Pin-Up Girl (1944) is a film indicative of its time in just about everyway. Starring the wartime period’s favorite pin-up, the vivacious Betty Grable, Pin-Up Girl is a lush Technicolor musical slim on storyline but big on feel-good music and dance numbers. Pin-Up Girl doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was filmed to be: a morale booster for our brave boys overseas and civilians at home.
Pin-Up Girl: Lovable Film Fluff
And as long as you’re OK with that, you will thoroughly enjoy this piece of film fluff, with a supporting cast that includes our Star of the Month, the loveable Joe E. Brown.
The...Plot...of Pin-Up Girl
Lorry Jones (Betty Grable) is a secretary by day and a favorite pin-up/hostess at her local USO canteen by night, where she signs photos, sings, and dances with the servicemen.
Lorry is a bit of a compulsive liar. As a result, she finds herself “engaged” to just about every guy she dances with.
On a trip to New York with best bud Kay (Dorothea Kent), Lorry falls in love for real with war hero Tommy Dooley (John Harvey), who she meets at a New York nightclub.
The trouble is, Lorry has told one of her fibs to Dooley: rather than just come clean that she’s a secretary in Washington, D.C., Lorry tells Tommy she’s a musical comedy star whose show just closed…
Well, Lorry almost gets caught in her lie one day when Tommy shows up at her office, oblivious that Lorry works there.
And to complicate matters even more, Lorry’s boss assigns her to take dictation for Tommy.
Not to worry, all platinum blonde Lorry has to do to fool Tommy into thinking she’s someone else is put on a dowdy dress, a pair of glasses, and cross her eyes.
Does the trick every time.
(And if you’re Betty Grable, you look super cute no matter what boring dress you wear, or what you do with your face. Personally, I think her glasses are adorable.)
On With The Charade
With Tommy sufficiently fooled, Lorry continues seeing him at night as her alter ego, musical comedy star Laura Lorraine.
Tommy is so into Lorry, he even gets his friend Eddie Hall (Joe E. Brown) to make Lorry the star of his new nightclub’s show, much to the chagrin of Molly McKay (Martha Raye), the reigning star at Eddie’s other nightclub.
To keep Lorry out of the show, Molly digs up one of her old “fiancés,” and introduces him to Tommy, who is heartbroken to discover that Lorry is already “engaged.”
But this is a wartime musical from 1944, so you know things are all going to work out perfectly.
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Pin-Up Girl: A Classic 1940s Ending
Lorry performs in the show at the nightclub. While Tommy is backstage watching, he realizes her engagement to the other fellow was never serious.
We all know Lorry and Tommy will end up together when Lorry smiles at him from behind the ceremonial sword she wields while drilling a platoon of chorus girls in the nightclub’s military marching number finale.
(Yes, you read that right.)
And that’s the end of the film.
Pin-Up Girl: Light on Story, Big on Talent
So…did you gather from the plotline that not a whole lot goes on in Pin-Up Girl?
What makes this cute film worth watching are the performances and sheer magnetism of Betty Grable and Joe E. Brown. Martha Raye is her usual likeable but rather obnoxious self, Dorothea Kent is great, but her character disappears about half way through the film, and there is no way the rather bland John Harvey would have been cast as Betty’s leading man if 20th Century Fox’s other male stars, like John Payne and Victor Mature, hadn’t been away at war.
Charming Joe and Adorable Betty
Joe E. Brown’s part in the film is much too small for an actor/comedian of his caliber. But in his brief scenes, Joe is utterly charming. The few jokes he gets to tell are delivered like the pro he was.
Joe even takes the opportunity to make a crack at his famously large mouth: as his character Eddie Hall, he jokes to the audience at his club opening that he’s been told:
“Mr. Hall, your opening is the biggest we’ve ever had in Washington.
[Joe opens his mouth VERY widely.]
Now I know what they meant.”
And Betty Grable is Betty Grable!
Meaning in Pin-Up Girl, Betty is adorable, spunky, and the cutest little dancer and singer ever put in Technicolor.
No, She Wasn’t Pregnant. Stop Saying She Was Pregnant.
Now I’m about to debunk a rumor that has been told sooo many times over the years, most film fans believe it is fact.
Wikipedia, news articles covering the 1940s, and probably every old movie blog you come across will tell you that in the famous pin-up photo of Betty Grable that inspired this film—the photo shot from behind with Betty glancing playfully at the camera over her shoulder—Betty was pregnant with her daughter Victoria.
This is absolutely not true.
It’s easy to see why the rumor is usually accepted as fact: it’s a unique pose that would effectively hide a baby bump.
