Best known as a 1940s Pin-Up girl and for her roles in How to Marry a Millionaire, The Gay Divorcee, and The Dolly Sisters.
Let’s Go Places
New Movietone Follies of 1930
The Greeks Had a Word for Them
The Age of Consent
Hold ‘Em Jail
The Kid from Spain
Child of Manhattan
What Price Innocence?
The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi
By Your Leave
Old Man Rhythm
Follow the Fleet
Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose
This Way Please
Thrill of a Lifetime
Give Me a Sailor
Man About Town
Million Dollar Legs
The Day the Bookies Wept
Down Argentine Way
Tin Pan Alley
Moon Over Miami
A Yank in the RAF
I Wake Up Screaming
Song of the Islands
Springtime in the Rockies
Sweet Rosie O’Grady
Four Jills in a Jeep
Pin Up Girl
The Dolly Sisters
Do You Love Me
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim
Mother Wore Tights
That Lady in Ermine
When My Baby Smiles at Me
The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend
Call Me Mister
Meet Me After the Show
The Farmer Takes a Wife
Three for the Show
How to Be Very, Very Popular
Betty Grable was never nominated for an Academy Award.
You’re better off betting on a horse than betting on a man. A horse may not be able to hold you tight, but he doesn’t wanna wander from the stable at night. ~ Betty Grable
Elizabeth Ruth Grable was born on December 18, 1916 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the youngest of three children born to Lillian Rose (née Hofmann; 1889–1964) and John Charles Grable (1883–1954), a stockbroker.
Nicknamed “Betty” as a child, she was pressured by her mother—a stubborn and materialistic woman—to become a performer. She was entered in multiple beauty contests, many of which she won or for which she achieved considerable attention. Despite her success, she suffered from a fear of crowds and sleepwalking.
A 12-year-old Grable and her mother traveled to Hollywood in 1929, shortly after the infamous stock market crash, hoping to achieve stardom. To get her daughter jobs, Lillian Grable lied about her daughter’s age, claiming she was 15 to movie producers and casting agents. The same year, billed as Betty Grable, she made her film debut in Happy Days (1929). This eventually led to her having small roles in Let’s Go Places (1930) and a short Movietone commercial reel for 20th Century-Fox.
In 1930, at age 13, Grable began a partnership with producer Samuel Goldwyn; she thereby became one of the original Goldwyn Girls, along with Lucille Ball, Virginia Bruce, and Paulette Goddard. As a member of the ensemble group of attractive young starlets, Grable appeared in a series of small parts in movies, among them the mega-hit Whoopee! (1930), starring Eddie Cantor. Although she received no on-screen credit for her performance, she led the film’s opening musical number, entitled “Cowboys”. In 1932, she signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures, and she was assigned to a succession of acting, singing, and dancing classes at the studio’s drama school. Her first film for the studio, Probation (1932), provided the 14-year-old Grable with her first credited screen role. Over the next few years, however, she was again relegated to uncredited minor roles in a series of films, many of them that became worldwide successes, like the 1933 hit Cavalcade. She received larger roles in The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Follow the Fleet (1936), two movie musicals starring the immensely popular movie duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Late in the 1930s, Grable signed with Paramount Pictures, which lent her to 20th Century-Fox to co-star in the adolescent comedy Pigskin Parade (1936). The film was the studio’s effort to introduce Grable to the mainstream movie audience, but her performance was overlooked by audiences and critics in favor of newcomer Judy Garland. When she returned to Paramount, she began a new phase in her career; the studio began casting her in a series of college-aimed movies, the majority of the time having her portray unintelligent blonde co-eds. These films included the moderately popular This Way Please (1937) and College Swing (1938). Though Grable played the leading roles in these films, they led to her being typecast as an innocent and not-so-bright co-ed.
In 1939, she appeared opposite her then-husband Jackie Coogan in Million Dollar Legs, a B movie comedy from whose title Grable’s famous nickname was taken. When the film did not become the hit Paramount had hoped for, the studio released her from her contract, and Grable began preparing to leave Hollywood for a simpler life. However, she changed her mind and decided to take her chance on Broadway; she accepted Buddy DeSylva’s offer to star in his musical DuBarry Was a Lady with musical-comedy star Ethel Merman. The play was an instant critical and audience success, and Grable was branded a new-found star.
