Behind the camera: Frank Powolny
Photo Summary: Betty Grable in a promotional shot for the movie Sweet Rosie O’Grady
While American soldiers were overseas fighting World War II, they longed for something that reminded them of home. They chose this picture of Betty Grable. Some liked her sexy figure; others thought she reminded them of that ideal “girl back home.” Whatever the reason, she was by far the number one pin-up girl during that time.
Taking the picture
Grable had just finished the movie Sweet Rosie O’Grady, and the studio needed some bathing suit shots. Grable herself remembers that “the session wasn’t going too well; Frank was trying to achieve something different. After about a dozen shots, he told me to turn my back to the camera and he would catch my face in profile. I obliged, turned my face toward the camera, and asked, ‘How about this?'” which was when Powolny snapped his photo. Powolny remembers that:
I asked Betty if she’d like to have a back shot, just to be different, She said, ‘Yes,’ and began to clown around. ‘You want it like this?’ she asked, posing. And I said, ‘Yeah.’ I made only two shots of that pose. It was the second shot that became famous.
There are some who claim that Grable was pregnant at the time when this shoot happened but both her kids Victoria and Jessica’s birth dates wouldn’t match up. Victoria was born on March 4, 1944, and Jessica was born on May 20, 1947. It was doubtful that the pregnancy would have been showing in early 1943 if she conceived as late as June 1943. Also, Powolny took other photos of her facing the camera and it doesn’t appear to show a baby bump. When the studio released the photo it became the most requested picture in movie history.
FOX studios saw its potential and persuaded the US military to allow it to distribute 5 million postcards of this picture to American GIs fighting in the war. Soldiers soon had painted the picture on planes, bomber jackets, and barrack walls making it the most popular pin-up during the war.
She was born Elizabeth Ruth Grable in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 18, 1916. The third child of John Conn Grable (June 28, 1883-January 25, 1954) and Lillian Rose Hofmann (May 29, 1889-December 24, 1964). Her sister was Marjorie L. Grable (April 17, 1909-November 25, 1980) and her brother was John Carl Grable (who died in infancy). She was propelled into acting by her mother, who insisted that one of her daughters become a star. For her first role, as a chorus girl in the movie Happy Days (1929), Grable was only 13 years old (legally underage for acting), but, because the chorus line performed in blackface, it was impossible to tell how old she was.
She got a number of small-time roles in various movies before obtaining a contract with 20th Century Fox, becoming their top star throughout the 40s. It was during her reign as box-office champ (in 1943) that Grable posed for her iconic pin-up photo, which (along with her movies) soon became escapist fare among GIs fighting overseas in World War II. Despite solid competition from Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake, and Lana Turner, Grable was indisputably the number one pinup girl for American soldiers. She was wildly popular at home as well, placing in the top ten box-office draws each year for ten years. By the end of the 1940s, Grable was the highest-paid female star in Hollywood.
Also, in 1943, she married jazz trumpeter and big band leader Harry James, by whom she had two children; they divorced in 1965. Grable’s later career was marked by feuds with studio heads, who worked her to exhaustion. At one point, in the middle of a fight with Darryl F. Zanuck, she tore up her contract with him and stormed out of his office. Gradually leaving movies entirely, she made the transition to television and starred in Las Vegas.
I little tragic irony involved a nuclear weapon named after Betty. On May 25, 1953, the largest atomic weapon fired by artillery was exploded over the Las Vegas desert in the test series named Operation Upshot-Knothole. The cannon was named Atomic Annie while the shell and the blast were named Grable. Thousands of military personnel were present at the Grable blast to test exposure to radiation. Operation Upshot-Knothole was responsible for the release of a large portion of the radioactive iodine produced as a result of continental nuclear tests. This fallout resulted in thousands of cases of cancer. Grable herself died of lung cancer at age 56 in Santa Monica, California. Her funeral was held July 5, 1973, 30 years to the day after her marriage to Harry James. She is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.
Frank Powolny was an immigrant moving to the United States when he was 13, growing up in Clarkson, Nebraska. As the chief portrait and still photographer at 20th Century Fox from 1923 to 1966 he captured thousands of stars including taking the last known photographs of Marilyn Monroe. On January 5th, 1986 he died of a heart attack in Valencia.
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