I don’t do a whole lot of opinion pieces on here but something that’s always bugged me is how much love Betty Grable doesn’t receive. In fact, there’s a stark lack of literature available on her as well; with only a handful of books written about the woman who was in the Box Office Top Ten for 12 years in a row. So why doesn’t she hold appeal for as many people as Monroe, West, or even Mansfield?
She’s (Overall) Wholesome
One thing about Grable, she always played a wholesome girl. Sure, her characters might do misguided things (such as pulling a gun on her students in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend), but can you really hold it against her? She simply lets her temper get the best of her sometimes. She’s not going to kill someone, just scare them a little.
Grable’s characters almost always were a bit rough on the outside but the right man could tame her – all she needed was love. This persona wasn’t too far off from how Grable was in real life and just what America needed in the 1940s; a sweet as apple pie, All-American blonde to show the GIs what they were missing back home (without the gun drawing).
Grable knew exactly what her fan base wanted, and she was more than happy to deliver. When she was forced out of her comfort zone by Darryl Zanuck, such as in The Lady in Ermine, Grable would buck the decision as much as she could. Fans agreed with Grable’s take on what she was fit to work in and Zanuck eventually learned Grable knew best.
But, these roles can feel dated today. While we all love the happy endings that feel smothered in peaches and cream, it would have been nice to see Grable just go on her own to face life, instead of having to continuously end up married or engaged. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not coming at this from an ultra-feminist standpoint and 100% realize why her films were filmed the way they were, but they can feel stale after you hit your 10th Grable film in a row (albeit, I’m happy with stale).
Her Successor’s Memory Has Lived Forever
Let’s be real, Marilyn was originally planned as a 1950s Betty Grable. She was childlike in a woman’s body. She knew how to use her sexuality on-screen (Grable tends to come across as the 30-year-old virgin until her later work). Fox had tried it with June Haver and Mitzi Gaynor, but Monroe really took off with the public. Although Monroe didn’t have the same appeal as Grable when it came to the box office (and I just know someone is going to have a coronary for me saying that but the numbers don’t lie), she ushered in the decade before the 60s by tantalizingly dangling on the edge of 50s decency. Monroe was the new woman, while Grable was stuck as the 40s fantasy; Grable was the girl you married after the war, Monroe was the woman you cheated on your wife with when you got the seven year itch.
Monroe fans – prepare for another coronary – but Monroe’s tragic death at 36 has greatly aided her memory. As much as Monroe scholars despise the likes of Mailer, Slatzer, Wolfe, and Summers, their salacious tales of murder, affairs, secret marriages, corrupt doctors, cover ups, and abortions tantalize the public. Her death has been deemed suspicious by many, and it keeps her in the public eye. If Monroe had lived out her days, I would be willing to bet she wouldn’t be as remembered today being publicity leeches couldn’t latch onto her memory and destroy it in a dumpster fire of lies. This leads me to my next point…
Betty Grable Lived Out Her Life
While Grable was only 56 before lung cancer took her away from this world, she had been retired from films for roughly 20 years and was focusing on stage work. She wasn’t dying to be in the public eye, and her work was relegated to what she was doing on stage. This isn’t to say Grable became lazy (lessons learned in her childhood would never allow a slothful Grable), but she enjoyed nearly ten years of not having to perform (1955-1965). I hate to say it but if Grable had a violent death in 1950, she would be more remembered now. Why? Because we tend to remember those who we think died in suspicious or violent manners. Humans are gruesome.
Betty was an Icon
I don’t think anyone can deny Grable’s icon status. After all, the above picture was sent to an estimated 5 million GIs (courtesy of Fox) during WWII. But the values held dear to 1940s America didn’t hold true to the 60s and beyond. While Monroe teetered on the edge of the 60s, Grable represented the 40s ideal – which didn’t age well with the flower children of the 60s, those who celebrated the golden age of porn in the 70s, or the 80s power executive. As our WWII veterans have passed away, so has a large amount of Grable’s fan base. Grable isn’t the only person to deal with this; the likes of Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Veronica Lake, and Rita Hayworth all dealt with fallout. Hollywood (and the public) turned their back on their most popular 40s stars, likely because of constant reminders of the horrors of war those women would come to represent. Not, of course, from these women’s own actions, but because of the era they symbolized. Most people have seen Grable’s pinup pose on commemorative covers of Life or Time, but they don’t really want to know more about who their grandparents were fantasizing about while overseas fighting Hitler, Mussolini, or Emperor Hirohito. And you know what? I’m fine with it. More Grable stuff for me. 🙂