Tuesday, August 25

Betty Hutton

The 1940s can lay claim to three famous Bettys.  The one who spelled her name differently was, of course, the drama queen, Bette Davis.  But we had two Bettys, both glitzy blondes, who were musical-comedy queens.  20th Century Fox staked its claim on Betty Grable, a wise choice, as she became the soldiers' dream girl and a top box office draw.  Across town Paramount had a fireball, the likes of which the screen had never seen before... or since.  Her name was Betty Hutton.  They called her the blonde bombshell.

If there were some comediennes who somewhat approached Hutton's zany style of acting, singing and dancing, what separated them from our girl was they were not as beautiful.  Not even close.  What folks thought of her as a screen personality isn't close either. There were two camps.  The true Hutton fans would say that she was vivacious, high-spirited, a bundle of energy.  A more critical view might lean toward bombastic, neurotic, overblown mugging and taken from the medical journals of today, bipolar.   And be clear we mean untreated bipolar.  Who knew in those days?

I saw every bit of that and, full disclosure here, I loved her.  I especially loved her when I was a young kid.  I have always said that 1952 was the year I discovered movies.  It was also the year (for the most part) that the movies undiscovered Betty Hutton.  She walked out on her contract and off the Paramount lot and they padlocked all the gates and pulled down the shades.

Any movie-loving kid would have noticed Betty Hutton.  And the reason that is so is because Betty Hutton wanted to be noticed.  She wanted desperately to be noticed.  She had that in common with my mother, who adored her.  They also happened to look somewhat alike (Mama would have said identical twins but it was wishful thinking).  But I cannot deny that Mama had the blondeness, cuteness and whirling-dervish personality. 

As if this weren't quite enough (my father would say that the next time someone said Mama looked like Betty Hutton, he was going to punch him/her in the mouth... ah the 50s), I picked up the gauntlet when I saw a movie that sent me into paroxysms of pure joy.  You all know what it is.  That circus movie.  Or as I usually hear... oh, not that circus movie.  Oh yeah. 

She was not the best actress, singer or dancer, but she had that burning desire to entertain like perhaps no one else.  When she performed in clubs, her best venue, she said she always wanted to go into the audience and kiss them all because she was so grateful they showed up and expressed their love.  I think this was actually the key that made me care so much about her... well that and her crushing downfall.

She was a Michigan girl, born in 1922 Battle Creek but also living in other Michigan cities such as Lansing, Grand Rapids and Detroit.  Her early life was one of mind-numbing poverty and at an early age she was singing to her mother so that a smile would come to her weary face.  That soon upped to singing for strangers on street corners and any other place she could manage it.  She always felt it was her job to brighten her mother's life and the country's as well.

Her father hit the road early on and was not much of a factor in Betty's life.  Her mother not only developed a serious drinking problem but ran a bootleg operation right in her kitchen.  Betty would hop on the kitchen table, slide the highball glass away with her tiny foot and belt out a song.  Everyone found it endearing... the little bundle of dynamite.  As she began getting some pennies and nickels, she became ecstatic.  She was not too thrilled about all the uncles her mother seemed to be entertaining or the fact that more than once she caught her mother in compromising situations.  

In reading an autobiography Betty mostly wrote a few years ago, I realized we had something in common other than a love of that circus movie.  We both grew up too fast.  We knew far too many adult things too soon.  It results in a false sense of self that may not have occurred if we hadn't been robbed of innocence.  Like her, I too wanted to be in the thick of things but some adult should have provided at least a refuge.  Thankfully, I had my grandmother.  Betty had no one.  (She was always very close to her mother but her mother wasn't always fit enough to come through for her daughter.)

I also have a great spouse, a great partner for nearly 40 years and more wonderful friends than seems possible and Betty had very few of any of those.  It makes a difference.  I always heard loving things from folks and felt secure in my relationships with them.  Betty so rarely heard such things or felt the love unless she was performing.  And she always nursed a fear that it would all be taken away. 

