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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,565

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This is the grave of Betty Grable.

Born in 1916 in St. Louis, Grable grew up well-off. Her father was a stockbroker. There was also artistic talent in the family. Her cousin Virginia Pearson was a prominent actress in the silent movies, a specialist in Theda Bara-esque vamp roles. But Grable faced a ton of pressure to perform. Her mother was ambitious for her and was the classic awful parent of a child actor, forcing the kid to do things she didn’t want to do. In fact, Grable would be uncomfortable around crowds her whole life, even as she had to face them for decades. Her mother entered Betty in beauty contests and she won them too, which only added to the pressure.

Grable’s mother took her to Hollywood in 1929. She attended acting school while her mother hustled her around to the studios, also lying about her age, in this case saying she was 15 instead of 13. She got roles almost immediately, starting as a chorus girl in 1929’s Happy Days. In 1930, Samuel Goldwyn signed her and renamed her Francis Dean (is that really a better or sexier name than Betty Grable?). That made her an original Goldwyn Girl, a group that also includes Ann Sothern and Paulette Goddard. She continued to work in a number of musical and dance movies, mostly in smaller and uncredited roles, but sometimes with sizable parts. Over the next several years, she bounced between studios looking for better parts that largely didn’t come. She was in a ton of films–she was getting paid and having a career, but this was not the fame her mom had worked for.

In 1937, Grable married the child star Jackie Coogan, presently in a big fight with his parents over the money. Perhaps they bonded over disastrous parenting, but the marriage was pretty unstable. However, they did star together in Million Dollar Legs, which later became her nickname. Paramount hoped for a hit, it did not happen, and Grable wanted to leave Hollywood by this time anyway. But just before she was about to pack acting in and do something else with her life, she was convinced to give Broadway a try. This remade her career. She got a lead part almost immediately in Du Barry Was a Lady, with Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr (what a cast!). That was a big hit and she became a new star.

Grable was still pretty unsure about this acting thing and kept talking about giving it up. But Darryl Zanuck at Fox offered a big contract to come back to Hollywood. She accepted and he immediately cast her in Down Argentina Way, with Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda, and in which she a big song and made a huge impression on filmgoers. More musicals followed, with Tin Pan Alley and Moon over Miami.

Fox decided to try Grable out in some serious pictures. A Yank in the R.A.F., from 1941, put her alongside Tyrone Power. They had a lot of chemistry, it got positive reviews, and ranked 4th in the American box office for the year. I Wake Up Screaming was her first time in noir and she was well-reviewed there too. Then 1942 happened. She was huge films that year–Song of the Islands, Footlight Serenade, and Springtime in the Rockies. All musicals, they launched her into superstardom. By 1943, film goers ranked Grable as their favorite actor in Hollywood. Her salary skyrocketed and Zanuck more or less allowed her to pick her own roles, which in the studio era was most definitely not common.

But Grable was soon to reach a whole other level of stardom and this was because she blew up as a pin-up girl. Doing a photography session for Frank Powolny, she posed for some pictures turned away from the camera in a one-piece swimsuit, with her looking back over her shoulder to the camera. This went viral and was the single most requested picture by overseas soldiers for them to masturbate to while looking at the wall, which I assume is the only way to accurately describe the pin-up girl phenomena among soldiers at the time. Darryl Zanuck wanted to expand her range and have her work in serious films by this time, building on her newfound stardom. But she didn’t want to. She didn’t think she was a good actress and wanted to stick to silly musicals. He was OK with that in the end.

But honestly, after this, the quality of Grable’s films declined. Pretty much everything did after about 1944 was seen as pretty well whatever. A different era of female star was also rising and Grable didn’t exactly adjust her formula. Probably the biggest exception in this period was Mother Wore Tights, released in 1947 and directed by Walter Lang. That made a decent amount of money and was well-received by the critics. So was When My Baby Smiles at Me, released in 1948 and also directed by Lang. But outside of the Lang films, she struggled. She was getting increasingly difficult to work with (though descriptions like this of women usually means women actually had opinions and should be taken with a grain of salt unless we are talking about demonstrated difficulty like with Veronica Lake).

By the early 50s, Grable was still a star, but less bankable and less consistent. She was supposed to do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but held out for a higher salary so Fox had Marilyn Monroe do it instead and, well, movie history was changed. Grable and Monroe actually became pretty good friends and the former was a mentor to the young starlet. She wanted to be in Guys and Dolls, but didn’t get the part. After that, she figured she could just make easy money in Vegas. So that was her future. By this time, she was married to the bandleader Harry James. They had an act in Vegas and she spent the rest of her life there, except for a few appearances in Broadway musicals, including the theaterical version of Guys and Dolls in the mid 60s.

Politically, Grable was a total right-winger, as were many of the stars of the period. The idea of Hollywood as some far-left haven really makes sense only when you exclude the leading actors.

Unfortunately, Grable was a big time smoker, as were so many people in these years. It killed her too. That was in 1973 and she was 56 years old.

Betty Grable is buried with her mother in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other World War II pinup girls, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rita Hayworth is in Culver City, California and Carole Landis is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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