Twentieth Century Fox musicals were often cookie-cutter replications of its previous hits, differing only in the settings, the song-and-dance numbers, and the lead male stars: Dan Dailey, John Payne, Caesar Romero. But each musical iteration, such as Tin Pan Alley, was enlivened by the presence of Betty Grable, the Number One Pin-up Girl of the Second World War and top ten box-office star for a decade.
The liveliness of each movie production was assured by its song-and-dance numbers and some of the best specialty acts in show business. Complementing Ms. Grable in Tin Pan Alley were the most skilled and spectacular acrobatic-tap dance act in America, The Nicholas Brothers. Not to be overlooked were deft and delightful supporting players Billy Gilbert, Ben Carter, Allen Jenkins, the gorgeous Esther Ralston, Elisha Cook Jr., Billy Bevan and Dewey Robinson.
In actuality, the USA was still a year away from joining its European and Pacific allies in the war against Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Because the USA’s participation was not yet underway, Twentieth Century Fox placed the plot of Tin Pan Alley 20 years earlier during WWI, virtually the first world-wide fight to save democracy.
Tin Pan Alley was so named for its incessant racket of dozens of piano players, simultaneously banging out various songs for sale. By the time of WWI, Tin Pan Alley was clustered in a half-dozen buildings, housing uncounted numbers of songwriters, sheet music publishers and musicians at 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York. As Tin Pan Alley publishers drifted northward to Broadway and 32nd Street, it attracted rehearsal halls, theatrical agencies and restaurants.
By 1899, trolley lines had linked lower Manhattan with Midtown, carrying the public to the new Metropolitan Opera House. Then, Oscar Hammerstein built his Victoria Theatre on 42nd Street in 1899, anticipating the opening of its first subway line in 1904. With that, Times Square became the undisputed center of Manhattan’s theatre district.
Although the movie Tin Pan Alley was WWII-era propaganda, it was framed by a nostalgic show business story, as were most 20th Century Fox’s mid-century musicals.
A light story of two couples’ love, jealousy, misunderstanding and eventual happiness parallels the duty of the two men (John Payne and Jack Oakie) to join the Armed Services. Its message, typical for the time, was that petty squabbles must be set aside as men joined to combat democracy’s enemies, while women did their part working in factories, as nurses on the battlefront, or as solo parent or spouse hoping that love ones remained safe.
The new amalgamation of the rather old-fashioned Fox and the new, forward-looking Twentieth Century studios had inherited little Shirley Temple, one of the top movie box-office draws during the Great Depression (the other two females were Mae West and Marie Dressler!).
But by the time the two studios combined, the little girl with the curls was outgrowing cuteness, and Twentieth Century Fox turned to a succession of grown-up blonde enchantresses: Alice Faye, Betty Grable, June Haver, Marilyn Monroe and Sherry North.
A generation later, Miss Grable (1916–1973), who became Hollywood’s most popular female star from 1940 through 1950, passed on the torch to Marilyn Monroe. Despite fan magazine efforts to create a feud between Grable and Monroe, theirs was an easy friendship, as had been Faye’s and Grable’s.
Reportedly Betty Grable told Marilyn Monroe, “Go and get yours, honey. I’ve had mine.” Grable helped coach Monroe through the filming of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and, that same year, Jane Russell and choreographer Jack Cole did the same for Ms. Monroe through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
When Fox would not meet Betty Grable’s salary demand, she went on to star with bandleader husband Harry James in a series of Las Vegas shows, before taking over the lead role in Broadway’s Hello Dolly, for which she received rave reviews. Ms. Grable died at age 56 of lung cancer.