“Maybe it’s a wholesome quality or an American girl quality. People write to me as if I were a sister or friend,” – Betty Grable
If I’m having a bad day, one of my go-to remedies is a Betty Grable movie. There is just something about her that makes me feel at ease and at home. Shirley Temple got America through the great depression, Betty Grable got America through World War II. Grable’s iconic pinup photo is one of the most famous shots of the era. At one point in the 1940’s, she was the biggest box-office draw and the highest paid woman in the world.
She was a beautiful woman but I think her appeal is contributed to what kind of a woman she was and appeared to be to the public. Friends and co-stars described her as a sweetheart and very funny; that wholesomeness comes across onscreen. When you watch her films you’re not intimidated by her presence, she feels like an old friend.
I love the 20th Century Fox musicals she starred in. All those lavish musical numbers and technicolor make me want to jump into the screen and visit her in Miami, Argentina or any exotic location they were set in (even though it’s clear they’re on a Hollywood soundstage). They may not be as sophisticated as the MGM musicals but they more than hold their own. I get it that they’re formulaic and more often than not she remade her own films but they are fun to watch. Betty Grable films won’t change your life but they were never supposed to. They were intended to make audiences feel good, to help them escape from the heartache and worry of the war. Isn’t escapism what a good movie does?
Grable didn’t take her image as a pin-up queen lightly. She actively participated in war efforts across the country appearing at camps, bond rallies and dancing until dawn at the Hollywood Canteen; anything to entertain the troops. Her nickname became, “the girl who won the war.” She was very serious about the responsibility, at one point saying the following:
“A lot of these kids don’t have any women in their life to fight for – I guess what you would call us girls is kind of their inspiration. It is a grave responsibility.”
Her characters in her films, like her image were wholesome and sweet but they were no push overs either. Grable’s characters weren’t afraid to fight back when they’d been wronged by a man, mistreated by a show director, or by a friend. As much as she was a nice girl, she was a tough broad as well. I liked that about the backstage musicals she was in, she had all the qualities you would want to have as a woman and as a friend.
Some of my favorites of her films are Down Argentine Way, Moon Over Miami and Springtime in the Rockies. Springtime is probably my absolute favorite. I think it’s so funny and it’s the reason I still have a VCR because I can’t find it on DVD! She was frequently paired with the same leading men on the FOX lot; I believe her best work is with Don Ameche, Cesar Romero, and John Payne (She made a few with Victor Mature as well but I’ll never understand his appeal). There was a mutual respect there between these actors and her, and they made her better in her roles. She was content with her musical work and had no interest in dramatic roles but she did two: I Wake Up Screaming and A Yank in the R.A.F. Her two efforts aren’t bad at all either, definitely worth checking out.
After the ’40’s, she had a career renaissance with four films that paired her with Dan Dailey. These films are different in their style and in her characters, one of my favorites is Mother Wore Tights. They made a great team and audiences agreed as they were a popular box-office draw.
Unfortunately her image slowly turned into an anachronism with the changing attitudes of the sixties but before that she was able to create one last hurrah for FOX with How to Marry a Millionaire. The film is actually another remake of one of her films, Moon Over Miami but it’s actually more of upgraded take. Don’t let the title fool you, this isn’t three gorgeous women hunting for a man, at least not completely. There’s more to these three women than the film’s shallow premise leads you to believe. With the perfect cast of Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, it is a fun watch.
I may have said earlier that Betty Grable movies won’t change your life but she did have an impact. She did change the lives of men and women during some of the darkest times in American history and for that she’ll always be remembered.