Hutton, Betty (1921—)

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Hutton, Betty (1921—)

American actress and singer, best known for her performance in Annie Get Your Gun. Born Betty June Thornburg on February 26, 1921, in Battle Creek, Michigan; youngest of two daughters of Percy Thornburg (a railroad brakeman) and Mabel (Lum) Thornburg; sister of singer Marion Hutton (b. 1919); attended public schools until age 15; married Theodore Briskin (a camera manufacturer), on September 2, 1945 (divorced 1950); married Charles O'Curran (a choreographer), on March 18, 1952 (divorced 1955); married Alan W. Livingston (Capital Records executive), on March 8, 1955 (divorced 1960); married Peter Candoli (a musician), on December 24, 1960 (divorced 1971); children: (first marriage) daughters Lindsay Diane Briskin (b. 1946) and Candice Briskin; (fourth marriage) one daughter Carolyn Candoli.

Broadway plays:

Two for the Show (1940); Panama Hattie (1940); Fade Out, Fade In (replacement, 1964); Annie (replacement, 1980).

Selected filmography:

The Fleet's In (1942); Star Spangled Rhythm (1942); Happy Go Lucky (1943); Let's Face It (1943); The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944); And the Angels Sing (1944); Here Come the Waves (1944); Incendiary Blonde (1945); Duffy's Tavern (1945); The Stork Club (1945); Cross My Heart (1946); The Perils of Pauline (1947); Dream Girl (1948); Red Hot and Blue (1949); Annie Get Your Gun (1950); Let's Dance (1950); (cameo) Sailor Beware (1952); The Greatest Show on Earth (1952); Somebody Loves Me (1952); Spring Reunion (1957).

Album discography:

And the Angels Sing/Let's Dance (Caliban 6017); Annie Get Your Gun (MGM E-509, MGM E-3227, Metro M/S-548); Betty Hutton at the Saints and Sinners Ball (WB 1267); A Blonde Bombshell (AEI 2120); The Fleet's In (Hollywood Soundstage 405); Hutton in Hollywood (Vedette 8702); Incendiary Blonde (Amalgamated 238); Satins and Spurs (Cap L0547, MPT 4); Somebody Loves Me (RCA LPM-3097); A Square in a Social Circle (Cap H-256, EMI/Pathé 65521); Star Spangled Rhythm (Curtain Calls 100/20, Sandy Hook 2045); Stork Club (Caliban 6020).

With a boundless energy that endeared her to war-weary audiences and made her Paramount's most valuable star, Betty Hutton lit up the screen during the 1940s. Bob Hope once called her "a vitamin pill with legs." Primarily a musical performer who made numerous hit recordings, Hutton also possessed true comedic talent and could even turn in a credible dramatic performance with strong direction. Unfortunately, her manic style masked significant insecurities that ultimately destroyed her career and almost her life.

She was born Betty June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1921, and was just two years old when her father walked out. "I never had a father," she told Mike Douglas in a 1977 interview. "I was known as a bastard child, which was rough." In order to support Betty and her older sister Marion Hutton, Mabel Thornburg moved the children to a Detroit slum, where, after working for a short time in an automobile factory, she decided she could make more money as a bootlegger. Hutton, who credits Mabel with teaching her and Marion to sing, recalled performing songs on the kitchen table while a bunch of strange men stood around drinking bootleg booze. At age 11, she began supplementing her mother's meager income by singing on street corners and in neighborhood speakeasies. Though she later referred to that period in her life as a "nightmare," she would remain devoted to her mother and employ her as her dresser for many years. After Mabel's death in an apartment fire in 1962, Hutton said, "I lived for my mother."

Betty Hutton got her first break at 13, winning a contest to sing with the Vincent Lopez band. After a year, she was making $65 a week and was billed as "America's Number One Jitterbug" because of her madcap, humorous way of selling a song. Hutton stayed with the band for several years, perfecting her "whoop-and-holler" style. In 1939, after a successful 21-week engagement at Billy Rose's Casa Manana night club in New York, Hutton left Lopez for the musical stage, making her Broadway debut in the revue Two for the Show (1940). Hutton next undertook a comedy role in Panama Hattie (1940), starring Ethel Merman . Through the show's producer Buddy De Sylva, who had left New York to become an executive producer at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Hutton received a movie contract for The Fleet's In (1942), in which her mile-a-minute rendition of "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry" brought her immediate visibility. The film was followed by three light-hearted musicals, Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Happy Go Lucky (1943), and Let's Face It (1943). Even at this early period, Hutton was exhibiting signs of hyperactivity that went far beyond her performances. Marie Windsor , who acted with her in Let's Face It, recalls, "She was always very popular on the set. Always terribly full of energy. At the time we all thought it was just natural enthusiasm, but in retrospect I think she was a very tense girl."