And Betty herself certainly didn’t help set the record straight over the years. When asked about how she and photographer Frank Powolny came up with the pose, she frequently joked that they were hiding her “flabby” tummy.
The Facts: Betty's Pin-Up to Pregnancy Timeline
But simply following the timeline from when the photo was taken, up to the birth of Betty’s daughter Victoria, is enough to set the record straight:
Early 1943 (January or February, possibly early March):
Frank Powolny takes the famous pin-up photo of Betty.
The photo becomes so popular, an estimated 3 million copies are sent to servicemen! (A 1993 estimate put world-wide distribution of the pin-up photo at 0ver 10 million.)
It’s the most requested pin-up photo EVER. Betty becomes such a favorite with servicemen, the Nazi Party is inspired to remind everyone over the radio that
“There is more to life than Pepsi-Cola and Betty Grable.”
Betty begins filming Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), the film for which the pin-up photo session was taken. (Photographer Frank Powolny had been assigned to snap some photos of Betty for the costume department, and a few publicity photos, including the famous pin-up, were also taken during this session.)
July 4, 1943:
Betty marries bandleader Harry James, and almost immediately begins filming Pin-Up Girl (1944).
Betty tells 20th Century Fox she is one month pregnant, sparking Martha Raye to comically re-christen the film Pregnant Girl. (How great is that? 😄)
Filming of Pin-Up Girl ends. Betty is seven months pregnant.
Side note: all of Betty’s dance sequences for the movie were shot first, before she started “showing.”
Oh, except for the big dance production number audiences expected to see at the end of ALL BETTY GRABLE MOVIES.
Choreographer Hermes Pan forgot about that one…
That’s how Pin-Up Girl ended up with the military-drill-sergeant-Betty finale. This…interesting…finish to the film was the only way Pan could hide Betty’s “condition,” give her a finale that was not too strenuous, and satisfy the patriotic theme of the film.
March 3, 1944:
Daughter Victoria James is born.
Final side note: Betty, against the studio’s and her mother’s wishes, insisted on doing everything for Victoria herself—changing diapers, feeding, bathing, etc.—with no nurse or hired help. I LOVE that, go Betty!
It's Clear, Betty Grable Was Not Pregnant
So from this simple timeline, it’s clear there was no way Betty was pregnant with Victoria when the famous pin-up photo was taken.
It literally would have meant a 14-month long pregnancy.
And based on Betty’s reputation—popular with men, but not one to sleep around–I am confident in saying Betty Grable was not pregnant with anyone’s baby period at the time of the photo session.
Photographic Evidence that Betty Grable Was Not Pregnant
If more convincing is needed that Betty was not pregnant in the famous pin-up shot, here’s some photographic evidence.
These three photos, taken by Frank Powolny in the same photo session, clearly show that Betty had absolutely no baby bump or tummy at the time:
The Pin-Up Girl: Black Market Betty!
An interesting note on the beloved Betty Grable pin-up photo: after the release of Pin-Up Girl in April 1944, Fox’s publicity department began receiving about 100,000 requests from servicemen per month for a copy of the famous photo.
The overwhelmed publicity department decided to temporarily suspend civilian orders for all Betty pics so they could focus solely on meeting the unending requests of servicemen.
As you can imagine, this sparked a black market for Betty Grable memorabilia on the home front.
Betty Grable’s pin-up girl status was perhaps her greatest contribution to the war effort. And she didn’t take the title lightly:
“Some of the boys write me and tell of their problems with their girls back home. I find it a grave responsibility being a pin-up girl. Our boys are in a war, fighting for the freedom of our country, and I think it is the duty of all of us to support them in their awesome task. I answer as many letters as I possibly can; it is a duty that I cannot ignore…”
You’re amazing Betty Grable. The most popular pin-up mantle could not have fallen on a more deserving woman.
What About Joe?
Just as Betty knew how she could best contribute to the war effort, so too did Joe E. Brown. But it took a bit of pondering on his career and life for Joe to see how he could really help out in a big way.
If you remember from my introduction article on Joe, by the time the United States entered WWII, he was 50 years old, and too old to enlist. In his autobiography, Joe shared his thoughts on the predicament:
“‘I’ve got to do something,’ I kept mumbling to myself. ‘But what in heck can you do, you big jerk,’ I’d scold myself. The only thing I ever could do was make people laugh. And…‘Laughter never helped win any wars, you know.’”
But then Joe had an idea: he realized could boost the morale of the troops with laughter.
And that’s when Joe E. Brown began entertaining the troops.
