Faye drew expectations of conflict, many expected a virtual cat fight between the rising and falling stars.  But the two blonds bonded immediately.  Grable told Monroe, “Go and get yours honey! I’ve had mine!”  They grew so close that when Grable son was injured at home and she was called away from the set, Monroe was the first person she called.  The film was a huge success and considered one of Grable’s finest.  But it was her swan song at Fox.
Grable only made two more films, both in 1955.  Three for the Show at Columbia put her opposite Jack Lemmon and Grower Champion and showed that at 39 she could sing and dance with the best of them.  How to Be Very, Very Popular brought Grable back to Fox as a freelancer.  Ironically it was in a remake of a Paramount college comedy to which the studio bought the rights.  Originally meant to reteam Grable and Monroe, the latter pulled out due to the vapid script about stripers hiding out on a college campus after witnessing a murder.  Monroe wannabe Sheree North was called in as a substitute.  Robert Cummings unconvincingly played a perpetual student.  Not surprisingly the film was a dud
In 1957 Grable thought she had an inside track to play Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls reminding producer Samuel Goldwyn that she had been one of his original Goldwyn girls.  The producer seemed encouraging, but ended up hiring Vivian Blaine who had originated the part on Broadway.
Grable could now see the writing on the wall.  She officially retired from motion pictures.  She remained active with night club performances, TV guest appearances, and increasingly on the stage.  She worked in several Broadway shows in the ‘60’s, most often as a replacement for the original star and took some of the shows on successful tours.  She got steadily good reviews for her appearances in Guys and Dolls in both 1962 and ’68 finally playing Adelaide, Hello Dolly from ’65-67 and again in ’71, and Born Yesterday from ’68-’70 reprised in ’73.
After her divorce from Harry James in 1964, Grable entered a long time relationship with a younger dancer, Bob Remick.
She fell noticeably ill during her second run in Born Yesterday.  Diagnosed with lung cancer Grable faded fast and died in Los Angeles on July 2, 1973.  She was just 56 years old.  Her funeral was attended by a parade of her former co-stars, grieving former husband James, and many studio hands to whom Grable had always been gracious. 
James died 40 years after his marriage to Grable on July 5, 1943, who was buried exactly 30 years after that date.