Betty Hutton, Vivacious Star of Hollywood Musicals, Dies at 86

Obituaries   Betty Hutton, Vivacious Star of Hollywood Musicals, Dies at 86
Betty Hutton, the high-energy comedic actress who had a brief but memorable career as the star of Hollywood musicals and comedies in the 1940s, died in Palm Springs, CA, it was reported by AP. She was 86 and had lived in virtual isolation for much of the last 40 years.
Betty Hutton
Betty Hutton

Her last Broadway appearance was as a replacement Miss Hannigan in the original run of Annie. She also replaced Carol Burnett in the 1964 musical, Fade Out — Fade In.

"Brassy," "exuberant" and "energetic" were some of the adjectives routinely used to desribe Ms. Hutton's singular performance style and she brought those qualities to nearly every role she took on. To watch her on the screen was to be simultaneously electrified and exhausted. She poured her all into each line reading and gesture and backed up her vocals with her considable lung power.

One writer aptly described watching her as having "some of the fascination of waiting for a wildly sputtering fuse to touch off an alarmingly large firecracker." Bob Hope called her "a vitamin pill with legs."

Musical theatre and film buffs perhaps remember her best for playing Annie Oakley in the 1950 movie version of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. She was a replacement for an ailing Judy Garland and though the production was famously troubled, she received good notices. (The film was finally released on DVD recently.)

She began her Hollywood career in such films as "The Fleet's In," "Star Spangled Rhythm," "Let's Face It" and "Happy Go Lucky." Director-screenwriter Preston Sturges utilized her particular talents well in the riotous 1944 comedy "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," in which she played an explosive, small-town girl who gets pregnant one night after attending a party for departed servicemen, but can't remember who the father is. Her career virtually ended after 1952's "The Greatest Show on Earth," in which she played the lead. She demanded that Paramount Studios hire her second husband, Charles O'Curran, to direct her pictures. The studio bosses refused, and Ms. Hutton walked out on her contract. She and O'Curran divorced in 1955.

In 1959-60, she starred in the TV series "The Betty Hutton Show" (also called "Goldie"). She also acted in some stage shows and in Vegas. In addition to O'Curran, she was married and divorced three times. By 1967, she had filed for bankrupcy. Seven years later, she was found living in a Rhode Island Catholic rectory, where she was employed as a cook and housekeeper. She credited a Rhode Island priest, the Rev. Peter Maguire, with turning her life around and converting her to Roman Catholicism. Subsequently, she underwent psychiatric care, and gave a number of teary television interviews recounting her troubles.

Of her former career in Hollywood, she said, "I was a commodity, like a hot dog. It was like hot dogs and Betty Hutton."

Born Betty June Thornburg on Feb. 26, 1921, in Battle Creek, MI, she sang on street corner to support her family after her father left. Her alcoholic mother ran a speakeasy. She began singing with bands at 13. Soon after, she was nicknamed "The Blonde Bombshell," though the "bombshell" in this case has less to do with sex than her high-voltage personality.

She made her Broadway debut in the revue Two for the Road in 1940, when she was 18. She also starred in Panama Hattie before heading out to Hollywood. In Hattie, her one big musical number was reportedly cut just before opening night by orders of star Ethel Merman. (She got some measure of revenge when she play Annie Oakley on screen, a role that had been created by Merman.) Songwriter Buddy DeSylva, who produced the show, told her that if she stayed on with the show, he would take her to Hollywood and make her a star.

Ms. Hutton had a special relationship with composer Frank Loesser, who wrote special material suited to the singer, including "I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine," "Hamlet," "That's Loyalty," "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble" and "(Where Are You) Now That I Need You?"

The composing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans was also close to Ms. Hutton, and wrote the score to the NBC televised musical comedy "Satin and Spurs," which premiered on Sept. 12, 1954. The story, about a cowgirl who comes to New York City to ride in the Madison Square Garden Rodeo and falls in love with a magazine writer, was one of the first musical comedies written specifically for television and was perhaps Ms. Hutton's last great artistic triumph.

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