Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable
Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance
The Making of The African Queen
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 not so much the beach or the bedroom as the candy counter in the lobby.
On the screen, Grable was cheery without being cheerful—like the carhop or the waitress she reminded you of. She sang and danced jauntily, she had great legs, an infectious energy, and small watchful eyes. Her mechanical doll quality was in fact part of her appeal: whatever her problems, she never burdened the rest of us with them, and we knew she never would (unlike her successor at the same studio, Marilyn Monroe, who always seemed too strange and too needy to fit even the parts that were tailored to her). Betty Grable was so spectacularly self-armored that it gave her a kind of charm—even at times, though rarely, and mostly when she sang, a kind of poignancy.
She was the tough-girl type—but in the 1940s she wasn’t allowed to be that, the way leading women in the 1930s had been, from Jean Harlow to Ginger Rogers. So that she gave the impression in her movies of aspiring to vulgarity without quite achieving it. The plots told a different story. If she started out seeming common and low-class (in Coney Island, 1943, the hero has to handcuff her to the scenery to keep her from butt-twitching her way through a love song), she was claimed for gentility well before the end—though so discreetly and with so little apparent effect on her looks or manner that we hardly notice it’s been done. Her movies were nervous about this issue of respectability. Because finally we were asked to believe that she was just like the girl next door—and not just the one in Hollywood or Vegas. But then, as often happens, the girl next door, wherever she was, was getting to look more and more like her. Grable’s obvious vulgarity—which might have linked her to the best and strongest traditions of Hollywood comedy—became instead a touchy matter, a potential embarrassment. Her toughness on the screen (in uniform studio products such as Moon Over Miami, 1942, and Pin-Up Girl, 1944), instead of giving her comic life, became a constraint—suggesting less freedom and boldness than complacency and thickness. Where Jean Harlow had been interesting and enlivening, Grable was merely lively.
The growing genteel-ism, as James Agee called it, of 1940s movies affected Myrna Loy too. Like all the great romantic heroines of screwball comedy—Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur—she depended on a certain brashness in the fantasy world she inhabited, a kind of challenging vulgarity. These heroines were not only equal to the raffishness, they were in touch with it too—a point that’s made memorably explicit when Irene Dunne imitates a stripper in The Awful Truth (1937), or when “Nora Charles” (Loy) entertains her husband’s “friends,” all the mugs and crooks from his days as a private eye. We were always interested in how the elegant Loy would react to tough guy Gable or tough girl Harlow—and heartened somehow when she made it clear that the gap between them was less important than the shared vitality, or the shared joke. Even her remarkable beauty was just one of those qualities she had (her humor and her adventurousness among the others) that saved her from refinement.
Of the four Hollywood books under review, Katharine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen is the least typical. Not only because it’s unmistakably written by the star herself without the benefit of ghost or collaborator, but also because it’s so narrowly conceived. Few other stars would attempt to tell us so much about the experience of a single movie and so little about everything else. The other books are all full-length biographies, and such books by now seem to have developed their own laws. They usually begin at one of the star’s final public appearances (the Loy book begins at the 1985 Carnegie Hall gala honoring her career, the one about Grable at the 1972 Academy Awards)—an occasion which is offered as either triumphant (Loy) or dismaying (Grable), depending on the star’s condition and the author’s bias—before starting their chronological march through the life and the films. As for the films themselves, the stars rarely remember them—and their biographers aren’t much interested in them; they seldom even give the impression of having seen a lot of them, at least not recently.
Otherwise the difference between these books is enormous. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming is lively and engaging throughout. It is part autobiography, written in the first person, and whatever the contribution of her “co-author,” James Kotsilibas-Davis, Loy herself really does seem to be present in it, with her wryness and reticences and sudden outbursts of feeling (“Imagine calling Errol Flynn a Nazi spy. My God! He was never sober long enough”). And just as she is likable, so is her book.
Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable is hardly a book, and it is certainly not likable. Grable is not, on the surface at least, a promising subject. Her talent (as she herself was always ready to point out) was modest, her movies were mostly third-rate, and her life (the dissolute husbands Jackie Coogan and Harry James, the racetracks and the drinking, the early retirement to Vegas) seems mostly depressing. But she was so much at the heart of American life of her time that her limitations become—like Scarlett O’Hara’s—something to ponder. Her extraordinarily successful career reminds you of Brecht’s vision of the houses in Los Angeles:
…built for happy people, therefore standing empty
Even when lived in….
There is some kind of book in that career, I should think—but maybe not a biography. And certainly not Pin-Up, which is in the National Enquirer vein, both gushing and scabrous at once, with careful attention to the details of such matters as Grable’s terminal cancer, and written with the cooperation, it seems, of at least one of her unhappy children. It’s meant to be generous and affectionate (the author is clearly a fan), but of course it doesn’t turn out that way.
At that it is a better book, it seems to me, than Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance. That subtitle warns you what to expect: a work so inert and poorly written that in the end its author seems interested neither in Grant nor in his movies. There really hasn’t been much written about the man whom David Thomson calls “the best and most important actor in the history of cinema,” but this book adds little new information to the much better written biography by British journalist Geoffrey Wansell*—beyond an account of Grant’s death in 1986, and a more open speculation (in view of that death) about his sex life (those years he roomed with Randolph Scott).
What is most interesting about Grant is his relation to his screen persona. Temperamentally he seems to have transformed himself when he acted—to have turned a sort of sullen self-absorption in his offscreen life into the witty edginess, the large and exhilarating anger that we feel in his best performances. After all, what did his “interesting life” off the screen really amount to, he once asked rhetorically in an interview: nothing but “stomach disturbances” and “self-concern.” And his awareness of the irony seems to have made it worse. No wonder he is so imposing on the screen—the most powerful (and menacing) “light comedian” of them all. It wasn’t his “elegance” that got our attention but his ability to make us uneasy, with his energy, his grin and his gaze, his unsettling shrewdness and ambiguous high spirits. It was an extraordinary achievement, but he himself seems to have felt at a greater distance from his screen persona even than stars of the time—the studio era—generally did.
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” he said in his most famous quoted remark, “even I want to be Cary Grant.” In his Hollywood life he seems to have been more like Ralph Bellamy, “the Other Man” that the heroine doesn’t marry: cautious, unadventurous, self-preserving to a fault. And those qualities began more and more to surface in public in the latter part of his career—which was dedicated to keeping “Cary Grant” intact through movie after movie, preserving just those qualities (the old smoothie suavity) that were least challenging and interesting, taking such “risks” as going unshaven in one film or not getting the girl in another (his last). He quit at age sixty-two, long before audiences could say he should have, and was soon promoting a line of men’s cosmetics. “It isn’t too different from films,” he said (sounding like Bellamy talking about insurance in His Girl Friday). “We both make a product, can it and distribute it. My corporate duties will be to call attention to the products and tour the world on a good-will basis.” He had become a spokesman and “creative consultant” for Fabergé, a position he seemed to regard as dignified.
Haunted I dol: The Story of the Real Cary Grant (William Morrow, 1984).↩
Haunted I dol: The Story of the Real Cary Grant (William Morrow, 1984).↩