Betty Hutton

Betty HuttonI’ve gotten into the habit of posting little things that occur to me on Facebook. But I’m in the process of leaving Facebook. It really is an evil dump. And it bugs me that I’m creating free content for it.

Few songs feel me with so much energy as “Murder, He Says” written by Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh for the film Happy Go Lucky (1943). It is sung by Betty Hutton who co-starred in the film.

Hutton was never what I would call a movie star. Her focus was more on live performance although she had a number of hit records like the Hoagy Carmichael song Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief. If you watch the video for that song, you can tell that Hutton was something of a goof.

Her biggest success was probably in the title role of Annie Get Your Gun — a role she was born to play. I’m just not that fond of musicals like that anymore. (I loved them when I was a kid!)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

The film I most associate her with is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). It was one of the handful of Preston Sturges classics made during World War II. In it, Hutton plays a classic girl who can’t say no. She wakes up one morning having remembered that she married a soldier the night before but can’t remember his name (except that it had a “z” in it). Later, she learns that she is pregnant.

The film is a maze of absurdities in its attempt to justify what everyone watching knows is about premarital sex in the age of the Hays Code. If you get a chance, you should watch it. The plot doesn’t make much sense. But Sturges’ dialog is as witty as ever and Betty Hutton is her usual effervescent self.

Murder, He Says

Here is Hutton performing “Murder, He Says” for the troops:

9 thoughts on “Betty Hutton

  1. I myself had zero interest in musicals as a youngster. It wasn’t until the release of “That’s Entertainment” in 1974 that I was exposed to all those great old Technicolor song & dance numbers. If you don’t know, “That’s Entertainment” was a quite popular theatrically released compilation of old music & dance routines from the MGM back catalog. Nowadays a lot of them can be found on YouTube.

    Hutton was an appealing performer. I think she and Howard Keel have great chemistry in the “Anything You Can Do” number from “Annie”. Watching her perform reminds me once again how little variety in style and technique one finds in contemporary pop music. Here’s some commentary about that – despite the title, it’s more analysis than rant:

    The TRUTH Why Modern Music Is Awful

    This isn’t to deny that there is a wonderful variety of current musicians out there, everything from baroque classical to Austrian yodeling. It’s one of the things that make it easy to get sucked into YouTube’s black hole, only re-emerging days later unshaven, bleary-eyed, and sleep deprived.

    • I remember That’s Entertainment. My exposure was mostly from checking out original cast albums from the library. I liked the movies and plays too, of course. I still love movies and plays — just not those kinds! Well, that’s not exactly true. I do think that Andrew Lloyd Webber has single-handedly destroyed musical theater. Of course, it speaks to how poor the audience is that he was able to do it. At this point, I really don’t want to see any play in a theater of more than a few hundred people. The Fantasticks has been a big influence on me — not really in style but approach: musicals can be small, intimate affairs. What I’m facing in my own work is that the music I am capable of is just not up to the theater I’m able to write. I don’t know what to do about that. I’ll try to watch the video later. I’m really business for the next two weeks.

    • One time, the local paper’s house fascist (modern morality is degenerate, government is forcing this upon us, etc.) interviewed a local public radio DJ. Zookeeper was his day job; once a week, he’d play songs from the pre-rock era on his wee hours weekend show.

      He told the fascist that’s it not as though rock is worse than older songwriting; it’s just different. Post-Dylan, many great musical acts wrote songs specifically for themselves; songs attuned to their style of performance. Older songs were written by professional songwriters, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, they were meant to be sung by anyone who could carry a tune.

      Of course that doesn’t mean some rock songwriters haven’t written highly coverable songs (Dylan, McCartney), just that the style is different.

      Amazingly, the fascist accepted this explanation, although following it up with “everything after 1945 is crud.” And didn’t go into why a public employee at two jobs (zoo, radio) could be a fan of old music and not some evil force subverting society. You can’t expect too much from fascists, even a tiny shred of human empathy is a major step for them.

      • That’s an interesting idea – that rock maybe involved a bit of a sea change in music production – although I’m not sure to what extent that was true. There were still pro songwriters. For instance, Carol King wrote a lot of hits but didn’t write them all for herself to perform.

        There’s been some interesting history written about the changes brought about by published, copyrighted sheet music even before the advent of recording technology.

        • Sure — King wrote one of the best Monkees songs, so did Neil Diamond.

          Songwriters are inherently fascinating to me, because I couldn’t write a song to save my life. Maybe something like “Wooly Bully” that had gibberish lyrics and a paint-by-numbers tune, nothing that related to actual human life.

          Wiki tells me that King also wrote the score to “Murphy’s Romance,” which is a terrific little-known movie. Although it really should have been titled “Emma’s Romance.”

  2. During World War II, Betty Hutton was known as the: The Blonde Bombshell, The Blonde Huttentot, The Blonde Blitz, the Blitzkrieg Blonde, the Incendiary Blonde, and Bounding Betty all of which fit her movie behavior like a glove. Hutton was that high-octane fear and desperation that was inside everyone during those dark days of World War II, the insanity that had to be denied, repressed, lived with, and unleashed only on the dance floor, or, secretly, at the movies when watching Hutton literally swing from a chandelier and bellow out one of her truly nutty song numbers: “My Rocking House Ran Away” or “Doctor, Lawyer Indian Chief.” The great philosopher of World War II, Hutton sings the key question of the changing times: “Murder he says? Is this the language of love?” She was perfect for the wartime audience. In her day she was also a bizarrely liberated voice of the common woman – the one who was not a glamour queen but who came out of nowhere to work in the factories and find her way to independence during the war. Betty Hutton was a woman who would do anything to get attention.

