She was more than just a pair of legs, but my goodness but those legs were famous. Which is kind of strange to me; by the ’40s, legs weren’t unusual in the movies. Somehow, there was something about hers which separated her from the rest, and I’ll confess to not understanding exactly what it was. To my mind, Ginger Rogers probably had better legs simply because hers would have been muscular enough to kick through oak. I mean, I guess if you like more padding, Betty Grable’s were better, but “insure as a studio gimmick” good?
Of course, these days, that’s not what people remember her for anyway. What they remember her for is the pose. Back to the camera, hands on her hips. Hair piled high on her head and a cheery smile. We all see her that way. Even I see her that way, and I’ve actually seen several of her movies. (However, the proportions of the image make it a problem for the software to deal with!) I suspect that most people, if they know anything about her at all beyond that picture and its success as a World War II pinup, know that she was posing that way because it didn’t show her abdomen—she was visibly pregnant at the time.
To be fair, most of her movies are at best forgettable. I have actually seen Pigskin Parade, otherwise most notable as the screen debut of Judy Garland, and it is dire. I don’t recommend it to anyone else. Four Jills in a Jeep is charming enough. I honestly don’t remember much about Down Argentine Way, though I believe it’s notable for Carmen Miranda’s first American role. There are a few other movies of hers that I think I’ve seen, but I’m not sure.
And, of course, there’s How to Marry a Millionaire, which is not unlike many of her other forgettable roles except for the part where her costars were Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. That’s enough to make people remember it, although the reaction tends to include, “Oh, yeah, I guess Betty Grable’s in that, too.” Which she was, even if she didn’t stand out as much as her more iconic costars.
I suppose, in the long run, being well known for a single photograph is still better than a lot of people, even people she knew in her Hollywood days. But she retired from the screen because she never really felt she was getting the roles she deserved. In part, she was mad because she’d been passed over for Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls for skipping a meeting with Samuel Goldwyn when her dog broke its leg. However, since she was passed over and the role was given to the woman who’d originated it on Broadway, there’s only so annoyed on her behalf I’m prepared to be on that one.