In a 1940 interview, Grable stated she was “sick and tired” of show business and that she was considering retirement. Soon thereafter, she was offered to go on a personal appearance tour, which she readily accepted. The tour brought Grable to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century-Fox, who offered her a long-term contract.
Zanuck, who had been impressed by Grable’s performance in DuBarry was a Lady, was, at the time, in the midst of casting the female lead in the musical film Down Argentine Way. The role had originally been assigned to Alice Faye, Fox’s reigning musical star, but she had to decline the part due to an unspecified illness. After reviewing her screen test, Zanuck cast Grable as Faye’s replacement in the movie. The film was a lavish Technicolor musical and co-starred Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda. Grable’s performance of the song “Down Argentine Way” is considered a highlight of the film.
Down Argentine Way was a critical and box office success at the time of its release, and many critics proclaimed Grable to be the successor to Alice Faye. The film’s success led to Grable’s casting in Tin Pan Alley (1940), co-starring Faye. As the Lily sisters, both Grable and Faye received favorable reviews for their performances and the film recouped its financial investment. Over the years, rumors have circulated that a rivalry existed between Grable and Faye during filming, but this has been said to be entirely untrue—both actresses denied all accusations of a feud, and each often expressed their admiration for the other. The two reportedly remained friends until Grable’s death. After Tin Pan Alley, Grable was again teamed with Ameche in the hit musical Moon Over Miami (1941), which also co-starred up-and-coming actress Carole Landis.
In 1941, Fox attempted to broaden Grable’s acting and audience range by casting her in two films with more serious tones than those in which she had starred previously. The first, A Yank in the R.A.F., released in September, co-starred heartthrob Tyrone Power, and cast her as Carol Brown, who works in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the day, but is employed as a nightclub singer in the evening. The film followed along the lines of other movies of the era, but it was not considered a propaganda movie by the studio. At the time of its release, the film received positive reviews, with many critics singling out the obvious on-screen chemistry between Grable and Power. It was also a major box-office success, becoming the fourth-most popular movie of the year. The second movie, I Wake Up Screaming, released in November, had Grable receiving top billing as Jill Lynn, the sister of a young model who is murdered. The film offered Grable her second teaming with Carole Landis, and it also co-starred Victor Mature. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, the movie was a traditional black-and-white film noir, containing a combination of suspense and romance. Grable’s performance was favorably reviewed by most critics, and the film enjoyed reasonable financial success.
Grable’s star continued to rise when she starred in Song of the Islands (1942), co-starring Victor Mature and Jack Oakie. The success of the movie led to her reteaming with Mature in Footlight Serenade (1942), also co-starring John Payne, in which she played a glamorous Broadway star. Fox then began to develop Philip Wylie’s short story, “Second Honeymoon”, into a script suited for Grable’s talents. The resulting movie was Springtime in the Rockies (1942), directed by Irving Cummings and pairing Grable opposite Payne, Cesar Romero, Carmen Miranda, and her future husband, bandleader Harry James. The film was an immediate hit, Grable’s biggest success to date, grossing more than $2 million. The film’s success led to Fox upping her salary and to her having a wider choice over the films she would make.
Grable was voted the number-one box-office draw by American movie exhibitors in 1943; she outranked Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, Greer Garson, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable in popularity. Grable’s next movie, Coney Island, released in June 1943, was a Technicolor “gay nineties” period musical and co-starred George Montgomery. The film earned more than $3.5 million at the box office and was well received by critics. Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), her follow-up feature, was equally successful at the box office, although it failed to obtain the same critical favoritism. In 1943, she collaborated with photographer Frank Powolny for a regular studio photo session. During the shoot, she took several photos in a tight, one-piece bathing suit. One particular pose consisted of Grable’s back being to the camera as she playfully smiled looking over her right shoulder. The picture was released as a poster and became the most requested photo for G.I.s stationed overseas. Grable’s photograph sold millions of copies, eventually surpassing the popularity of Rita Hayworth’s famous 1941 photo.
