By Alan Hurst
If Alice Faye was the quintessential queen of 20th Century Fox during the late thirties and early forties, the torch was passed to Betty Grable who dominated 20th Century Fox with her lighthearted musicals – and a few dramas – for the bulk of the decade and into the early fifties.
Grable was a delight on screen and, judging by articles and books, she was also a treat to be around off-screen. She was what she seemed: down to earth, fun, talented but with little to no pretense about her abilities. She never had aspirations beyond what she knew she could do. As a vocalist, she knew she couldn’t compete with Judy Garland or Doris Day, but she was a delightful and personable singer. As a dancer, she wasn’t in the same league as Eleanor Powell or Ann Miller, but she could definitely dance, and she was a treat to watch in any production number. She did OK in a couple of dramas, including the noir classic I Wake Up Screaming (1942), and she had some nice moments when some of her musical films turned serious, but Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman had nothing to worry about. She was clearly more comfortable with comedy and, if she wasn’t in the same league as Jean Arthur or Rosalind Russell, she knew how to get a laugh. For me what made Grable so terrific was the fact that within her limitations, she was near perfection. Grable was the ideal star for the time and she connected with audiences in a completely non-threatening way. She was both fantasy figure and friend.
Grable was also extremely popular. She was probably the biggest female box-office star of the forties, appearing in the top 10 for 10 straight years – and she was number one in 1943. Only four actresses in the sound era have had a run like that (Doris Day, Barbra Streisand and Julia Roberts are the others) and only Grable did it consecutively.
She started making films in the 1930’s when she was very young and she enjoyed some attention in a series of films for Paramount, but her career never took off in a big way. She went to Broadway in 1939 for a featured role in Cole Porter’s DuBarry Was a Lady, which starred Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr. The show was a hit and so was she, quite an achievement in a show where Merman was clearly the star. She caught the attention of 20th Century Fox’s Daryl F. Zanuck who signed her to a contract. Her first film there saw her replacing an ailing Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way (1940). It was one of the year’s biggest hits and Grable was on her way.
Like Faye, Grable’s films had an established formula – they were lighthearted, they were colorful, her character was usually in show business, and her co-stars took a back seat to the star. They weren’t the artistic home runs that MGM was producing with its musicals, but they were definitely entertaining at a time everyone needed the distraction that a technicolor Grable and her famous legs were able to provide.
These are my favorite Grable films.
Moon Over Miami (1941)
Coming after her breakout in Down Argentine Way (1940) and a pairing with Alice Faye in Tin Pan Alley (1940), this is my favorite Grable film. It’s not necessarily her best performance, but director Walter Lang gave us a near perfect piece of technicolor fluff that allows Grable to take centre stage in an amusing performance with nicely staged musical numbers that perfectly show off her talents. It’s also a beautifully designed film with dazzling sets and costumes – they’re not remotely realistic, but they are a treat to look at. The story here involves three women – Grable, her sister Barbara (Carole Landis) and an Aunt (Charlotte Greenwood) who all work in a drive-in restaurant in Texas. They’re expecting a windfall from an inheritance, but after taxes it isn’t what they thought it would be, so they decide to take what they do get and head to Miami to find rich husbands. Lo and behold the sisters meet two men – Don Ameche and Robert Cummings – and, after a bit of romantic cat and mouse, there’s a happy ending for everyone. The film feels like the ultimate vacation fantasy, all playing out in a perfectly contained bubble. Once the trio get to Miami it’s Grable who shines, particularly in a fun dance with the Condos Brothers. And Greenwood proves to be the perfect second banana, throwing out one liners with aplomb. Her scenes with would-be suitor Jack Haley are also terrific, and you haven’t seen anything until you see Greenwood do her high kick speciality.
