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.