Grable’s success as a pin-up girl furthered her career as a mainstream movie star. As her star continued to ascend, Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck expressed interest in broadening Grable’s range as an actress. Zanuck attempted, on multiple occasions, to cast her in films that challenged her acting abilities, but Grable herself was reluctant; she felt insecure about her talent which rendered her unwilling to accept roles she felt required too much of her. Throughout her career, she was very cautious; she often worried about starring opposite well-known leading men, fearing they may squander her success. She preferred to star in up-beat and outlandish musicals, many of which followed the generic boy-meets-girl story tack. In fact, many of her movies were thin when it came to their stories, but they were high on energy during their song-and-dance sequences. Despite their lack of quality, Grable’s movies were immensely popular, and Fox regularly channeled the profits it received from Grable’s movies into their more prestigious movies.
Zanuck relented to Grable’s own request not to tamper with her successful screen formula. As a result, the studio prepared a film called Pin Up Girl for her. The film has her as a hostess for a USO canteen, who also provides entertainment for the troops during their time there. The lavish musical used her famous pin-up photograph in many scenes, which boosted the photo’s sales. Many of the film’s later scenes had to be rewritten to hide Grable’s pregnancy. Pin Up Girl co-starred comedians Martha Raye and Joe E. Brown and was released in April 1944 to overwhelming success at the box office. Critics, though, were not as accepting of the film. Variety said the film “makes no pretenses of ultra-realism”, but also called it “very pleasing and pleasant”. After time off to give birth to a healthy daughter, Grable returned to Fox to star in Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe (1945), co-starring Dick Haymes and Phil Silvers. Though the film earned more than $3 million at the box office, it struggled to make a profit because of its high production costs. The Dolly Sisters (1945), her next film, teamed her with newcomer June Haver, an actress Fox was promoting as Grable’s successor. Although the press hinted that a tense behind-the-scenes rivalry existed between the two actresses, they both denied it, claiming to be good friends. The Dolly Sisters earned more than $4 million at the box office, and was Fox’s second-highest earning movie of the year, behind Leave Her to Heaven.
After five years of constant work, Grable was allowed time off for an extended vacation. She did, however, briefly return to filming to make a cameo appearance in Do You Love Me (1946), in which she appeared as a fan of her husband Harry James’ character. Grable was reluctant to continue her film career, but Fox was desperately in need of her return. Without Grable’s movies, which generated large profits, the studio struggled to stay afloat. The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) was her first film back at Fox. She played Cynthia Pilgrim, a college student who graduated at the top of her typewriting class during the first year of the Packard Business College. Although critics acknowledged that the film “momentarily achieved” brilliance, they also felt that the movie’s music was like “sticky toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube.” The film also suffered from indifferent ticket sales, and Fox failed to regain their financial investment. Grable next starred in Walter Lang’s Mother Wore Tights, released in September 1947, co-starring Dan Dailey. The film told the story of two aging vaudeville performers as they look back on their heyday through a series of flashbacks. It received critical acclaim from critics and was a box-office hit, earning an estimated $5 million.
In 1948, she was cast in That Lady in Ermine, a film that had previously been considered for either Jeanette MacDonald or Gene Tierney. It co-starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and was originally directed by Ernst Lubitsch. After Lubitsch’s death early into production, he was replaced by Otto Preminger. It was widely reported that Grable often quarreled with Fairbanks and Preminger and that she nearly walked out on filming, but decided against on the advice of her agent. When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews; it was referred to as “a bright and beguiling swatch of nonsense” and it did not generate the revenue for which Fox had hoped. Grable immediately thereafter began filming When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948), co-starring Dan Dailey, which became a blockbuster, cementing Grable and Dailey’s status as a bankable movie duo. Closing out the decade, Grable starred in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), an oddball movie that unevenly mixed musical numbers with Western clichés. Despite a casting consisting of Cesar Romero and Rudy Vallee, the film was universally panned by critics, but contrary to popular belief, it was a reasonable box-office success.
