Screen Gems

Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable

by Spero Pastos
Berkley, 183 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance

by Warren G. Harris
Doubleday, 296 pp., $17.95

The Making of The African Queen

by Katharine Hepburn
Knopf, 131 pp., $15.95

Movie stars in the 1930s and early 1940s had a place in the American consciousness that has never been equaled since. So that even a photograph of Myrna Loy, for example, could evoke much of the wit and romance of 1930s comedy; just as later on Betty Grable, the most popular woman star of the 1940s, seemed to incarnate all that decade’s banality. Now Myrna Loy tells us, in her autobiography, how the two of them actually met—early in the war, when Loy’s popularity was somewhat waning (she had temporarily retired from the screen to do war work) and Grable’s was at its height. Loy had prevailed on Grable—whom she found she liked (“a game gal, direct and unaffected”)—to do an impromptu show for the wounded at a Staten Island military hospital. But when she came to pick her up the next morning, Grable was complaining of a hangover: “Harry James and I were out on the town last night.” Loy told their driver to stop at “a little road-house” where she made Grable “take some beer to appease the gremlins,” and they went on. It’s almost like a scene from one of her movies with Jean Harlow—Libeled Lady, for example—with Loy dealing generously and warmly with this other, very different sort of woman. They arrived at the hospital, and Grable, Loy tells us, was “a sensation”:

Can you imagine? This was the pinup girl of the Navy, the Army, and the Marine Corps. They were so thrilled, so excited—some of them shy, some of them forward—and she was absolutely terrific, which wasn’t easy in her condition, particularly since she hadn’t been prepared for all that horror. Overcome at one point in the burn ward she sat down on the edge of an empty bed, looking up at me like a little girl ashamed of being naughty. “That’s all right,” I said. “You can sit and rest.” …So she stayed quite a while…giving kisses and autographs, putting her lip-prints on plaster casts as the men moved joyfully around her, some on crutches, some legless in wheelchairs.

Grable was a distraction from “all that horror”: you see her turning away from it in Frank Powolny’s famous pinup photo—who needs it anyway?—smiling back at us over a provocatively upraised shoulder, with her high heels and her upswept hairdo, showing us her trim little backside in a gleaming white bathing suit (in fact, her biographer tells us, she was turning away because she was pregnant). This inelegant image, as different from almost any of Myrna Loy’s as could be imagined, was the most widely circulated pinup in history (five million copies distributed free to American servicemen during the war), and had a force that went far beyond its obvious erotic message. It was an image of American tackiness: consoling, sustaining, inescapable—about to take over the world, in fact. Sexy, of course, but evoking …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.