Here’s a shot of our pal, Donald Gordon, who was the ultimate fan of the 1940s, with one of his idols, Betty Grable. (Donald often took shots of the stars when they were going to and from work and didn’t quite look as they did up on the silver screen).
It is hard to comprehend today (especially seeing this photo) the fame and stature that Grable — a woman recognized worldwide for her great gams (that means “legs” to those under 39) but often given short shrift for her acting ability — had in the 1940s.
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.
Below is how Betty looked onscreen. (Big difference from the above.) In any case, she was the biggest star of her era. One year she was the highest paid woman in America. She made $400,000 a year, President Harry Truman a mere $100,000.
That photo is from the film, Pin Up Girl, which Fox made in glorious Technicolor to capitalize on Grable’s status as the most popular pin up with the GI’s of World War II.
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 a new face (pictured below) took over in the 1950’s.
In 1943, Betty was named the number one star by movie exhibitors and theater owners, the first woman to be so designated. It 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.
As noted above, it was after she became a GI pinup sensation that Zanuck in 1944 rushed into that piece of musical fluff, “Pin Up Girl,” teaming Betty with Martha Raye, Joe E. Brown and the Charlie Spivak Orchestra. It was indeed in glorious color and was a hit.
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 the studio 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 murdered model. Betty gives the cold shoulder to Victor Mature. I Wake Up Screaming includes a marvelously creepy performance from one of our favorite character actors, Laird Cregar.
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. She also appeared in 1955’s “How To Be Be Very, Very Popular” with Sheree North (a lightweight Monroe clone) and Robert Cummings. In all, she 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.
Back in the mid 1950s Betty was ready to exit the rigors of Hollywood studio movie making, and she happily turned over the title of Fox’s top star to — Marilyn Monroe.