Betty Hutton: Paramount’s Troubled Blonde Bombshell
Energetic, electric, exuberant, effusive, brassy, spunky, hyper, manic – these are all qualities that could (and most likely have been) used to describe Betty Hutton, a top 1940s Paramount star also known as “The Blonde Bombshell,” “The Blonde Blitz,” and/or “The Incendiary Blonde.” (Image: Betty Hutton ca. 1945-1950.)
Throughout the years, Betty Hutton’s fiery blondeness entertained some, while turning off others and leaving others yet exhausted. She seemed to be perennially in hyperkinetic mode, whether playing 1910s film serial heroine Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline or fretting about (possibly) being pregnant – without knowing which of several happy sailors is the baby’s father – in Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.
But she “wasn’t all just a zany comedian,” as Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne recently remarked. “The thing about Betty Hutton was she could also sing a song and break your heart, and she was a very good actress. Behind the zaniness there was a very sweet, vulnerable person; and there was that in real life as well.”
Indeed, when Betty Hutton stopped to take a breath she could be breathtaking, terrible pun intended. Her delivery of romantic ballads were as heartfelt and as moving as those of the best torch singers. And in her heyday, she was not only a major recording artist (at Capitol Records), but also one of the most popular film stars in the world.
Off screen, Hutton’s life was a considerably darker rollercoaster ride than the plot of her films. She was married – and divorced – four times. In 1983, she said she had attempted suicide after the end of her stardom, and had become addicted to sleeping pills and alcohol before being rescued by a Catholic priest. By that time, she had lost her fortune – more than $9 million, according to reports – and had become estranged from her three daughters.
Betty Hutton bio: From Detroit to Broadway and Hollywood
Born Elizabeth June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Michigan, on Feb. 26, 1921, Betty Hutton grew up in a dysfunctional, working-class environment. While she was still a child, her railroad-brakeman father left his wife and two daughters for another woman. After moving with her children to Detroit, Mrs. Thornburg became a factory worker, sold homemade beer during Prohibition, and later developed an alcohol problem.
Elizabeth June, who had begun singing at the age of 9, officially kicked off her show business career in her mid-teens, performing at a Detroit nightclub. Around that time, the surname Hutton was given her by bandleader Vincent Lopez.
In 1938, the rebaptized Betty Hutton made her film debut alongside Lopez and his band in the Paramount short Queen of the Air. A handful of other short films would follow, including Public Jitterbug #1, with Hutton as the public-menacing jitterbugger. (Her older sister, singer Marion Hutton, would be featured in several movies of the ’40s, including Orchestra Wives and, singing the title song, the Groucho Marx comedy Love Happy. She died in 1987.)
Betty Hutton’s big break took place on stage, as a result of, in the words of Vogue magazine, her “supercharged” performance in the 1940 Broadway musical revue Two for the Show. Calling her “fresh and antic,” the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote that Hutton “dances like a mad sprite and sings breathlessly as though she enjoys it.”
Betty Hutton vs. Ethel Merman
Betty Hutton followed Two for the Show with a major stage hit, Cole Porter’s long-running Panama Hattie, supporting Ethel Merman. According to Hutton herself, Merman demanded that the young performer’s “showstopper” be cut from the production, as Porter “couldn’t write enough encores for it.” In tears, Hutton approached show producer B.G. ‘Buddy’ DeSylva, who would be leaving shortly to become head of production at Paramount. DeSylva told her not to worry: “I’m going to make you a star.” (Another secondary Panama Hattie performer who was to become a top movie star, but at MGM, was June Allyson.)
Of note: Betty Hutton’s Panama Hattie story apparently served as inspiration to Jacqueline Susann, in whose novel Valley of the Dolls (made into a movie in 1967) the character Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) suffers the same professional setback at the hands of an older, well-established star (Susan Hayward).
Buddy DeSylva did as promised. Betty Hutton was given a key supporting role in Victor Schertzinger’s 1942 musical comedy The Fleet’s In, starring Dorothy Lamour, William Holden, and Eddie Bracken. “Her facial grimaces, body twists and man-pummeling gymnastics take wonderfully to the screen,” enthused PM magazine. (Hutton would have a cameo, as Hetty Button, in the 1952 remake Sailor Beware, starring Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Corinne Calvet.)
The following year, Betty Hutton landed the second female lead in Happy Go Lucky (1943), singing Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loesser’s “Murder, He Says,” and stealing the show from fellow Broadway import Mary Martin and former Warner Bros. crooner Dick Powell. She also got co-star billing opposite Bob Hope in Sidney Lanfield’s musical comedy Let’s Face It. Additionally, Paramount’s hugely successful all-star war-effort extravaganza Star Spangled Rhythm revolved around her and Eddie Bracken’s characters.
Betty Hutton was now a full-fledged Hollywood star. Several other Paramount musicals followed, almost invariably comedies, e.g., George Marshall’s And the Angels Sing (1944), in which Hutton, Dorothy Lamour, and Diana Lynn are singing sisters; Mark Sandrich’s Here Come the Waves (1944), opposite Bing Crosby; and Hal Walker’s The Stork Club (1945), with Barry Fitzgerald and Don DeFore. A departure from Hutton’s hijinks was the highly dramatic biopic Incendiary Blonde (1945), in which she played entertainer Texas Guinan and sang “It Had to Be You” while thinking of Arturo de Córdova.