Springtime in the Rockies (1943)
Pure camp, but also a lot of fun. It’s the backstage story of a pair of musical comedy performers (Grable and John Payne) who are constantly battling over his perceived womanizing. After yet another break-up, she heads to a spectacular resort in the Canadian Rockies with Cesar Romero. Payne follows her, and he gets mixed up with Carmen Miranda, sparking Grable’s jealousy all over again. Also along for the ride are Jackie Gleason, Charlotte Greenwood (again), and Grable’s real-life husband Harry James and his orchestra. Grable is the whole show (but with some competition from Miranda and Greenwood) and she’s a treat as the jealous performer. Again, she’s surrounded by beautiful but over-the-top sets and costumes and the score she’s working with is a few notches above Moon Over Miami, with some terrific sequences featuring Harry James. The colors are also spectacular. And, to ensure movie audiences of the time knew this was actually set in Canada, you see an actor dressed in full Royal Canadian Mounted Police regalia, as well a few token First Nations people in full costume. Definitely a different era.
The Dolly Sisters (1946)
The scope of Grable’s films were starting to get a little bigger and deeper. This one is a fan favourite that also enjoyed the honor of being one of the hysterical movie take-offs that were a regular part of The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78) on CBS. The Dolly Sisters is based on a true story about two sisters (Grable and June Haver) from Hungary who come to the United States. To help support their family they start performing and eventually make it to vaudeville, where they meet a singer (John Payne again) and Grable falls for him. They eventually achieve major success, with Payne and Grable marrying but it’s all interrupted by WWI. The basic driver of the film is the challenge presented by the desire of the two sisters to maintain a personal and professional life. When one wants to put performing aside, the other doesn’t and vice versa. It wraps up with the sisters reunited as performers after a bad car accident for Grable’s character, and all eventually find love. The film pushes Grable to successfully deliver in some heavy dramatic scenes, but still keeps her front and centre in the musical numbers. Haver was another of the 20th Century Fox blondes, probably being groomed as an eventual replacement for Grable, but she never caught on in a big way. You can see why in The Dolly Sisters – she’s good, but without trying Grable just exudes more personality and a much more interesting screen presence. An Oscar nominee for Best Song.
Mother Wore Tights (1947)
One of Grable’s many pairings with the talented Dan Dailey, Mother Wore Tights is deemed by many to contain Grable’s best performance. It’s another backstage story about two young performers (Grable and Dailey) who meet and eventually start performing together. Their act proves to be a success, but Grable retires after she gives birth to two daughters. Dailey continues the act with another partner, but it’s not a success so he convinces Grable to go back to the stage. As the girls grow, they’re embarrassed by their parent’s profession, with one of them in particular worried about the impact on her social life if it’s discovered. In its own musical comedy way, Mother Wore Tights tells an interesting story about how show people were looked down upon – even within families. It also allowed Grable to play a more mature character and we get to see her a little more subdued, but still giving it her all in the musical numbers. It really is a nicely-judged performance that shows Grable’s growth as an actress. Dailey also proved to be a terrific partner for Grable – they spark a very comfortable and easy performing rhythm in each other. The film was nominated for three Oscars and won for its musical score. I think you could easily make the case that Grable should have been among the final five nominees that year for Best Actress.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
This is Grable cinematically passing the reigns to her successor, Marilyn Monroe. There is no question that this one is very dated in its basic premise that all women are out to nab a man, preferably a rich one (a common theme in a lot of 20th Century Fox Films). But if taken as a true period piece, this is a very funny film and provided all three of its stars – Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe – with some of their best comedic opportunities. Showing off conspicuous consumption at its finest, the trio do their best to find the right guy, but ultimately love gets in the way. It’s all very silly, but there’s great dialogue and the three stars play beautifully together. Bacall is the no-nonsense leader of the group, Grable the more down-to-earth of the trio, and Monroe is the stereotypical nearsighted blonde who exists in a perpetual comic haze. Key moments – Bacall shopping for jewelry (“I’ll take that … and that, and that and that and that.”), Grable dreaming of a pastrami sandwich and beer instead of money, and Monroe walking into walls because she won’t wear her glasses. It’s all handled with aplomb. Over the years, this one morphed into camp, but it remains a guilty pleasure that can still produce laughs. Sadly, this was the last good film that Grable ever made, and it was also one of her funniest performances. She’s the most grounded of the trio and her straightforward approach and honesty are perfect.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.