Hutton's first non-singing role came in the comedy The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, the tale of a small-town girl who parties one evening with some soldiers and wakes up the next morning married. John McManus of PM called the film "a masterwork of fine casting, excellent characterization and a rare sense of satire, invention, and emotion," and Hutton was acclaimed by critics as "star material." The actress was overwhelmed with new assignments, including And the Angels Sing (1944) and Here Come the Waves (1944). She lobbied ceaselessly for a role in Incendiary Blonde (1945), in which she portrayed nightclub queen Texas Guinan and introduced two songs that would be closely linked to her over the years, "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" and "It Had To Be You." Although the movie received mixed reviews, it was enormously successful.

As her movie career burgeoned, Hutton also performed on the radio and made recordings. In 1943, she was one of the first artists signed by Johnny Mercer for the newly formed Capitol Records. In 1944, she made a series of personal appearances as host of a variety show, and in January 1945 she traveled with a USO unit to entertain troops in the Pacific, covering 50,000 miles in eight weeks. By early 1944, Hutton was receiving some 7,000 fan letters a week from an adoring military. After finishing the film Duffy's Tavern (1945), based on Ed Gardner's popular radio program, the actress embarked on another six-week USO tour, but ill health forced her to return to the United States in August.

In September 1945, Hutton, who had reportedly been engaged four times since her arrival in Hollywood, married a young camera manufacturer named Ted Briskin, whom she had met in a Chicago cafe. Briskin wanted her to settle down in Chicago, where his business was based, but Hutton, intent on her career, wanted no part of it; after six months, the couple separated. They soon reconciled, however, and in 1946 had a daughter Lindsay Diane Briskin , after which Briskin moved his business to Los Angeles. After several more films, including The Perils of Pauline (1947), loosely based on the life of death-defying serial star Pearl White , Hutton gave birth to a second daughter, Candice Briskin . Meanwhile, the Briskins lived a frenetic life that included a constant round of parties and a series of moves to some ten houses in five years, each more lavish than the last.

Pivotal in Hutton's career was the role of Annie Oakley in the movie version of Annie Get Your Gun. MGM had originally purchased the rights for an unprecedented $700,000, planning to star Judy Garland , but when Garland took ill, Hutton, on loan from Paramount, got her chance. "I think that's God power," Hutton later said. "I didn't wish Judy Garland any harm, but that was my part from the beginning." Hutton threw herself into the demanding role, determined that she would be as good as Garland. The movie was a box-office bonanza and garnered Hutton terrific reviews as well as a Time magazine cover. The movie's release, however, coincided with the start of the Briskin-Hutton divorce proceedings and a round of what has been termed manic behavior on the part of the actress, including a whirlwind romance with actor Robert Sterling. There was one brief reconciliation with Briskin before their divorce became final in late 1950.

At 29, Hutton was the top star on the Paramount lot but remained driven by self-doubt and the need to prove herself. After a stint in Korea to entertain troops, and a New Year's Eve performance at the Palace in New York to replace an again-ailing Garland, Hutton returned to Hollywood for her biggest movie to date, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), directed by famed Cecil B. De Mille and co-starring Charlton Heston. The movie was shot on location at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida, and Hutton moved her mother and children into one of the local mansions for the duration of the filming. The part required Hutton to train for months on the high wire, during which time she badly injured her arm and had to take painkillers. The film was a blockbuster, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1952. Hutton was at the height of her powers. Then, everything began to go downhill.

During the shooting of her next film, Somebody Loves Me (1952), based on the life of vaudeville star Blossom Seeley , Hutton became romantically involved with choreographer Charles O'Curran, though their relationship on the set was stormy. After completing the movie, they eloped to Las Vegas. Shortly afterward, Hutton campaigned to have her new husband signed as the director of her next film, Topsy and Eva. When the studio refused, she walked out on her contract, an unpardonable sin. Boycotted by

every studio in Hollywood, Hutton returned to the nightclub circuit and the recording studio. Plans got under way with O'Curran for a television show called "Satins and Spurs," a western musical à la Annie Get Your Gun that ultimately turned into a major disappointment. She was so distraught over its failure that she announced her retirement, telling reporters, "I've got to quit or blow my top. I had to do something to get noticed. I stood on my head, turned cartwheels, yelled, and screamed. I can't take the heartbreak anymore. It's not as glamorous as it seems." Hutton also announced plans to divorce O'Curran, whom she blamed for the failure of her television show.