Her standard bubbly performing, to me, never betrayed the fact that she was hurting.  When I was younger, I never had a clue as to why that was but I detected something.  I have read more than once that as an adult, at least, she thought she was going mad.  She probably had some sort of nervous breakdown (what is that exactly?) but then that was standard issue in Hollywood in the 40s. 

One of those livewire moments

Her older sister, Marion, who grew up to be a vocalist with Glenn Miller's popular band, never took things to heart as intensely as Betty did nor did she ever have that burning to be a big-time performer.  In fact, after Miller died during the war, Marion's career rather fizzled, which was probably ok with her because she wanted very much to be a wife and mother.  But it points out what we all know anyway... children in the same household, raised by the same person or persons, don't necessarily turn out the same.  Betty needed sparkle and glitter.  She needed to drink champagne and to travel the world in a madcap way.  Marion needed tranquility and to locate the newspaper ads in the hopes of finding a cheap toaster.

While still a teenager in Detroit, Betty began singing in amateur events around town.  During those exciting times she would be told that a great future was in store for her.  She was encouraged to keep up the good work and told that her frenetic style was infectious.  Her appraisers would vow to keep an ear out for her.  If asked if she wanted to be singer when she grew up, she'd say I'm already that.  I want to be a movie star.

She began appearing in clubs around Michigan when she was only 15.  She did look a bit older and had blossomed into a beauty.  One time her mother brought some of her friends to see Betty perform.  After seeing the performance and all the gyrations covering an entire stage and in and out of the audience and taking a bite of someone's sandwich or extinguishing their cigarette and bellowing out a few more lyrics, the friend said to Betty, are you a little tightly wound?  And Betty gushed, oh thank you, I certainly try to be.  (Actually my mother told me that story about 800 times when I was a mere child.)

A trip to New York for a singing engagement resulted in her being hired by bandleader Vincent Lopez.  After just a few performances, Betty would practically drift off to sleep as she sat on the stage while the band played.  She thought the audience was not engaged and she longed to spice it up some when her turn came to sing.  Though she would have fights with Lopez over this, she ultimately prevailed and a corner was turned for everyone... Betty, Lopez, the musicians and the audience.  She was on her way now.

This may be a good spot to include that Betty was a better singer than she was an actress but when I heard her sing such songs as Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief; His Rocking Horse Ran Away, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, and Murder, He Says, I've always cringed.  All wild and crazy novelty songs, they seemed to be the ones the fans craved.  The nuttier she acted, the more they loved it.  I was always completely enchanted when she sang the rare ballad, like I Wish I Didn't Love You So or Somebody Loves Me.

She fell madly in love with trumpeter Harry James and he with her.  They were talking of marriage when James told her that he expected her to quit working after they rendezvoused with the preacher.  She beat it out there quickly and he ended up marrying another Betty who didn't quickly give up her career.

She met producer Buddy DeSylva (he used to be part of the songwriting team DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, portrayed by Gordon MacRae in 1956s The Best Things in Life Are Free) and he became one of the best things in Betty's life... ever.  He got her a role in Ethel Merman's Panama Hattie (do you see their similar loud and brassy styles?).  No one ever championed Betty as much as Buddy DeSylva.  He promised her that if she would stay with Hattie for a year (she didn't want to after Merman cut Betty's best song), he would get her career started as a movie actress at Paramount Studios where he was taking over the reins as head of production.  He remained true to his word.

Betty Hutton became a huge star at Paramount.  Until he left several years after she arrived in 1942, DeSylva took good care of her.  There were those who were certain they were lovers but she said they weren't.  More to the point, there were those who thought she was favored over the Colberts and the Lakes and the Goddards and everyone else and she was never fully embraced.  There is no question that Betty thought she was the queen.

She only worked for an 11-year period and made 19 films during that time.  We are not going to discuss most of them because, frankly, they weren't that good.  Despite costars like Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, the films had flimsy, flaky plots and were essentially all the same, mindless trifles to showcase Betty's musical-comedy talents.

