Turner Classic Movies will take some time Thursday March 15th to remember the energetic and spunky Actress/Singer Betty Hutton, who died Sunday, March 11, at age 86. Watch a few of her films and understand why the greatest generation looks at you in shocked horror when you tell them you don’t know who she is.
Betty Hutton was not the typical glamorous movie star of the WWII era. She had a unique, spunky quality and wholesome appearance that is perhaps best described as Betty Grable meets Martha Ray with a splash of Debbie Reynolds. Her subtle beauty, kid sister smile, and tomboy-like gumption combined to make a leading lady to whom tired but hopeful post WII audiences could truly relate. Best remembered for her role as Annie in the film version of Annie Get Your Gun, Betty Hutton’s own life story reads like a pitch for a well-scripted melodrama. The athletic and likable star was born Elizabeth June Thornburg on February 26 1921, in Battle Creek, Michigan. Shortly after her second birthday her father abandoned the family and later committed suicide.
Betty’s mother was a willful woman, so she moved the family to Detroit and made money by running a speakeasy where the young toddler and her sister made their first forays into the world of entertainment by singing to the costumers. With the police constantly closing such establishments poverty was a constant threat. It didn’t help that Betty’s mom had also become an alcoholic. With such instability it was important to utilize all the family resources, so when it was discovered Betty could really sing her mom began taking the nine year old around town to anybody who would listen, booking gigs in night clubs while still in high school.
Betty was first discovered when orchestra leader Vincent Lopez visited one of these clubs while scouting for performers for musical shorts produced for Warner Bros. in 1939. The young chanteuse ended up touring with the band, performing in radio spots and paying her dues in vaudeville. This success led to featured roles in several 1940 Broadway revues, including the Ethel Merman vehicle “Panama Hattie.” However, Betty’s one big musical number in that show was cut just before opening night by orders of star Ethel Merman. Hutton was so upset, a producer on the show promised to make her a star in movies at Paramount and surprisingly he actually kept his word. When Buddy DeSylva became a producer for Paramount Pictures, he hired Hutton for the starring role in The Fleet’s In.
Now 21, Betty was starring in her first feature film with loveable neurotic Eddie Bracken, a young William Holden and the glamorous Dorothy Lamour. Reviews for the light and frothy 1942 musical were better than expected, and critics were especially kind about Betty’s work. Success continued in 1944 when she tried her hand at screwball comedy in Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Betty was cast perfectly as a daffy but loveable small town gal once again cast opposite Eddie Bracken. Her charm and sincerity helped sell the believability of an “innocent” girl in trouble, and contributed greatly to the success of one of Sturges’ best and most beloved comedies.
Betty’s first big box-office bomb came in 1948 with Dream Girl. The creative disappointment left the ambitious starlet disenchanted with her career. Yet, her most well received and identifiable films were to come, first in 1950 with Annie Get Your Gun and then in 1952 with the year’s Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Oddly, it’s reported that Betty did not get along with her Annie Get Your Gun co-star Howard Keel. Generally known to be a warm and gracious man, Keel made it known that he thought Betty cared more about her career than her co-stars. In addition to a cold leading man, the crew that blamed Betty for replacing the beloved, but exhausted and deeply troubled Judy Garland met Betty with hard indifference.
Annie Get Your Gun was a critical and box office success, and yet marked the beginning of the end of Betty Hutton’s career. After filming Somebody Loves Me in 1952, Betty was all but finished in the movie industry, due in large part to a man she met on the film and would soon wed. She married her second husband that same year, choreographer and dance director Charles O’Curran (Road to Bali, King Creole). O’Curran had wanted to direct his big star wife in a film, but Paramount didn’t like the idea of giving such an important job to an untried hand, so the temper tantrum-prone Betty rashly walked out of her contract.
Betty then concentrated on the relatively new medium of television and the stage, but she never recovered her previous form. She had a second chance in 1955 when offered what would have been the ideal role for her, but she unwisely turned down the part of Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, supposedly because it was merely a supporting role. Ultimately, her movie career came to an uneventful end with the minor film, Spring Reunion in 1957, and her TV series, The Betty Hutton Show (1959), didn’t fare well at all.
Betty would wed two more times, first to writer Alan Livingston, and finally to musician Peter Candoli. Each union ended in divorce. Years later, Betty became a devout Catholic after a stay in a clinic for an addiction to sleeping pills. A 9th-grade dropout, she went back to school in the 1970s with the help of a Catholic priest, Father Peter Maguire, and at one time in the mid-seventies she worked as a cook and housekeeper in a Rhode Island rectory. Betty eventually earned a bachelors degree from Salve Regina University and was later awarded an honorary Ph.D. At one time, she even taught theater at the same University. Her final days were spent in quiet retirement in Palm Springs, California, where Betty passed away on March 12, 2007. She was 86 years old.
TCM Host Robert Osborne is quoted as saying, “Betty Hutton was totally unique – a great star, a wonderful friend, a dear lady, and unimaginably complicated. She brought enormous joy to the world with her talent, and I don’t think anyone ever loved an audience or being a performer more.” The Thursday, March 15th schedule is as follows:
12:30 p.m. The Stork Club (1945)
2:15 p.m. The Perils of Pauline (1947)
4:00 p.m. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
7:00 p.m. Private Screenings: Betty Hutton (2000)
• All times are Eastern
Betty Hutton was once big. I mean really big, as big as they come really, if only for a moment. Those moments seem to pass very quickly in Hollywood. So, if you don’t get a chance to see her films during TCM’s special programming, take some time to add one of Betty’s films to your NetFlix or Blockbuster list. With appearances in musicals, dramas, comedies and a Cecil B. DeMille film, you’ve got a broad spectrum of genres from which to choose. One is sure to please you.