Betty Hutton ‘full-fledged actress’: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Betty Hutton’s most renowned movie of this period was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a small-town comedy with big-city sensibilities that irked the censors of the day. In the film, girl-gone-wild Trudy Kockenlocker (Hutton) contributes to the war effort by partying with a bunch of sailors and by, if she remembers it correctly, getting married to one of them. Sanctity of marriage or no, the next day Trudy can’t remember the identity of her husband, but soon enough discovers that she may have gotten pregnant somewhere along the way. Enter naive and well-meaning Eddie Bracken to save both the day and the Kockenlocker name.
Though hardly as funny as its reputation has it, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is perhaps the only Betty Hutton vehicle to have achieved major “classic movie” status. That’s mostly because it was written and directed by the idolized Preston Sturges, who received an Academy Award nomination for the film’s original story.
Sturges, for his part, recognized that Hutton was not only a full-fledged star, but also “a full-fledged actress with every talent the noun implies. She plays in musicals because the public, which can do practically nothing well, is willing to concede its entertainers only one talent.”
The Perils of Pauline: Betty Hutton career highlight
Following the minor John Berry-directed comedy Cross My Heart (1946), playing a pathological liar who falsely claims she has committed a crime to help out budding lawyer-husband Sonny Tufts, Betty Hutton would be at her very best in George Marshall’s The Perils of Pauline. A delightful – and highly fictionalized – biopic about silent-screen serial heroine Pearl White, this 1947 semi-musical comedy-drama was set mostly in the 1910s and 1920s, thus offering plenty of much-needed nostalgia in the years following the horrors of World War II. Not surprisingly, The Perils of Pauline was reportedly one of Hutton’s biggest commercial hits. John Lund, himself hardly a box office draw, was her leading man.
Unfortunately, Betty Hutton’s The Perils of Pauline triumph was followed by the poorly received 1948 comedy Dream Girl, with Hutton as a sort of female Walter Mitty under the direction of Mitchell Leisen and with Macdonald Carey as her co-star. Red, Hot and Blue (1949) was a better-received effort: directed by John Farrow (Mia Farrow’s father), the romantic crime comedy musical co-starred Victor Mature, soon to be known worldwide as the first half of Samson and Delilah. Hutton herself might have become known as the other half, as director Cecil B. DeMille is supposed to have considered her for the role of Delilah before eventually casting Hedy Lamarr.
Publicity image of Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, with Eddie Bracken: Paramount Pictures.
Betty Hutton’s career would reach its peak in 1950: Top billed, she danced with Fred Astaire in Norman Z. McLeod’s aptly titled Let’s Dance. Though not a great movie, the pairing with Astaire signaled prestige; the RKO-turned-MGM star was certainly more well-regarded than the likes of Sonny Tufts, John Lund, Don DeFore, or Macdonald Carey.
That same year, Betty Hutton replaced a problematic Judy Garland in MGM’s George Sidney-directed film version of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Of note: On Broadway, the role of Annie Oakley had been played by none other than Hutton’s Panama Hattie nemesis, Ethel Merman.
Annie Get Your Gun was to be one of MGM’s biggest productions of the year. Hutton was even featured on the cover of Time magazine, but, according to her, such newfound prestige didn’t prevent her fellow Annie Get Your Gun cast members, among them Howard Keel, Keenan Wynn, and Louis Calhern, and the film’s crew from looking down at the Paramount outsider. She later claimed not to have been invited to the film’s premiere in New York.
As expected, Annie Get Your Gun was a solid critical and box office success – probably Betty Hutton’s biggest to date. On the downside, that same year her Paramount protector, Buddy DeSylva, died of a stroke.
Betty Hutton’s Best Picture Oscar winner
Hutton was gone from the screen for a whole year, returning in 1952 with an even bigger success – at least with audiences: veteran Cecil B. DeMille’s elephantine corn-o-rama circus superspectacle The Greatest Show on Earth. Surrounded by a stellar cast that included Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, Charlton Heston, and James Stewart (painfully miscast as a sad clown), trapeze artist Hutton (instead of original choice Hedy Lamarr) stood out as the only cast member who looked capable of making sane people pay to watch a circus show. Even so, this train wreck of a movie – both literally and figuratively – went on to win a sentimental Best Picture Academy Award.
(For the record, among the losers that year were Richard Thorpe’s first-rate costume drama Ivanhoe and Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western High Noon. At least DeMille – who’d been making [mostly mediocre] movies since the 1910s and who had tried to turn the Directors Guild of America into a far-right organization – failed to take home the Best Director Oscar. That statuette went to DeMille’s DGA nemesis, John Ford, for The Quiet Man.)
Betty Hutton: Post-stardom
Betty Hutton’s last star vehicle under her Paramount contract was the 1952 biopic Somebody Loves Me, about vaudeville star Blossom Seeley. That year she married dance director Charles O’Curran, who wanted to direct her in a film. The studio, however, balked at the idea. In a fit of temper, Hutton walked out on her contract.
