Betty Grable (born Elizabeth Ruth Grable; December 18, 1916 – July 2, 1973) was an American actress, dancer, and singer and popular contract star for 20th Century-Fox during the 1940s and 1950s.
Grable began her film career in 1929 at age twelve, after which she was fired from a contract when it was learned she signed up under false identification. She had contracts with RKO and Paramount Pictures during the 1930s, and appeared in a string of B-movies, mostly portraying co-eds. Grable came to prominence in the Broadway musical Du Barry Was a Lady (1939), which brought her to the attention of 20th Century-Fox. She replaced Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way (1940), her first major Hollywood film, and became Fox’s biggest film star throughout the remaining decade. Fox cast Grable in a succession of Technicolor musicals during the decade that were immensely popular, co-starring with such leading men as Victor Mature, Don Ameche, John Payne, and Tyrone Power. In 1943, she was the number one box office draw in the world and in 1947 she was the highest-paid entertainer in the United States. Two of her biggest film successes were the musical Mother Wore Tights (1947) and the comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), one of her last films. Grable retired from screen acting in 1955 after she withdrew from her Fox contract, although she continued to perform on the stage and on television.
Throughout her career, Grable was celebrated for having the most beautiful legs in Hollywood and studio publicity often photographed her featuring them. Her iconic bathing suit poster made her the number one pin-up girl of World War II, surpassing Rita Hayworth. It was later included in the Life magazine project “100 Photographs that Changed the World”. Hosiery specialists of the era often noted the ideal proportions of her legs as thigh (18.5 inches (47 cm)), calf (12 inches (30 cm)), and ankle (7.5 inches (19 cm)). Grable’s legs were famously insured by her studio for $1 million with Lloyds of London.
Elizabeth Ruth Grable was born in St. Louis, Missouri to John Conn Grable (1883–1954) and Lillian Rose Hofmann (1889–1964). She was the youngest of three children. Most of her immediate ancestors were American, but her distant heritage was of Dutch, Irish, German and English stock.
Grable was propelled into the acting profession by her mother, making her debut at 12 years of age as a chorus girl in the film Happy Days (1929). Her mother soon gave her a makeover, which included bleaching her hair platinum blonde.
Early Career (1930–1939)
For her next film, her mother got her a contract using false identification. When this deception was discovered, Grable was fired. She finally obtained a role as a Goldwyn Girl in Whoopee! (1930), starring Eddie Cantor. Though Grable received no billing, she led the opening number, “Cowboys.” She then worked in small roles at different studios for the rest of the decade, including the Academy Award-winning The Gay Divorcee (1934), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, where she was prominently featured in the number “Let’s K-nock K-nees”.
In the late 1930s, Grable signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, starring in several B-movies, mostly portraying college students. These films included Pigskin Parade (1936), This Way Please (1937), College Swing (1938), and Man About Town (1939). Despite playing leads, the typecasting proved to hurt her career.
In 1939, Grable appeared with her husband Jackie Coogan in Million Dollar Legs, a low-budget B-movie from whose title Grable’s nickname was taken. Grable and Coogan divorced later that same year. When her contract at Paramount expired, Grable decided to quit acting, having grown tired of appearing in college films.
Film Stardom at Twentieth Century-Fox (1940–1949)
In a 1940 interview, Grable stated that she was “sick and tired” of show business and had decided to retire. Later she received an unsolicited offer to go on a personal appearance tour, which she accepted. The tour led to Darryl F. Zanuck’s offering her a long-term contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. “If that’s not luck I don’t know what you’d call it” Grable said. “I’ve had contracts with four studios in ten years and each time I left one or was dropped, I stepped into something better.” She played a part in Buddy DeSylva’s Broadway show Du Barry Was a Lady (with Ethel Merman) and a part replacing Fox’s suddenly ill leading musical star, Alice Faye, in Down Argentine Way.
Following Down Argentine Way’s positive reviews and major success, Grable was cast opposite Alice Faye in Tin Pan Alley. Over the years, there have been rumors that there was a rivalry between Faye and Grable and that Grable ultimately replaced Faye as the studio’s top musical star. In reality, the two actresses got along right away and became lifelong friends. Grable never actually replaced Faye; Faye chose to leave because she was dissatisfied with the studio’s treatment of her and ultimately Grable became the studio’s leading musical star.
In 1941, she was cast in the Technicolor musical Moon Over Miami with Don Ameche. The film was a major success. Grable’s next film was A Yank in the RAF, a World War II film, in which she co-starred with Tyrone Power, in her first serious leading role in a major Hollywood film. Following the success of this film, Grable was assigned to I Wake Up Screaming, in 1941, a black-and-white film noir co-starring Carole Landis and Victor Mature. Despite receiving critical acclaim especially for Grable’s performance, the film was only mildly successful.
