Betty Hutton

Betty Hutton
Betty Hutton
Betty Hutton
Betty Hutton

Betty Hutton’s “Guardian” obituary by Ronald Bergan:

Among the frenetic, ear-splitting female vocalists of the 1940s, the most popular was the blonde bombshell Betty Hutton, who has died aged 86. She worked almost exclusively at Paramount, for whom she knocked herself out in explosive numbers in such musicals as The Fleet’s In (1942) and The Stork Club (1945). She also remained very much herself as Texas Guinan, a 1920s nightclub hostess in Incendiary Blonde (1945); silent screen queen Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947) and vaudeville star Blossom Seely in Somebody Loves Me (1952), all rags-to-riches Technicolor biopics. But her greatest triumph came in MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun (1950), also based on a real person, Annie Oakley.

Hutton’s life could be the subject of one of her Hollywood biopics, but with more pathos than most. She was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, the daughter of a railway worker, Lum Thornburg, who abandoned his wife and daughters (four-year-old Marion and two-year-old Betty) in 1923. In order to support them, their mother opened a speakeasy in their home, where Betty sang for the customers. The police kept the family on the move, and eventually they ended up destitute in Detroit. There, young Betty sang in bars for a few dollars to keep her mother in drink.

At 13, she started singing with big bands, her big break coming with Vincent Lopez and his Orchestra. On stage, she had changed her name from Elizabeth Thornburg to Betty Darling, but soon took on the name of Hutton, as did her sister, who went on to sing with Glenn Miller. In 1939, Variety encapsulated Betty’s persona thus: “Miss Hutton is a petite and somewhat unusual type who puts great poundage into her singing, screwing her face up into poses at times that are very different and effective. Even if vocally she’s far from the doors of the Met, [she] employs slightly wild, rowdy techniques that really sell her songs.”

The following year Hutton landed a role in the Broadway revue Two for the Show, and was introduced to producer Buddy DeSylva, who signed her for the part of the dizzy maid Florrie in his musical Panama Hattie, in which she made a hit. When DeSylva took over the production reins at Paramount studios in late 1941, he got her a contract and a leading role in The Fleet’s In. Co-starred with her antithesis, Dorothy Lamour – dark, sultry and languorous – Hutton sang the two best numbers in the movie, Build a Better Mousetrap and Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.

In 1942, she became one of the first artists to sign with the newly formed Capitol Records. Over the years, she recorded several hits for the label, but soon became unhappy with the company because every song they gave her was from one of her films. What she wanted was a broader range of tunes, including more romantic numbers.

In her movies, Hutton was mostly called upon to throw herself about in numbers like Murder He Says (in Happy Go Lucky, 1943). That same year, however, she had one of her few straight roles, in Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek as a woman who cannot recall the father of her sextuplets. In this sharp satire on American motherhood and small-town values, she turned herself, according to the Herald Tribune, from “a bumptious hoyden into a sweet and amusing comic actress”.

Hutton was teamed up again with Lamour in And the Angels Sing (1944), and played two sisters after Bing Crosby in Here Come the Waves (1944). She continued to make similar toned musicals for Paramount throughout the 1940s, until MGM borrowed her for Annie Get Your Gun after Judy Garland was suspended for unprofessional behaviour. “Frankly, I knew a lot of people didn’t want me to play Annie,” Hutton remarked, knowing she had gained a reputation for being too egotistic. Her co-star Howard Keel admitted finding her too impetuous and demanding, but Betty gave one of her best ever screen performances as the sharp-shooting girl who realised she “can’t get a man with a gun”.

She returned to Paramount with Let’s Dance (1950), opposite Fred Astaire. Her rough comedy clashed with Astaire’s smooth sophistication, but Fred said, “Working with Betty Hutton keeps anybody moving. She’s so talented and conscientious that if you don’t watch yourself you feel you’re standing still and letting her do all the work.” Hutton then played the trapeze artist in Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), torn between fellow artiste Cornel Wilde and circus manager Charlton Heston.

She left Paramount shortly afterwards, when the studio refused her demand that her second husband, choreographer Charles O’Curran, direct all her movies. She made only one more film, Spring Reunion (1957), in which she was more subdued than her usual raucous self.

In 1967, Hutton was signed to star in Red Tomahawk, a low-budget Paramount western with her Annie Get Your Gun screen partner, Keel. But soon after starting work, she was fired and replaced by Joan Caulfield. After that, her emotional state began to deteriorate; her fourth marriage ended, and her mother died.

In June 1967, in spite of having made enormous salaries in the past, Hutton declared bankruptcy, listing debts of $150,000. There followed years of drug abuse and alcoholism. A falling out with her children and a suicide attempt eventually resulted in a nervous breakdown. In an interview at the time, she said: “I’m so mixed-up and blue. I just can’t take any more setbacks … I don’t even have many friends any more because I backed away from them. I think things are going to go right for me again. I’m not old. I’m old enough, but I photograph young, thank God, and I still get fan mail. I don’t know where it’s all going to lead.”

It led to Hutton befriending Father Peter Maguire, a priest at St Anthony’s parish in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. With his help, she regained her strength and began working as a rectory cook and housekeeper, leaving only once in five years to undergo treatment in a mental hospital. She returned to the rectory in 1975, when Maguire helped her enrol in Salve Regina University, Rhode Island, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1986 and, two years later, an MA. In the 1980s, she worked as a hostess at a Connecticut sports centre, where she still displayed remnants of the bouncy personality that had cheered up filmgoers in dark times. The four times married and divorced Hutton, who returned to California after Maguire’s death in 1996, is survived by three daughters.

· Betty June Hutton (Thornburg), actor, born February 26 1921; died March 11 2007

 The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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