I admit to liking her first film, The Fleet's In (1942), one of those flimsy plots, but not tailored to Betty.  She first worked with Eddie Bracken, an actor she would work with the most, five times.  It was about a shy sailor (William Holden) who gets caught up with a singer (Dorothy Lamour).  Hutton played the singer's best friend and audiences went wild over this new kid.

With frequent costar, Eddie Bracken

Two years later, in another film with Bracken, The Miracle at Morgan's Creek, directed by the comically-gifted Preston Sturges, the two would not be supporting anyone.  She plays Trudy Kockenlocker, a naïve young woman who gets married and pregnant after attending a dance and doesn't remember who the husband is.  Bracken, who loves her, helps to sort out the mess, which includes the impending birth of sextuplets.  It was a great fit for Hutton and she showed her comedic skills in a fairly toned-down manner.  I think she made four good films and this is one of them.

She impulsively married for the first time in 1945 and it can safely be said she impulsively married three more times as well.  Husband #1 was Ted Briskin, a wealthy manufacturer who would father her two daughters.  She divorced him five years later, saying that she was just too busy for marriage.  She was also too busy for her daughters and would, in just a few more years, say she hardly knew them. 

Incendiary Blonde (1945) was a lively if somewhat fictional account of the life of the legendary Texas Guinan, a boisterous chanteuse who ran a speakeasy in 1920s Manhattan.  This was the first of four times she would play real-life people and they were roles in which she would shine.

Her costar was the lackluster Arturo de Cordova and she griped loud and long about him.  She would later say when so many of her films did poorly at the box office that it was largely because of a lack of good leading men.  She teamed with such people as John Lund, Don DeFore and Ralph Meeker, but one has to wonder what Bob and Bing and Fred thought about her comments.  More to the point, she was cementing her reputation as being difficult.

She made seven more movies in five years, most of which had that mass-produced, mindless thinking attached to them.  One that does shine and appears with some frequently on TV is The Perils of Pauline (1947).  Another fictionalized biography it told the story  of silent screen star Pearl White.  A perfect Hutton vehicle, she performed many of the movie's famous stunts herself.  She could certainly never be accused of not giving her all.

DeSylva had by now been gone from Paramount and Hutton's old fears were cropping up that this may not last.  Her films were doing poorly, but she never felt it had anything to do with her.  On the contrary, she thought she knocked herself out in inferior films with inferior costars.  Worse yet, when she marched up to the studio head's office, she made demands, shouted, threatened and by their measure, was getting bossier and bossier. 

There would have been a time when they would not have considered loaning her out but by the end of the 1940s, that would change.  She begged Paramount to buy Annie Get Your Gun but they would not acquiesce and harsh words were exchanged.  She was further miffed when MGM bought the rights and soon announced Judy Garland (its own troubled, bossy star) would play the lead.

We all know how that worked out.  Annie Get Your Gun was an enormous hit for Merman on Broadway and it would be an enormous hit for Hutton who took over after Garland was fired.  The blonde bombshell intended to knock their socks off at MGM with her talent, professionalism and enthusiasm but it didn't quite work out that way.  While I certainly include this as one of her best films (some would say the best), it was not a good experience for her.

MGM didn't welcome her with the open arms that she had envisioned and it hurt her deeply.  One of the main problems was leading man, Howard Keel, who didn't like her style at all and accused her of upstaging him.  When he made it public that he didn't like her, she did the same, adding that the film is called Annie Get Your Gun, not Frank Butler Get Your Gun and she was the star. 

Photoplay Magazine voted her the most popular actress of 1950.   It was one of those roles she was born to play and frankly, I could not have imagined Garland being better despite the fact that she was a finer singer and actress.  Hutton never saw the completed film and would never forget how she was treated, claiming it was the first time she was really serious about quitting the movies.