Three days after receiving her final divorce decree from O'Curran, Hutton married the newly divorced recording executive Alan Livingston. The couple settled in Hollywood, where Hutton turned her energies to motherhood, caring not only for her own two girls, but Livingston's daughter and ailing son, a hemophiliac. After five months, her ambition to perform resurfaced, and, after a miscarriage, she started work on the small black-and-white movie Spring Reunion (1957), in which she played a 35-year-old woman who after years of being dominated by her father falls in love with Dana Andrews. Though considered one of her most sensitive performances, it did not rekindle Hutton's career. By this time, her marriage to Livingston was coming apart, and, in what was becoming an established pattern, she announced plans to divorce, then reconciled several times before making a final break.

In a last-ditch effort to save her career, Hutton next sunk most of her money into the illfated television series "Goldie," about a former "showgirl" who becomes the executor of a million-dollar estate and the guardian of three spoiled children. Desperate for success and trusting no one, she tried to do everything herself, with disastrous results. When the first episode aired in October 1959, Hutton told reporters: "You don't know what I've been through the past few weeks…. Nobody has been on myside. One day I had to stand with my back to the wall and tell everybody to take their cockamamie ideas and go to hell. I'm not going for the buck with this show. I want to be proud of it. If I'm not proud, then I want to be dead. I don't give a hoot if I don't have a dime at the end of the year." As it turned out, the show was a flop, and Hutton lost a fortune as well as her health. Distraught and down to 90 pounds, she was hospitalized with exhaustion.

Panicked, Hutton was unable to rest and, while still recuperating, accepted a Las Vegas offer which also failed. There was another hasty marriage to jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli in December 1960, and a hectic tour of England the following month in a nightclub act the two put together. After the devastating death of her mother in 1962, Hutton toured in Gypsy and, at the end of the year, gave birth to her third daughter, Carolyn Candoli . Tours in Annie Get Your Gun and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes followed, as did a stint replacing Carol Burnett in Fade Out, Fade In (1964), which turned out to be a week of dropped lines and missed song cues instead of the triumphant return to Broadway it might have been. Afterwards, Hutton retired to a beach house in Laguna, making few appearances for close to two years. (By now, her two older daughters were living with their father.) In 1966, there was an offer to star in two low-budget westerns, but Hutton was not up to the shooting schedule. In 1967, she filed for bankruptcy, declaring, "I've been crucified in this racket, crucified, when I only gave out love. I bought houses, Cadillacs, furs, you name it, for people—even churches for my maids. But when the money went, everyone split." Among Hutton's losses was her fourth husband, who, after a long separation, divorced the actress in 1971. She also had a bitter parting with her sister, Marion. Shattered, Hutton resorted to pills and alcohol, which further destroyed her voice and talent to the point where she could no longer get work. She was forced to give her daughter Carolyn to Candoli and to take up residence in a series of small apartments or with friends.

In April 1974, Hutton had the opportunity to star in a small revival of Annie Get Your Gun at a dinner theater outside Boston. Hopelessly out of shape, she prepared rigorously, but the opening night was a disaster. She canceled the rest of her performances and checked into a Boston hospital. There, she met Father Peter Maguire, a Catholic priest who offered her the job of housekeeper in his Portsmouth, Rhode Island rectory. News of this did not reach the public until four months later, when an interview in the weekly diocese newspaper brought a flurry of reporters to the rectory. Headlines announcing Hutton's conversion to Catholicism were accompanied by photographs of her working in the kitchen and pouring coffee for the priests. The publicity provoked 35,000 letters and comedian Joey Adams and restaurateur Arthur Roback held a "Betty Hutton Love-In" at a New York restaurant. The affair raised $10,000 for the actress, who stated emphatically that she was not planning a comeback, and made her way back to the rectory. But pain from her old shoulder injury persisted even after surgery, causing her to rely more and more on pain medication. In December 1975, after suffering a nervous breakdown, she entered a Rhode Island psychiatric center.

After a three-week hospital stay, Hutton wound her way back to Hollywood, where she began to make a few sporadic television appearances, including an episode of "Baretta" and a meandering interview with Mike Douglas, which aired in February 1977. Despite the efforts of well-meaning friends, however, nothing solid materialized for Hutton, and there were trips back to the rectory and additional hospitalizations to help her overcome her addiction to pills.

In the fall of 1980, Hutton returned to Broadway for a three-week replacement stint as Miss Hartigan in the blockbuster Annie. Critic Rex Reed wrote glowingly of her in the New York Daily News: "She is a seemingly endless fountain of comic exuberance, a one-woman fireworks display that lights up the stage at the Alvin and leaves the audience cheering." Hutton subsequently appeared on the PBS television special "Jukebox Saturday Night," singing some of her old hits, but performing opportunities again faded away. She returned to Rhode Island, where she enrolled at Salve Regina College in Newport. She later joined the faculty there, teaching film and television classes. Mental health problems continued to plague the actress, however, in ensuing years.

sources:

Agan, Patrick. The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses. Los Angeles, CA: Pinnacle, 1979.

Current Biography 1950. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1950.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Parish, James Robert and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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