Appellate Judge James A. Stewart laments that, though she was engaged to 500 guys in this 1944 flick, Betty Grable never vowed her love for him as she escorted him to a train.
"Betty Grable in Technicolor is luscious to look at."
I'll second that opinion from Hollywood's defunct daily, even though IMDb points out that the photogenic Betty Grable was pregnant while shooting this lightweight musical comedy. Sharp viewers will notice that Grable is wearing more ruffles than usual to hide that fact.
You'll still get to see Grable's million-dollar gams. That description is literal, by the way, thanks to a $1 million insurance policy taken out by 20th Century Fox, insuring lots of publicity for Grable movies like Pin Up Girl.
As Richard Schickel explains in the commentary, movie studios plastered the theaters of war with "millions of images of pretty girls posing in bathing suits or with their skirts upraised." Grable and Rita Hayworth, of course, were the most famous of those pin-up girls. The idea was that "if they had wonderful pictures of pretty, attractive, slightly sexy women, it would satisfy the needs of those young men." The mere existence of the postwar Baby Boom generation proves that there were still a few needs to be met, of course. That Grable bathing suit pin-up makes several cameos in this picture—sort of like Alfred Hitchcock's cameo in Lifeboat, only with more sex appeal.
There's more to the movie than Betty Grable's legs, though. You'll find nine—count 'em, nine—musical production numbers (packed into 83 minutes), including one with red, white, and blue belles rolling across a nightclub dance floor on skates, obvious but good-natured gags about skirt-chasing military men, and a storyline so thin that you'll think the writers ran short of plot ration stamps.
The movie opens with an obviously fake scene of an entire barracks of soldiers getting out of a small car to go into the USO in Missoula, Mo., or, more accurately, from one fakey set to another. At the USO, the soldiers go into the title number, as they make their romantic pitches to the lovely-but-demure canteen ladies, only to get this lukewarm refrain: "I'm sure I understand you, but I'm here to hand you a hot dog on a roll."
One of those canteen ladies is Lorry Jones (Betty Grable), who's been passing out autographed pin-up photos to the soldiers—and becoming engaged to quite a few of them. Tonight's her last night at the USO here, since she's headed for Washington, D.C., to embark on the USO tour circuit, over the objections of everyone at the local barracks. George, the last guy she became engaged to, escorts her to the train.
Aboard the train, a conversation with friend Kay (Dorothea Kent) reveals that the pair isn't headed for the USO, but will instead take jobs as stenographers. En route, the pair makes a stop in New York, where they see Molly McKay (Martha Raye) flirting with Guadalcanal hero Tommy Dooley (John Harvey). Later, Lorry claims to know the hero to gain admission to the packed Club Chanteuse.
"We should have used our imaginations," as Lorry tells Kay.
"Lorry, don't. Don't use yours. You do such awful things with it," the worried Kay answers.
What could go wrong? The most obvious thing is that Tommy Dooley could show up. Since this isn't a very complicated movie, he does. When Tommy finds the ladies at his table, he's flattered, Molly's mad, and it's Kay's turn to use her imagination, claiming that they're both Broadway musical actresses. Of course, Molly tests Lorry, leading to a musical number. Although she's no actress, Lorry somehow passes with flying colors, even interacting with backup singers better than a real actress might on such short notice. Lorry and Kay escape on the next train, or so they think. Soon, however, Tommy's in D.C. looking for a stenographer—and picks Lorry. Somehow, because she's wearing glasses and has her hair in a bun, Tommy doesn't recognize Lorry as the actress from the Big Apple, even after seeing a fresh newspaper photo of himself with the lady at his table.
If you can buy that, you'll buy the better-than-real nightclubs where Lorry hangs out. The elaborate production numbers and three-tiered bandstands that house Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra might put a few contemporary Vegas casinos to shame.
I'm not complaining, however. I kind of figured the plot and characterizations would be just a very loose frame in which to hang some swingin' musical bits and Grable's famous legs. If you just want a pleasant diversion, you'll like this one. Attached to an effervescent actress, even in a caricature of a role, Grable's legs still brighten a gloomy day enough that you can easily see how much she contributed to the war effort. During World War II, Grable became the top box-office draw, Schickel notes, adding that she kept the honor until 1952, doing mostly Fox musicals.
With most of the action taking place in dark nightclubs, the Technicolor's a little heavy on blues in some scenes, but it mostly does justice to the patriotic roller derbies and glimpses of Grable's legs. The sound's nothing fancy, but it's adequate to showcase the singing voices of Grable and Raye.
After seeing the cotton-candy fluff of Pin Up Girl, you might wonder what film historian Richard Schickel could possibly say about it, but don't skip the commentary. He points out the absurdity of the dual identity here, of course, but has a lot to say about the period as well. If you're into 1940s nostalgia, either from first-hand experience or from the new retro-swing era, Schickel's thoughts could well be worth the price of the DVD.
One of my favorite Schickel observations was that in the 1940s, movies were full of nostalgia for the simpler times of the turn of the century. I would observe that movies and television since have intensified the push to look backwards, since we can see newsreels, films, and TV shows from the 1920s onward; the self-referential nature of movies and TV adds to that nostalgic tendency. Of course, you don't see too many people looking back to the turn of the century anymore, because there aren't that many surviving movies from back then.
The extras also provide one more Betty Grable song, "This is It," which you'll see would have interrupted the movie's flow even if it is fun; and a still gallery, full of publicity stills from the movie and of Grable. The still gallery isn't perfect: you have to follow instructions and use your right skip button, they're all in black-and-white, and the famous pin-up shots of Grable are buried somewhere in the middle. Fox must think our remote fingers need a workout.
The verdict? Not guilty. It's not Singin' in the Rain by any means, but it's a harmless comfort if you're feeling stressed or lonely, just as the 1940s pin-up girls were for lonely soldiers in World War II.
By the way, you can click the RetroRadar link at right to check out some modern-day pin-up girls. Even in a coarser day, they can be a pick-me-up if you're feeling alone or stressed. While you're there, do read the articles; you'll find some short fiction by a certain DVD reviewer—if you get around to it.
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• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Richard Schickel
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