Betty Hutton is not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure. When she performs, she seems to employ every molecule in her body and play to the very back row of the theater—the one across town. Called “a vitamin pill with legs” by Bob Hope, she makes those around her seem sedate and sluggish by comparison. Hutton has torn through a total of 22 movies throughout her career, with her most famous role being Annie Oakley in the MGM musical Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Her portrayal of Trudy Kockenlocker in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) runs an arguably close second.
Born in 1921 in Battle Creek, Michigan, Hutton was two years old when her father bolted. Mother took Betty to Detroit and found work in the automobile industry before opening her own speakeasy. When she discovered that Betty could sing, she pushed her into any opportunity that would allow the youngster to display her pipes, and, by the age of 13, Betty was singing with local bands. She was still a teen when she hit Broadway in Panama Hattie, starring Ethel Merman. It is unclear what happened early in the run of that show—whether Hutton had one of her numbers cut, and if Merman was behind it—but Buddy DeSylva, the show’s producer, saw great promise in her and vowed to have Paramount Studios take a look.
She could toss off a novelty number with gusto, but she also had a lovely way with a ballad, delivered tenderly in her smoky, slightly raspy voice. Paramount signed her and put her in a couple of musical shorts before she made her first feature-length picture, The Fleet’s In (1942). A proven musical talent, Paramount threw a screwball comedy her way, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and confirmed their suspicions that she could make an audience chuckle. “Nobody ever let me act except Preston Sturges,” Hutton once remarked about her Morgan’s Creek director. “He believed in me.”
Audiences believed in her, too, and the Sturges comedy was followed by a string of hits throughout the 1940s, marred only by the critical and box office flop Dream Girl in 1948. She bounced back quickly, though, and by 1950 she was back on top, famously replacing an erratic Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun. Hutton’s success in the Irving Berlin musical would be one of her last, and, by the mid-1950s, her career had quieted down significantly.
In her book, The Star Machine, author Jeanine Basinger neatly sums up the actress’s uniqueness: “Hutton keeps nothing in reserve. She hops, she leaps, she mugs, and she grimaces. She throws herself on the floor, jumps up and down, and emits war whoops. She twitches and she tics, but you don’t have to worry that she’s going to fly apart on you the way you fear Judy Garland will…Betty Hutton is many people’s guilty pleasure, but some feel the need to explain her or even apologize for her. Why not just say it right out? She’s nuts, and I love her.”
Here are a dozen pictures that reveal what Betty Hutton the Movie Star is all about.
The Fleet’s In (1942)
William Holden is a sailor with an unearned reputation as a ladies' man who is goaded by his buddies into wooing the notoriously aloof nightclub performer, The Countess of Swing (Dorothy Lamour). Eddie Bracken plays Holden’s friend; Betty Hutton, in her feature film debut, plays Lamour’s roommate Bessie and steals the movie.
Happy Go Lucky (1943)
Hutton plays Bubbles Hennessey, pal to gold-digger Mary Martin, in this romantic farce set in Trinidad. Martin stars, but it’s Hutton who captivates. As a matter of trivia, this was one of the movies Woody Allen saw at the Bleecker Street Cinema with his niece in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Both movies featured Hutton singing what became a big part of her repertoire, “Murder, He Says.”
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
The folks at the Production Code were apparently out to lunch when the script for Preston Sturges’s then-daring, now-classic comedy came through. The send-up of small-town America involves spiked lemonade at an all-night party for the troops, which paves the way for Trudy Kockenlocker (Hutton) to have gotten married (possibly) and to have gotten pregnant (definitely).
Here Come the Waves (1944)
What’s better than a movie with Betty Hutton in it? How about a movie with two Betty Huttons in it? Twin sisters Rosemary and Susie Allison (Hutton) are nightclub performers; Susie is rambunctious and blonde, Rosemary is slightly less rambunctious and brunette. Rosemary joins the waves, Susie’s boyfriend Johnny Cabot (Bing Crosby) is drafted into the Navy, Susie joins Rosemary and, faster than you can say “scat,” all three are in the service.
Incendiary Blonde (1945)
Hutton gets to warble "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," "Oh By Jingo! (Oh By Gee, You're the Only Girl For Me)," "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?" and "Row, Row, Row” as she enacts the highs and lows of Texas “Queen of the Nightclubs” Guinan in this toe-tapping biopic.
The Stork Club (1945)
Hatcheck girl Hutton saves Barry Fitzgerald from drowning and subsequently receives a huge cash windfall, which arouses the suspicions of boyfriend Don DeFore. In this film, the actress sings one of the songs for which she is most famous—“Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” by Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster.
The Perils of Pauline (1947)
Hutton plays one of cinema’s early stars, Pearl White, who appeared in the silent serial of the title. It’s a rather loose version of White’s life, peppered with goofy tunes and physical comedy to showcase Hutton’s strengths.
Dream Girl (1948)
Hutton’s career momentum stalled with this wet firecracker of a romantic comedy—a filmed version of Elmer Rice’s Broadway stage play—that New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called “as dreary a botch of a good thing as we have ever seen.” About its star, Crowther wrote, “It must be stated that Betty Hutton is a dud as the poor little millionaire's daughter who goes wandering in cuckoo-land. In those scenes when she tries to be poignant, she is drearily artificial. And in the slapdash performance of her daydreams, her burlesque is too obvious and broad. Also her voice is disturbing. At one time, she'll talk like Betty Field, who played the original Dream Girl; the next minute, she'll sound for all the world like Ezra Stone as Henry Aldrich on the radio.”
Red, Hot and Blue (1949)
Crime, comedy and four Frank Loesser songs come together for this vehicle in which a gangster, who is financing the show that Hutton is in, shows up dead in her apartment. The songs are not great Loesser, but Hutton gives it her all, as usual.
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
It is an understatement to say this was a difficult production, as the star was replaced, two directors were fired and several supporting cast members were switched out. The lead role was the most problematic, with the names Doris Day, Judy Canova and Betty Hutton initially bandied about. Ginger Rogers wanted the role, but Louis B. Mayer told her agent, Leland Hayward, “Tell Ginger to stay in her high-heel shoes and her silk stockings; she could never be as rambunctious as Annie Oakley has to be.” Mayer cast Judy Garland, who pre-recorded the songs and shot several scenes before her unreliability doomed her. More potential Annie Oakleys were mentioned—Betty Garrett, Betty Grable and even Broadway original Ethel Merman—before Hutton was tapped. Busby Berkeley directed some early footage and was replaced by Charles Walters, himself fired before he shot a single scene. Walters discovered his fate when Hedda Hopper announced it on the radio. And Frank Morgan, playing Buffalo Bill, died during production and was replaced by Louis Calhern.
Let’s Dance (1950)
Hutton teams with Fred Astaire in this lively musical, which sees the two as a former USO musical act reunited after several years, with Hutton trying to regain custody of her child. The plot is no great shakes, but it is a good-natured little entertainment, with tunes like “Can’t Stop Talkin’ About Him,” “Oh Them Dudes” and “Tunnel of Love.”
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Hedy Lamarr and Marlene Dietrich were reportedly considered for the part of Holly in Cecil B. DeMille’s circus drama before he selected Hutton—on the condition that she lose weight and learn the trapeze before filming began. The movie is considered by many to be one of the worst Best Picture winners in Oscar history.