    In her musical numbers, Hutton is like the Andrew Sisters with only one sister. Hutton keeps nothing in her 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.

    Hutton, like so many other movie stars of the golden era, came from a hardscrabble background. Betty Hutton was born on February 26, 1921 in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her mother was an alcoholic, and her father deserted the family when she was only two (he later committed suicide.) Betty’s birth name was Betty Thornburg and her sister Marion (older by one year), and their mother barely managed to survive, living a life of poverty. Her mother could play the piano and her daughters could both sing. It was their way out.

    In 1940, Hutton began a successful Broadway career, first appearing in Two for the Show, which starred Eve Arden and Alfred Drake. Her second appearance was as the secondary lead in Panama Hattie, starring Ethel Merman. Hutton received excellent reviews and the show was a smash hit, inevitably bringing her to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. Hutton signed with Paramount Studios, where she would spend the majority of her screen career. Her film debut was in The Fleet’s In (1942, Paramount) and her role was a plum. The stars of the film were: Dorothy Lamour (playing her best friend), William Holden, Cass Daley and Eddie Bracken. Hutton was assigned two showstopping numbers: “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry” and “Build A Better Mousetrap.” The executives at Paramount assessed Hutton’s abilities at first thought she might be a second-string lead, the lovable comic sidekick for glamour girls like Dorothy Lamour, However, watching her sing, dance, play comedy, and more than hold her own, they thought that perhaps she could do more. Hutton was pretty and had a good figure. Furthermore–and this was the key–because she could sing ballads beautifully, she might play romantic leads and be a viable leading lady. After her success in the leading role in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Paramount put her in Technicolor, to test that aspect of her appeal in Happy Go Lucky (1943), realizing that Mary Martin would never be a big star for them, Paramount gave Hutton two showcase numbers where she performed one of her all-time hits, “Murder He Says” as well as “Fuddy, Duddy Watchmaker,” and climbed right to the top. Hutton became huge, and for eleven years (1942 thru 1953) she stayed at the top, with specially designed biographical musicals being created just for her.

    It was odd that Hutton, the ultimate in unrealistic players, should be asked to play so many real-life women on screen. She portrayed: Blossom Seeley, Pearl White, Texas Guinan, and Annie Oakley. All these characters had to be adjusted to Hutton, of course, and were selected because something about them seemed right for her in the first place. Texas Guinan was the famous “Queen of the Nightclubs” who greeted her customers with the raucous “Hello suckers!” in the 1920s. The film was titled Incendiary Blonde (1945) and in the film Hutton belts out period numbers like “Oh By Jingo” and also delivers a ballad that became a signature song for Hutton, “It Had To Be You.”

    Paramount had hoped to capitalize on Hutton’s softer side in 1948 when it cast her in the movie version of the Broadway stage play Dream Girl, written by Elmer Rice. Paramount bought the rights to the play specifically to introduce a “new” Betty Hutton to the public. She was a big moneymaker for them, but proving that the studio understood her stardom, Paramount worried that since the war was over, her brand of nuttiness might fade. The idea was that she would be presented as an “actress” rather than a crazy personality, and if it were done right, her fans would stay with her. In Dream Girl, Hutton is a combination of her old bouncing self and a softer, dreamier self that shows sensitivity and introspection. Unfortunately, this worked out for no one. The fans that expected the Blonde Blitz were disappointed, and those who wanted serious acting were also let down. The film was a big “Flop,” and it was the beginning of the end for Hutton. Hutton genuinely loved Dream Girl and believed it was a change of pace for her. When the film flopped, she was deeply hurt.

    Betty Hutton, Paramount’s most reliable actress for nearly a decade began to lose her place, but she had two great successes on the horizon in the early 1950s: Annie Get Your Gun (1950, MGM) and Cecil B. de Mille’s “Best Film” Academy Award for The Greatest Show On Earth (1952, Paramount) plus Hutton gives a very much under appreciative performance and holds her own against costar Fred Astaire in Let’s Dance (1950, Paramount).

    When MGM bought the right’s to Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun for resident musical genius leading lady Judy Garland problems began, by then Garland was experiencing severe career trouble. Garland began filming, but her outtakes in particular the raucous “I’m an Indian Too” number revealed the tragic situation: Garland looked terribly thin and gaunt and she was obviously distracted and ill. When she collapsed and had to be replaced, MGM asked Paramount for a loan-out of Betty Hutton, whose singing style and comic ability seemed right for the role. At MGM Hutton was briefly its queen. Later, she would say that she was treat badly at MGM and made to feel unwelcome. Annie Get Your Gun was the musical of the year, and Hutton was on the cover of Time Magazine and won Photoplay magazine’s Best Actress award. Her combination of sass and roughness on the one hand, soft and vulnerable on the other, made her the perfect Annie Oakley. The Greatest Show on Earth was another blockbuster, receiving the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1952.

    Back in the 1980s I saw her perform on a PBS special titled “Your Hit Parade” when Hutton sang she gave it everything she had, which was still plenty. Even young people who had never heard of her leapt to their feet clapping and yelling when she finished her number. One of the reviewers David Cuthbert of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote that no one “connects with the audience the way Betty Hutton does. The lady remains a great entertainer,” and I couldn’t agree more.

    • Fantastic info! It is entirely perfect that Hutton was the secondary lead to Ethel Merman at one point, given that Merman’s signature song was “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from “Annie Get Your Gun.”

    • Thanks! This is awesome! I didn’t know that Hutton was a replacement on Annie Get Your Gun. She seemed like natural casting. Thanks for the overview. I feel like this is more than I would have gotten out of reading a biography!

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