It’s natural to think that the biggest box office stars of each era were in the top grossing films of that era. Well, not always.
In the 1940s three of the biggest box office stars were Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart. And yes, their films, Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary’s, Sergeant York, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Casablanca, were all big hits.
But the only female star on the list for 10 years in the 1940s, Betty Grable (above), is not associated with any big hit, classic movies. She mostly just made run of the mill, musical comedies, which took in enough loot to make a nice profit for distributors and her studio, Twentieth Century Fox.
But she was, nonetheless, a very BIG star. It is hard to comprehend today how Grable’s fame and stature was principally based merely on worldwide recognition of her great gams (that means “legs” to those under 39) — and not on her acting ability.
She was known for sporting “million dollar legs.” No kidding. That’s what Grable’s gams were said to be worth to her employer, Twentieth Century-Fox. One year she was the highest paid woman in America. She made $400,000 a year as compared to President Harry Truman’s remuneration, a mere $100,000.
That was certainly due to Grable’s offscreen status as the most popular pin up with the GI’s of World War II. And certainly not to memorable classic movies.
After a dead-end start at RKO and Paramount, Grable came to Fox at the behest of studio chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck as the intended replacement for the fading Alice Faye. Grable quickly supplanted Faye, and began a long and profitable reign as Fox’s official blond and musical star until a new face (one MM) took over in the 1950’s.
That’s the kind of business Zanuck ran at Fox. In the 30s he had done the same with child star Shirley Temple (above). She had been #1 at the box office for five straight years. And yet none of her films were ever listed as the big money makers of the year. She just brought in medium but steady profits.
When Zanuck took over 20th Century Fox in 1935, he had just one true star at his disposal. I think Shirley Temple is endless, he said. There is no one in the world to compare with that child.
I’ve made eight pictures with her, and each time I am knocked dead. It’s just beyond the case of being a freak. This child has rhythm. I always thought when we dropped the curls — this is the end. This mint, the gold mine has gone dry. But now she’s good for years.
Temple was the nation’s top box office star from 1935 to 1938. She was so accomplished that novelist Graham Greene, when assessing 1937’s Wee Willie Winkie, wondered in print if Temple was really a midget masquerading as a child performer. (For this, Greene was sued.)
Despite her enormous following and standing as Hollywood biggest child star, Temple was finally defeated by the inevitable — she grew up.