Betty Grable’s likeness was dubbed ”the picture that launched a million dreams” by 20th Century Fox. The term ”pinup” was coined to describe photographs of female entertainers used to decorate the ships and planes barracks of strapping straight servicemen during WW II. Entertainers on the home front during the war used their celebrity to advance the war effort. The most famous pinup of the WW II era was Grable’s. The photograph showing Grable from behind in a bathing suit, peeking over her shoulder and smiling playfully with her hands on her hips, represented the girl back home for all those homesick soldiers and reminded them daily of what they were fighting for. Of all the wartime photographs, only the American flag-raising at Iwo Jima was more popular.
Ruth Elizabeth Grable was born in St. Louis. Her father was a stockbroker, and her mother focused her energy on showbiz aspirations for her daughter. Grable was enrolled in singing and dancing classes beginning at four-years-old. If there were no shows or auditions available, Grable’s mother would put on show.
As a youth, Gable performed in Vaudeville theaters around St. Louis where she was discovered by a talent scout from Hollywood. The family drove a new Lincoln automobile to California, where Gable enrolled at the Hollywood Professional School.
But, when the Great Depression hit, Gable’s father was in the worst possible profession, stockbroker. He had to take any work he could find to keep his daughter in Hollywood. Her mother continued taking Gable to auditions and parading her before casting directors. She transported her to beauty contests and to appear in theater shows until Gable answered a chorus call at 20th Century Fox for a film called Let’s Go Places. Since the minimum age for chorus work was 15-years-old, her mother signed phony identification papers so that 13-year old Gable could be hired.
When her real age was discovered by the studio, she was fired. Her mother immediately drove Grable over to the casting offices of Goldwyn-United Artists. Producer Samuel Goldwyn signed her to a contract, and her first job was to sing the opening line in the first scene of the 1930 musical Whoopee!. Grable continued to be cast in small roles for the next three years until she finally landed a featured spot in the RKO musical The Gay Divorcee (1934) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. RKO signed her to a contract and dyed her hair platinum blond.
Grable continued to do small parts and featured roles. She began a series of campus-themed films that identified her for years as the wholesome, vivacious, all-American coed. RKO dropped Grable’s contract in the spring of 1937 after her romance with former child star Jackie Coogan made the gossip magazines. But, Grable and Coogan married that autumn, shortly after she signed with Paramount Pictures.
The Coogan marriage brought the couple a great deal of attention, but the couple divorced in 1940. Grable was now famous on her own, and Paramount began giving her leading roles. She appeared on Broadway in Cole Porter’s musical hit DuBarry Was A Lady with Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman, a gig that in 1939 landed Grable on the cover of Life Magazine.
Grable went back to 20th Century Fox in 1940, and received her biggest break so far with the female lead in Down Argentine Way (1940). She received more fan mail than any other star at Fox and she became the studio’s hottest property. Grable’s stardom came from musical films, but it was her ”million-dollar legs” that made her the pinup girl of all pinup girls during WW II.
1939 was probably the greatest year in Hollywood filmmaking: Dark Victory; Gone With The Wind; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice And Men; Stagecoach; The Wizard Of Oz; Wuthering Heights, and The Women, with the biggest stars in the biggest pictures.
In Europe, things were growing darker as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces invaded Poland. The war came earlier to Hollywood than to the rest of America with many British entertainers working there. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, many returned to England. Some delayed their departure to finish films, and then answered the call of duty. It was two more years, December 1941, that WW II would shatter the calm in Hollywood for American entertainers.
The USA declared war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and everything changed in Hollywood. Many male actors enlisted in the military, and those left behind looked for ways that they could contribute to the war effort. Millions of dollars were raised by War Bond Rallies, and Grable was there doing her part. When the Hollywood Canteen opened in October 1942, Grable was one of the stars that performed and danced with the young soldiers and sailors before they headed off to war. For those who missed the chance, a substitute was about to be born.
A pinup picture of Grable taken by photographer Frank Powolney was copied more that six million times and was owned by one out of every five U.S. servicemen during the war. It was the first, and the best-known pinup. It was later included in the Life Magazine “100 Photographs That Changed The World”. The poster showed her in a swimsuit, looking back over her shoulder with a mischievous smile. Other stars produced pinups, but Grable’s was the most popular.
Hollywood had other glamour queens during WW II and loved to give them labels. Veronica Lake became ”The Girl With the Peek-a-Boo Bangs”, ”The Sweater Girl” was Lana Turner, ”The Oomph Girl” was what they called sexy Ann Sheridan, and Dorothy Lamour was ”The Sarong”. All were popular. Their photographs would adorn barracks, smile back from foot lockers, and, in pocket size, be carried into battle. Hand-painted reproductions of the popular photographs would decorate both the inside and the outside of bombers, boats, and Jeeps. By the end of 1943, Grable was number one in photo requests by military personnel, with Teresa Wright second, and Rita Hayworth third. Fox Studios insured Grable’s legs for a million dollars with Lloyd’s Of London, in a big deal publicity gimmick.
Grable participated in War Bond rallies throughout the western states. She captained the ”Comedians” football team, which played for war charities at the Los Angeles Coliseum. They played against the ”Leading Men”, captained by Rita Hayworth. Grable also visited hospital wards to help wounded servicemen forget their troubles. Her famous legs made another wartime contribution during a nationwide bond drive. A pair of nylon stockings she had worn were sold, with a certificate of authenticity, to the highest bidder for $110,000. Grable’s films were pure wartime escapism. Grable’s own request not to tamper with her successful screen formula, resulted in Fox preparing a film called Pin Up Girl (1942) just for her.
In 1943, she was named the number one Box-Office Star. Grable married band leader Harry James that summer and they had two daughters. With her pinup success and leads in lavish musicals, Grable became the highest-paid stars in Hollywood and one of the wealthiest women in America. Grable was described as ”The Gal with the Gorgeous Gams”, ”The Girl with the Million-Dollar Legs,” and ”The Girl with the Limbs That Launched a Thousand Sighs”. She did not mind at all; she and other Hollywood stars took their wartime role very seriously.
Grable’s career gradually declined after the war ended. As a result, Grable was replaced by Marilyn Monroe in the film adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a role Grable felt perfectly fit her persona. The same year, she was scheduled to begin filming The Girl Next Door a light-weight musical, but when she failed to show up to work, Fox suspended her. By the mid-1950s musicals were no longer popular and Grable’s final film was ironically titled How To Be Very, Very Popular (1955). She then left Hollywood to concentrate on nightclub work. She toured in Hello, Dolly! in 1967. She and Harry James divorced in 1965. Grable continued her lifetime work of entertaining until she was taken by cancer in 1973.