She felt she had to scratch and claw for good films now and she kept her eyes and ears open.  Cecil B. DeMille was a Paramount employee.  He hadn't made a film since Samson and Delilah for which it's reported that he or some screw-loose thought Hutton and Cary Grant would be perfect for the leads.  It boggles the mind.

Hutton heard that DeMille was going to make a film about life under the big top, The Greatest Show on Earth.  She'd also heard that the actors would be required to do their own stunts.  She found out there would be two starring female roles... Holly the trapeze artist and Angel an elephant girl.  She was determined to practice and bring a polished performance to an as-yet-unscheduled meeting with DeMille and it was easier to rig a trapeze on one of the less-used sound stages than borrow an elephant.

Hutton and Gloria Grahame snarling

DeMille was impressed and hired her before any of the others.  One of those included Gloria Grahame as the elephant girl, certainly another of the reasons I loved the film.  They play rivals and their bitchy scenes together sparkle (probably because they didn't particularly care for one another).  Grahame was the better actress and although she often sang in movies her voice was dubbed, except for Oklahoma.   Oddly, Hutton would be offered the Ado Annie role in Oklahoma and foolishly turned it down.

Around the time she made TGSOE, Hutton started using amphetamines.  She was worn out.  The movie took all her energy and there was no more.  She had long been taking sleeping pills so the combination of pills to perk up the energy and pills to take down the energy became her way of life for the next couple of decades.  There would come a time she would say it ruined her career and her life.

The last of my favorite Hutton roles was what is often considered her final role, 1952s Somebody Loves Me, is in fact her penultimate film but her final one at Paramount.  She played real-life Broadway star Blossom Seeley and Ralph Meeker was her husband, Benny Fields.  While it was a song and dance extravaganza, it also contained an affecting dramatic performance from Hutton.  The hopes for big box office failed to materialize and neither Hutton nor Paramount was very happy.

She married a choreographer, Charles O'Curran, and he was to be the answer to her dreams.  She liked a man around and she needed someone to guide her career and especially fight battles for her.  As her manager he helped get her singing engagements in some important clubs and concert halls around the world and she was a raging success.  She said she didn't miss movies.  It was certainly true that live performances fed her need for love and approval more than films did.

Paramount, however, beckoned again.  They wanted her and Ginger Rogers to make a film together.  Hutton loathed the script and all hyped up on uppers she told Paramount where they could put that script.  Soon all parties were screaming when Hutton stilled the crowd and said that she would only go forth with the project if her husband was the director.  He, too, was a Paramount employee but they not only said no but hell no.  She told them they could just tear up the contract and they did.  She never stepped on the lot again.

She had taken a chance and it backfired.  She claimed they had never understood her talent.  She had to do things the way she had to do things.  Didn't they understand that?  She had a God-given talent and she was not going to allow them to diminish it in any way.  Most felt Hutton never understood she had bosses.  It needed to go her way and for a long time it did... except for those bad movies, of course. 

Three years later she would divorce O'Curran.  She said they argued too much.  His career would kind of slide off the radar but he climbed back up a bit after he married singer Patti Page.

Less than a month later, she married Capitol Records tycoon Alan Livingston.  She gushed about how handsome he was but I suspect she needed the security of his paychecks.  She got a movie offer during their five-year marriage and he encouraged her to accept it despite her misgivings.  It was another lousy script and she was nervous to face the cameras again after five years away.  Spring Reunion (1957) is pretty dull but the story about two mature people (Dana Andrews was the guy) meeting at a reunion and falling for one another is the most dramatic role Betty Hutton ever had.  It is worth seeing for that reason alone.  She was ashamed of appearing in it and it would be the last movie she would ever make. 

When Livingston moved to an even better position at NBC, husband and wife decided it was time for Hutton to tackle TV.  The Betty Hutton Show was not only not a success but I found my girlfriend to be occasionally downright embarrassing.  And I ought to know... I own every episode of the one-season run.  She also had spun out of control; her behind-the-scenes behavior is legendary in the business.  When the series ended, so did marriage #3. 

