Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Betty Grable Finds her Ideal Screen Mate in Tights

Post-WWII audiences found comfort in films celebrating the joys of the American way of life, and in this vein 1947’s Mother Wore Tights makes no pretense to be anything other than another formulaic, cheerful 20th-Century Fox Technicolor musical, this one pertaining to a husband song-and-dance team who strive to blend family life as they raise two daughters while maintaining their ongoing stage careers in vaudeville. That was about it as far as the plot went, but gold was struck by pairing Fox’s reliable leading musical star, Betty Grable, with the affable, multi-talented Dan Dailey, and the film caught on in a big way with possibly the largest movie-going audience ever. Forming a unique onscreen kinship which would see them through three additional films after Tights hit big and made Dailey a star, these two hard-working pros show a clear admiration for each other’s adept trooping and, although the material may be standard, there’s a special good-natured aura created whenever Grable and Dailey are together, either performing ingratiatingly in several numbers or via dramatic or comedic scenes that place their work together firmly in the “irresistible” category.

Although Betty Grable downplayed her substantial fame as one of the leading female stars of the era (she was the first women past the age of 10 or 11 (when Shirley Temple ruled for four years) to hit the #1 spot on Quigley’s poll of top stars, in 1943 during her WWII peak) by saying she was standing on her two good reasons for being in show business, in actuality Grable worked at her craft in an earnest, down-to-earth manner that struck a chord with the public and kept her at the top of her profession for a good ten years, which doesn’t even account for the 10 or so years before her 1940 breakthrough, wherein she showed up as a chorus girl and second-lead in a string of programmers and sometimes more worthy offerings, specifically her memorable number in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. Grable bided her time in B programmers for the reminder of the decade, but once she showed up in Technicolor (stepping in for Alice Faye) in 1940’s Down Argentine Way, and shortly thereafter became the G.I.’s #1 pin-up girl via one of the most iconic images of that or any era, her status soon reached superstar level. 

Grable was a good soldier for Fox and reaped big profits during the war starring in a slew of relatively uninventive fare such as Pin Up Girl and Coney Island with handsome, interchangeable leading men. Given a chance in Tights at a role with more depth and maturity, Grable is phenomenally likable as Myrtle McKinley. Grable may have not have thought of herself as an actress, but she has a sincerity that can’t be beat, and her reactions in certain scenes (such as when her daughter sings one of mom and dad’s signature tunes near the end of the film) are very moving and create great audience empathy; you can’t fake this kind of earnestness, and the result is more touching and true than watching someone clearly acting to gain an effect. With Grable, you sense she simply is overcome, and one identifies with her so strongly you want to reassure her; moments like these make it obvious why Grable was able to remain an audience favorite for years after the war ended. I really wish Grable had taken on the meaty role Darryl Zanuck supposedly offered her in The Razor’s Edge that won Anne Baxter an Oscar, as I think it would’ve been fascinating to watch Grable apply her professionalism to a character that runs the range from charming to extremely downtrodden after a series of tragedies befall her. As things played out, she stayed in her bread-and-butter genre and kept giving her all (check out her dynamic “No Talent Joe” in 1951’s Meet Me After the Show for a prime example of Grable’s comedic and dancing prowess) until her retirement from films in 1955, not long after co-starring in and grabbing her share of laughs as “clever with a quarter” Loco in probably her biggest hit, How to Marry a Millionaire, with the emergent Marilyn Monroe.

                The light, big-lug persona Dan Dailey so capably adopts in Tights was but one facet of his impressive talents. As with Grable, Dailey started working as a performer during childhood and honed his craft for over a decade before gaining much ground in Hollywood. After a stint with MGM in the early 1940’s, wherein Dailey popped up in various small roles, including a memorably ominous appearance as a boneheaded fighter in 1941’s Ziegfeld Girl, Dailey was off the screen for several years before Mother launched a very productive period for him throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, including an Oscar nomination for 1948’s When My Baby Smiles at Me, wherein he offered a much deeper characterization than is typically found in a musical, and stand-out work in one of the last of MGM’s classic musicals (even though it underperformed upon initial release) 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather, wherein he again suggests a restless, discontented nature underneath a casual exterior. As Frank Burt in Tights, Dailey displays amiable, easy-going charm and an impressive confidence onscreen, given the film was his first starring role. Working with Grable in perfect unison (they’re particularly endearing putting over “Kokomo Indiana”) would lead to subsequent successful pairings with his favorite onscreen blonde, as well as work in the 1950’s with John Ford and his own co-starring hit with Marilyn Monroe via There’s No Business Like Show Business.

            Henry King reliably helms the proceedings and, although the latter stages of the film focus more on the exploits of the couple’s daughters (played by Mona Freeman and Connie Marshall) to the detriment of seeing more of Grable and Dailey’s perfect teaming, King had worked frequently with Grable before, and he knows how to stage the numbers to properly showcase both of his stars’ singing and dancing talents, and therefore reap the maximum entertainment value from each song offering (King also had major success in apart from Grable with Fox output such as State Fair and his big one, 1956’s The King and I). I’ll take King’s safe, solid craftsmanship over any of the arty latter-day directors who spastically whirl the camera around during a number, making it difficult to determine just what exactly the performer contributed to the piece. Tights has no such pretentions and its family-friendly storyline and that smash Grable/Dailey combination resonated with 1947 audiences, leading to the film bringing in over four million in rentals (according to Variety) to place among the top hits of the year and solidify Grable’s place in the top ten box-office stars (she placed from 1942-1951 in the annual Quigley poll, a feat match by few; Tights helped put her at #2 for ’47, just behind Bing Crosby), as well as spawning a big hit with the ballad “You Do” for Crosby and several others (Dinah Shore and Vaughan Monroe among them)- in the film “Do” is performed by Grable and Dailey in two contrasting renditions- his jaunty and featuring some lively hoofing, backed by a chorus line including Grable, who later does a beautiful job with a slower-tempo take on the song. 

Although outside of Millionaire most of Grable’s starring vehicles haven’t endured in the mainstream along with the more iconic classic movies that are frequently revived and discussed, some of her work has been represented on DVD and Blu-ray, including Twilight Time’s recent offering of a nice print of Tights on Blu-ray. Although conventional in many aspects found in standard Fox musicals of the time, Tights surpasses most of them due to the exceptional chemistry of its leads, and the movie is worth a look to see one of the supreme screen teams of the post-war era playing beautifully off each other, as Betty Grable and Dan Dailey adroitly put over the whole show with style, verve and a touch of class.