He travelled an estimated 200,000 miles over the course of the war, starting in Alaska. Remember, at this time other performers weren’t really traveling outside of the continental US to entertain the troops, so Joe went to Alaska without government sponsorship or authorization.
His willingness to go anywhere to entertain was not lost on the servicemen, who were flabbergasted that anyone—let alone one of Hollywood’s top comedians—would choose to come perform for them when he didn’t have to.
Joe E. Brown: A One Man Morale Booster
If evidence is needed that Joe successfully boosted troop morale, how about this: his appearances in Alaska resulted in an 85 percent increase in outgoing mail.
As Joe shared in his autobiography,
“The lads had something ‘to write home about’ and they certainly wrote. Years later I continued to get letters from mothers of those boys who wanted to thank me for that bit of entertaining. ‘God bless you for what you did for my boy,’ they said over and over.”
Anyone else thinking Joe E. Brown is pretty amazing right about now?
The First Entertainer on the Pacific Front
After performing all over Alaska, Joe petitioned the government for permission to entertain the troops in the Pacific, where no entertainer had ever gone before. Joe got permission not long after the passing of his son, Captain Don E. Brown, on October 8, 1942.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Joe writes of his service to our troops in the Pacific with the utmost modesty, as if he were merely looking for a captive audience to give him heaps of attention:
“The South Pacific theatre of operations especially, was a green hell for the thousands of American G.I.’s, but it was seventh heaven for any comedian who would risk his neck in it. I appeared at hundreds of places in this area where no professional entertainer had been before. Comedy-starved audiences in these places became hysterical at the smallest quip about Brooklyn…They had been storing up laughs for months and released them in explosions that would turn any comedian’s head.”
What a sweet guy, presenting the relief and joy he brought the troops in such a modest way. I can only imagine how much Joe must have lifted the burdens of our servicemen as they faced the horrors of war.
It’s no wonder that Joe E. Brown was one of two civilians awarded the Bronze Star for his World War II service.
1939: Joe’s Pre-War Contributions
Not a whole lot has been written about Joe E. Brown, and of the little that’s out there, no source gives much information—not even Joe’s autobiography—about his admirable testimony to the House Immigration Committee in 1939.
I want to take a moment to highlight Joe’s amazing words to the committee before I close.
The Wagner-Rogers Bill
On February 9, 1939—just months before Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939—the Wagner-Rogers Bill was presented in the US House and Senate. If passed, the bill would allow an additional 20,000 German refugee children to be admitted to the US over a two-year period.
The Wagner-Rogers Bill: An Unpopular Bill
Despite the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Wagner-Rogers Bill was not popular with the general public.
A poll taken just one month before the bill proposal showed that only 26% of respondents supported the idea of bringing additional German refugee children into the US, while 67% were against it, arguing the admittance would decrease the amount of jobs available to Americans (???).
Opponents of the bill also argued that it would be seen as a political move by the rest of the world, as most of the children would undoubtedly be Jewish German refugees.
The House and Senate committees overseeing the Wagner-Rogers Bill held joint hearings in the spring of 1939.
And Joe E. Brown spoke at the hearings in support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill.
Joe's Eloquent and Heartfelt Words
You can read Joe’s full testament here—and I highly recommend you do, it’s beautiful—but the following is my favorite part of Joe’s words to the US congressional committees:
“I appear before you strictly as an American and as a father. I have no axe to grind, except the fact I believe this bill is worthy…
I believe it [the bill] is a fine thing; I believe it is a humanitarian thing. These youngsters are not only children without a home, they are youngsters without a country, and I have a feeling that children should be helped wherever they are, and these children need help. I know youngsters without a country must belong to some one. They have to belong, or otherwise they perish. They have no chance at all. I know that to be true…
I come to you just merely as a hick from a small town, a man who has worked all of his life, and I say to you gentlemen and ladies, I believe we should do what we can to make those children good Americans, and I think our thanks will come in heaven, if not right here on earth.
I have not tried to be eloquent, but I have tried to impress you with my sincerity, and it certainly is that.”
Could this man be any more admirable? I am so moved by his words.
In case you were curious, the Wagner-Rogers Bill did not pass, but it was not for lack of trying from our guy Joe, who, despite the unpopularity of his opinion, was brave enough to stand before the US Congress and offer his support for the refugee children of Germany.
That's It for Pin-Up Girl!
And that’s it for Pin-Up Girl.
Be sure to come back next week as I go behind the scenes of my favorite Joe E. Brown film, the classic, hilarious, and truly timeless comedy, Some Like it Hot (1959).