Take a good long look at the photo today.
You may not know it but you are peering at a pair of “million dollar legs.” They belonged to one Elizabeth Ruth Grable, born in St. Louis in 1916.
No kidding. That’s what Betty Grable’s gams were said to be worth to her employer, Twentieth Century-Fox, and to the world at large when this posed studio shot was taken in the early 1940s.
A Hollywood veteran of nearly 15 years (she had a pushy stage mother and made her first movie at 14, lying about her age) Grable was in her late 20s when this shot was taken, and rapidly on her way to becoming the most famous pinup of the World War II years.
This photo stoked GI libidos from Alaska to the Fiji Islands.
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 a profitable reign as Fox’s official blond and musical star until Marilyn Monroe took over in the 1950’s.
This photo was carefully designed to capitalize on Grable’s wholesome sex appeal. Throughout her career, she was known as a more-or-less clean living straight shooter more devoted to family than to scandal. That made her a likable figure (pun intended) to mainstream movie audiences.
In 1943 Betty was named the number one star by movie exhibitors and theater owners, the first woman to be so designated. 1943 was a big year for Grable since it also marked the beginning of a 22-year-marriage to her second and final husband, trumpeter-band leader Harry James. Grable’s first husband was former child actor Jackie Coogan to whom she was married from 1937 to 1940.
After the above photo came out, Grable was no longer a mere movie star. She was a national icon. She remained Hollywood’s number one box office phenomenon all through the World War II years.
Thrilled by it all, Zanuck in 1944 rushed into production a piece of musical fluff titled, naturally enough, Pin Up Girl, teaming Betty with Martha Raye, Joe E. Brown and the Charlie Spivak Orchestra. This concoction was supervised by one of our favorite director names, H. Bruce Humberstone. And, yes, it was a hit.
By the time the war ended, Grable was such a big a star that she achieved the lofty status as the highest-paid woman in the country, earning anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 a year. And that was back in the day when you could easily buy a very comfortable house for under $3,000.
And those “million dollar legs” were a considerable bargain. Grable remained among the top 10 box office draws for a total of 13 years, a record unmatched by any other actress. At her career peak, she was said to have brought in at least $5 million annually to Fox coffers.
Her career at Fox was a lot more diverse that her pinup image suggests. She was very good in the gritty 1941 film noir classic, I Wake Up Screaming, playing the wholesome sister of a shady murdered model. In the movie, Betty gives the cold shoulder to Victor Mature. (I Wake Up Screaming was also directed by none other than our H. Bruce Humberstone, and includes a marvelously creepy performance from one of our favorite character actors, Laird Cregar.)
Betty’s expensive legs also got a workout in one of two How To… capers she appeared in: Jean Negulesco 1953 comedy How To Marry A Millionaire alongside Lauren Bacall and Monroe, her eventual replacement as Fox’s studio blond. She also appeared in 1955’s How To Be Be Very, Very Popular with Sheree North (a lightweight Monroe clone who later became a good actress) and Robert Cummings. In all, Grable appeared in more than 75 movies plus multiple TV appearances and stage work.
She and Harry James had two children. After their divorce in 1965, Grable remained single until the day she died of lung cancer on July 2, 1973, five months shy of her 57th birthday.
For us she will always be the girl with the “million dollar legs.”