In 1942, Grable made three back-to-back musicals: Song of the Islands, Footlight Serenade and her biggest hit to date, Springtime in the Rockies. This film musical teamed Grable with her future husband, Harry James, and also featured Carmen Miranda in a supporting role. 1943 proved even more successful as Grable starred in two of her best-known Technicolor musicals, Sweet Rosie O’Grady and Coney Island. Coney Island was one of the five most successful films of the year.
In 1943, Grable was named by movie exhibitors as the most popular box-office draw in the country. She was 20th Century Fox’s top money-maker, and Darryl F. Zanuck (Fox’s chief) named Grable his “favorite” contract player. When Alice Faye left the studio in 1945, she became the studio’s undisputed “queen of the lot.”
Also in 1943, Grable’s pin-up picture was taken and resulted in her being cast in Pin Up Girl. The film showcased Grable’s photo in several brief glimpses. Pin Up Girl received poor reviews but was a tremendous box-office success. In 1945, she made Diamond Horseshoe with Dick Haymes. The film was a success, and Grable’s next film The Dolly Sisters, co-starring June Haver, was one of Fox’s biggest hits of the year.
In 1946, Grable appeared as herself in a cameo role in Do You Love Me, her only film appearance that year. Grable came back into the spotlight with the 1947 film, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. The film was not a huge success, but her next project Mother Wore Tights, with one of her most frequent co-stars, Dan Dailey, was Fox’s most successful film of 1947 and came to be known as Grable’s “signature film”.
Her next film, That Lady in Ermine (1948), co-starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and was only a moderate success. However, Grable’s next film, When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948) (again co-starring Dan Dailey), was very successful. In 1949, Grable’s film The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend was released but was a critical and box-office failure, and Grable’s film career began to falter.
Motion Picture Decline & Retirement (1950–1955)
In 1950, Grable made two successful films, Wabash Avenue and My Blue Heaven. Wabash Avenue was a remake of Grable’s 1943 film Coney Island, and she again co-starred with Dan Dailey in My Blue Heaven.
In 1951, Grable made a film version of Call Me Mister, the 1946 Broadway revue about World War II servicemen preparing to return to civilian life. A plot was added and new songs by Sammy Fain and Mack Gordon supplemented three Harold Rome songs retained from the revue. This was the last time Grable appeared in a film with Dan Dailey. Call Me Mister had only moderate box-office success. After the release of the 1951 musical Meet Me After the Show, for which she received good reviews for her comedic talent, Grable took a break from acting; she turned down the lead role in The Girl Next Door, a role that eventually went to June Haver.
In late 1952, Grable returned to acting, hoping to star with Jane Russell in Fox’s film version of the Broadway musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. However, Fox decided not to use Grable for the picture, in favor of newcomer Marilyn Monroe. She was then placed in a remake of The Farmer Takes a Wife, with Dale Robertson, a critically panned box-office failure.
Grable’s last mainstream success for Fox was in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall. Some thought Grable and Monroe wouldn’t get along, believing Grable was angered that Monroe had replaced her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. However, Grable and Monroe got along extremely well. Grable was quoted as saying (to Monroe): “Go and get yours honey! I’ve had mine!” The picture had unusual billing: Grable was first in the film credits, Monroe first in the advertising.
Grable’s last musical film appearance was in Three for the Show (1955) with Jack Lemmon. Three for the Show was released by Columbia Pictures, making the film Grable’s first motion picture away from Fox since she signed with them fifteen years earlier.
Grable’s final film role was in the comedy How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955) with newcomer Sheree North. This film was meant to reunite Grable with Marilyn Monroe, but Monroe turned it down, complaining the script was poor. Afterwards, Grable wanted the role of Miss Adelaide in the 1956 film Guys and Dolls, but it went to Vivian Blaine.
Grable married former child actor Jackie Coogan in 1937. He was under considerable stress from a lawsuit against his parents over his childhood earnings and the couple divorced in 1939.
In 1943, she married trumpeter Harry James. The couple had two daughters, Victoria and Jessica. Their marriage, which lasted for twenty-two years, was rife with alcoholism and infidelity before they divorced in 1965. Grable entered into a relationship with dancer Bob Remick, several years her junior, with whom she remained until she died in 1973.
Grable died of lung cancer at age 56 in Los Angeles, California, on July 2, 1973. Her funeral was held two days later and attended by her ex-husband Harry James and Hollywood stars Dorothy Lamour, Shirley Booth, Mitzi Gaynor, Johnnie Ray, Don Ameche, Cesar Romero, George Raft, Alice Faye and Dan Dailey. “I Had the Craziest Dream,” the ballad from Springtime in the Rockies, was played on the church organ. She was entombed at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California located southwest of Los Angeles.