Hutton, in fact, could be difficult, as she herself admitted. “When I’m working with jerks with no talent, I raise hell until I get what I want,” she told the Associated Press in 1954.
She would stay away from the big screen for five years. When Hutton returned in 1957 – in another Paramount production, Spring Reunion, co-starring Dana Andrews – she was all but ignored by critics and audiences alike.
Like numerous other faded film stars, in the ’50s Betty Hutton turned to television, but with little luck. In 1954, she landed with a thud in the 90-minute TV special Satins and Spurs, a musical comedy featuring Hutton as a rodeo queen (shades of Annie Oakley) who falls for magazine writer Kevin McCarthy. Satins and Spurs was reportedly lambasted by critics when it aired in September. Compounding matters, her TV series, The Betty Hutton Show, lasted only one season in 1959.
Five years later, she could be seen in the Broadway musical Fade Out, Fade In, replacing Carol Burnett, but an addiction to pills and alcohol were by then taking a heavy toll.
Betty Hutton Annie Get Your Gun publicity image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The year 1967 was Betty Hutton’s personal nadir: her mother died in a fire, she filed for bankruptcy, and her fourth marriage came to an end.
Besides the aforementioned Charles O’Curran, Hutton’s husbands were camera manufacturer Theodore S. Briskin, Capitol Records executive Alan Livingston, and jazz trumpet player Pete Candoli. Repeating a line similar to Rita Hayworth’s complaint that her many husbands went to bed with Gilda but woke up with Rita, Hutton once said, “My husbands all fell in love with Betty Hutton. None of them fell in love with me.”
Following a partial recovery in the early ’70s, she landed a gig performing Annie Get Your Gun at a dinner theater outside of Boston. One night, she collapsed onstage.
“I don’t want to go into how I got here,” Hutton told a reporter around that time. “I was a brokenhearted woman and didn’t want to live anymore. I should be dead, but I’m not.”
In 1974, entertainment columnist Earl Wilson organized a benefit for her in New York. “I haven’t got a cent,” Hutton bluntly declared. (The New York Times obit gave her weekly salary to have been $150,000 during her heyday, though there’s surely at least one “0” too many in that figure.)
Betty Hutton and Catholicism
Like so many recovering addicts, Betty Hutton eventually turned to religion – initially Lutheranism, the religion in which was brought up, and later Roman Catholicism. Her conversion came about because she felt Rev. Peter Maguire of St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, had helped to save her life. In 1974, during one of her numerous hospital stays, she happened to meet Maguire, who convinced her to work as a housekeeper at St. Anthony’s rectory. “No one had ever talked to me before,” Hutton later recalled.
Hutton’s work at the rectory lasted only a few months. Reportedly suffering from “a complete emotional breakdown,” in December 1974 Hutton’s psychiatrist had her committed to a psychiatric hospital for several weeks. But from then on, Maguire became her mentor.
Brief career resurgence and college degree
A few years later, Betty Hutton resumed her show business career, mostly performing in nightclubs and local plays in cities such as San Francisco and Louisville. In 1980, for a limited time she played the nasty orphanage boss in the Broadway musical Annie.
Three years later, she landed what turned out to be her last show-business job: a role in the PBS special Jukebox Saturday Night.
In the mid-’80s, Hutton enrolled at Salve Regina, a Catholic college for women in Newport, R.I., where she graduated with a master’s degree in psychology. Even though she had left school in the ninth grade, Salve Regina had decided that the actress’ life experience entitled her to an baccalaureate. There she taught classes in TV and motion pictures; later on, she taught comedy and oral interpretation at Emerson College in Boston.
According to several unsourced online articles, Betty Hutton was a lifelong Republican who supported the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan. If so, she apparently was what’s called a “moderate Republican”: in a 1977 interview with TV personality Mike Douglas, Hutton talked about the “great, great writers” working in Hollywood in the ’40s, connecting them to the Red Scare, and saying, “they [the House Un-American Activities Committee] should never have done that scene to them [persecuting alleged communists].” She then added that those were “the writers I supported during that era!"
But perhaps the most memorable televised Betty Hutton interview was a remarkably candid – and quite touching – 2000 chat with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, whom she had known for a number of years.
Betty Hutton: The end
Following the death of Rev. Maguire in the mid-’90s, a grief-stricken Betty Hutton moved to Palm Springs. At age 86, she would die at her home in the California desert town on March 11, 2007, of complications of colon cancer. The official announcement of Hutton’s death was withheld until after her funeral on March 13, at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in nearby Cathedral City.
Now, did Betty Hutton ever enjoy watching herself in all those lighthearted musicals made during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age? The answer is, No, she didn’t.
“It isn’t the movie I’m looking at,” Hutton once remarked. “Professionally, my career was great, but never was the scene offstage great for me.”
Below is the TCM Remembers segment aired at the time of Betty Hutton’s death in 2007.
Screengrab of Betty Hutton interview on American Masters: PBS.