GRABLE, BETTY (Ruth Elizabeth Grable) (1916–1973) Actress, Dancer, Singer
“As American as apple pie and Betty Grable,” a popular slogan of the 1940s, illustrates Grable’s enormous popularity with a public troubled by the trials and uncertainties of the war years. Born Ruth Elizabeth Grable on December 18, 1916, she was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, one of two daughters of a successful stockbroker and his theatrically ambitious wife. Frustrated by her own failures to launch a singing career, Grable’s mother, Lillian, forced on Betty a grueling schedule of acting, dancing, singing, and music instruction. “I hated every lesson,” Grable later recalled. To advance Betty’s career, Lillian moved her daughter to Los Angeles. Due to her mother’s persistence, by 1930 Betty had a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, but the studio dismissed her when it discovered she was only 13. She made several shorts directed by comedian Fatty Arbuckle before delivering a breakdown performance in a comic dance number in the Fred Astaire–GINGER ROGERS vehicle The Gay Divorcee (1934). Grable’s career was also given a boost by her marriage to former child star Jackie Coogan in 1937. Together they appeared in two successful college comedies. Their personal relationship, however, faltered as Coogan suffered several financial setbacks. The couple divorced in 1939.
Still a star on the rise, Grable signed a new contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, beginning a 10 year association with the studio. Grable almost immediately became the studio’s reigning star when she was called on to replace an ailing Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way (1940). The movie was a substantial hit, and soon Grable was appearing a series of lighthearted musicals filmed using the new technology of Technicolor. Although never a favorite with critics, Grable attracted legions of fans. Her wholesomely sexy image attracted men, whereas her warmth and personal charm made her equally appealing to women. Twentieth Century-Fox, however, was most interested in promoting not Grable’s personality, but her most outstanding physical asset—her shapely legs. In addition to showcasing them in her dance numbers, the studio insured Grable’s legs for $1 million dollars as a publicity stunt.
Her male fans, especially those sent overseas with the outbreak of World War II, responded with demands for pinups of Grable. The result was perhaps the most famous publicity still in the history of American film. Photographed from the back wearing a white swimsuit and high heels, Grable was shown with her head turned, looking coyly back at the viewer. Perfectly capturing Grable’s innocence fiavored with just a hint of naughtiness, the pinup became a phenomenon. More than 3 million were sent to soldiers, some of whom made their own tributes to Grable by painting the image on their PT boats and B-22 bombers. With the war years, Grable became not only an American icon but also the highest-paid woman in the United States. Yet, despite the success she brought Twentieth Century-Fox, she was constantly at war with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. He wanted to put her in dramas, but Grable rightly sensed that the public most wanted to see her in the lighter fare that had made her a star. In 1953 she severed ties with Zanuck after filming How to Marry a Millionaire, which also featured the studio’s new star MARILYN MONROE.
In the years that followed, Grable found herself in growing financial difficulties. In 1943 she had married bandleader Harry James, who gambled away their earnings and amassed sizable debts. To earn a living for them and their two children, Grable often had to take substandard work in Las Vegas shows and television specials and commercials. She divorced James in 1965, after which Grable found renewed popularity performing in touring companies of Broadway musicals, such as Hello Dolly! On July 2, 1973, this new career was stopped short by her death at 56 from lung cancer.
Billman, Larry. Betty Grable: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Pastos, Spero. Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable. New York: Putnam, 1986.
Warren, Doug. Betty Grable: The Reluctant Movie Queen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Down Argentine Way (1940). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1989.
The Gay Divorcee (1934). Turner Home Video, VHS, 1999.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Twentieth Century Fox, VHS, 1992.