Grable had been consistently placed in the “Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll” every year, beginning in 1942. She ranked at the top of the poll in 1943, and ranked second in 1947 and 1948. In 1949, although she still placed in the top ten, she slipped from second to seventh place in popularity. Fox became concerned that Grable might gradually be becoming regarded as a movie passé. Darryl F. Zanuck had the film Wabash Avenue tailored to fit Grable’s talents. The film’s plot line closely followed the story of Grable’s earlier hit, Coney Island. Despite the similarities, they had new songs written and dances choreographed to modernize the film. Wabash Avenue was released in May 1950, and was a box office hit, despite its less-than-favorable critical reviews. Her following film, My Blue Heaven, released in December 1950, reteamed her with Dan Dailey, and was equally successful financially. In 1950, Grable had regained her status as the most-popular female at the box office; she ranked fourth overall, just behind John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby.
Although, by the early 1950s, Grable was searching for originality in the scripts offered to her, she had no luck in finding the movies she wanted to do. She reluctantly agreed to make Call Me Mister (1951) with Dan Dailey, a loose Technicolor musical remake of A Yank in the R.A.F. The film was only moderately successful, and was quickly followed by Meet Me After the Show (1951), co-starring Macdonald Carey, Rory Calhoun, and Eddie Albert. It received favorable reviews from most critics and was a box-office success. In 1952, Grable began renegotiating her contract with Fox. She requested an upped salary and the option to make only the films she wanted to make. The studio refused to accommodate her requests, and she left the studio on strike. As a result, Grable was replaced by Marilyn Monroe in the movie adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a role Grable felt perfectly fit her persona. In late 1952, she was scheduled to begin filming The Girl Next Door, a light-weight musical comedy, but when she failed to show up to work, Fox suspended her. She was eventually replaced by June Haver in the film.
After a year off from filming, Grable reluctantly reconciled with Fox and agreed to star in a musical remake of The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953). The film was an attempt by Fox to recapture Grable’s heyday as the studio’s biggest star, and though she was paired with the popular Dale Robertson, the film was a critical and box-office flop. She next starred in How to Marry a Millionaire, a romantic comedy about three models plotting to marry wealthy men, co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall. During production, Grable and Monroe were rumored wrongly as not getting along. Grable, whose career was declining, was assumed to be jealous of Monroe because she was being groomed as Fox’s newest star and possibly as Grable’s unofficial successor. In fact, Grable and Monroe got along famously; Grable reportedly told Monroe: “Go and get yours honey! I’ve had mine!” How to Marry a Millionaire was a box-office triumph when released, grossing an estimated $8 million.
After refusing a leading role in Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business, Grable was again suspended from her contract. She was replaced by Ethel Merman. She then appeared in her first film made away from Fox in over 15 years Three for the Show (1955), which was filmed at Columbia, and paired her with up-and-coming talents Jack Lemmon and Marge and Gower Champion. Critics called the film a “slight but cheerful item”, and proclaimed it “does serve to bring Betty Grable back to the screen.” It enjoyed reasonable success at the box office, particularly overseas. She then agreed to make How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955) for Fox, on the assurance Marilyn Monroe would be her co-star. When Monroe dropped out of the production, she was replaced with Sheree North. The release of the film was surrounded by a massive publicity campaign promotion, but despite the promotion, the film failed to live up to its hype, with many critics complaining of the lack of chemistry between Grable and North. It was, however, a box-office hit, earning more than $3.7 million. It proved to be Grable’s final film appearance. In 1956, she did attempt to return to acting in Samuel Goldwyn’s film version of Guys and Dolls. She opted to play the role of Miss Adelaide, but was passed over in favor of Vivian Blaine, who had played the role on the stage. She thereby officially retired from motion-picture acting.
Grable thereafter found a new career starring in her own act in Las Vegas hotels, as well as alongside then husband Harry James. Later, Betty also starred in big Las Vegas stage productions like “Hello Dolly”. She also appeared on Broadway in “Hello Dolly” in 1967.
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. They had two daughters, Victoria Elizabeth (born 1944) and Jessica (born 1947). Their marriage, which lasted for 22 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.
On July 2, 1973, Grable died of lung cancer at age 56 in Los Angeles, California. Her funeral was held two days later and was attended by 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