Two months later she married husband #4, jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli.  While it was the longest of her marriages at seven years, it was also the worst.  She hardly worked, he hardly worked, she had a third daughter, he beat her, her pill-taking made her frequently incoherent and she attempted suicide.  Interestingly, after so many years, she not only received a film offer to star with, of all people, Howard Keel.  She began the very low budget, Red Tomahawk, but could not concentrate enough to handle the assignment and was replaced with former Paramount contractee, Joan Caulfield.  She also managed a brief time on Broadway, replacing Carol Burnett in Fade In, Fade Out.

She farmed out her three daughters to different places because she couldn't take care of them.  She moved from place to place, forever downsizing, due to having no money.  It was reported she was living alone in some sleazy hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

She discovered religion around this time and embracing it as fervently as she did set her on a road to recovery.  She heard of a place in Rhode Island that might be able to assist with her pill addiction and somehow she managed to get there.  She met a Catholic priest, Father Peter Maguire, and credits him with saving her life.  She became his cook and housekeeper at the rectory and worked for him, out of the limelight, for 25 years.  Somewhere in the later 70s she began working with troubled folks; Father Maguire said it was a wonderful fit for her.

The press got wind of her whereabouts in the early 1970s... therefore so did I.  I was so taken by her story and even considered for a spell trying to find her.  In 1974 NY columnist Earl Wilson arranged a benefit for her but it didn't get her the work she was hoping to come from it.  In 1980 she replaced Dorothy Loudon briefly on Broadway in Annie but she was a nervous wreck and it was a brief stay.  Shortly thereafter, having only gone through the 9th grade as a kid, she took courses to complete high school and then she went to college and got a master's degree in psychology.  She ended up teaching drama at the college as well.

After her beloved Father Maguire's death, Hutton returned to California in 1999, where she resided in Palm Springs.  In 2000 she pleased so many of her fans when she appeared in an interview with Robert Osborne on Turner Movie Classics.  It lifted me up and broke my heart.  It was one of the most heartfelt, honest interviews I have ever seen.  Leave it to Betty.  There's no people like show people... they smile when they are low. 

In the next few years she would pop up on something or the other... or news about her would.  In 2007, I knew she was in her mid-80s (86 as it turned out), I heard that she had died.  I felt such sadness.  My mom had died just 10 months before.  Maybe they were now sitting at side-by-side vanity tables, combing their long blonde locks and trashing their husbands. 

College graduation

In 2009 her autobiography, Backstage You Can Have, was published.  She had not finished it... that task was performed by its authors, her friends Carl Bruno and Michael Mayer.  It's a good read.

Anyway, your eyes are blurry.  Let's stop.  Thanks, Betty, thanks Blonde Bombshell.  Say hi to Mom for me.

Next posting:
The Great Sebastian


  1. Well Bob, another great essay about one of my favorites. Betty actually got us to be great friends - do you remember? We had met through a mutual friend, maybe talked or saw each other a couple of times at most when I noticed that TCM was going to have the interview with Betty. You had mentioned you were into movies and without knowing your love for her, I decided to send an e-mail about the interview in case you were interested. You wrote back and were just tickled pink that I did that and told me the love you had for her and how much she meant to you growing up. That helped cement our friendship - thanks Betty!

  2. Also, you had mentioned the few performances she had in the 70's and 80's. One of those was here appearance on PBS for a fundraising special in 1983. She came out and sang a medley of her big hits and I just loved it. She did seem a bit nervous, but sang well and looked great. The audience was very appreciative. I seem to recall this was here last public performance. You probably have seen it, but here is the link on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFaSqzKEQ48

  3. I certainly do remember we started off our friendship as a 3some... you, me and Betty. How fun it's been. Thanks so much for writing and thanks, too, for the link. I shall check out post haste.