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Betty Hutton: Incendiary Blonde

Published: 3/11/2012
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Betty Hutton was a triple threat entertainer before her career derailed. Five years after her death, we take a look at the blonde bombshell's topsy-turvy life. (Wikimedia Commons / MGM)

Born Elizabeth June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Mich., Betty Hutton was raised under difficult circumstances. Her father, a railway worker, left town with another woman when Hutton was 2 years old and wasn’t heard from again until a telegram informed the family of his suicide. The family eventually wound up in Detroit, where Hutton’s alcoholic mother got a job in the auto industry that paid 22 cents an hour. To supplement her income, she operated a speakeasy selling bootlegged beer. When she was only 3 years old, Betty joined her sister in singing for customers.

By ninth grade, Hutton had dropped out of school and was ironing shirts and doing housework to help the family make ends meet. She also began singing at night clubs while still only 15. It was there that she was discovered by pianist and bandleader Vincent Lopez, whose noted musicians over the course of his career included Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Lopez gave her the stage name Hutton and her career was off and running.

After appearing in some musical shorts for Warner Brothers and landing some high profile supporting roles on Broadway, Hutton quit Lopez’s band in 1940. A year later, she moved to Hollywood at the behest of Paramount songwriter and producer B.G. DeSylva, who handed Hutton her debut role in 1942’s The Fleet’s In.
 

 

 

At age 21, she wasn’t the best singer, she wasn’t the greatest actor, and she wasn’t considered as pretty as many of her rivals, but she won over audiences with her manic energy and brassy, firebrand persona. Paramount was initially slow to realize what a big star they had on their hands. Their biggest female lead at the time was glamour girl Dorothy Lamour, who often starred opposite Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in hit films like Road To Zanzibar. The studio finally paired Hutton with Hope in the 1943 musical Let’s Face It!, but it was the Preston Sturges-directed racy screwball comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek that really gave her a chance to show could do more than careen around the set belting out tunes and making funny. The film was a smash success and by 1945 Betty Hutton was Paramount’s biggest star.

A string of successes followed. The Perils of Pauline, based loosely on the life of silent screen siren Pearl White, was an audience favorite, and Hutton was such a big draw by 1950 that she was billed above Fred Astaire in Let’s Dance. That same year, she replaced Judy Garland and landed one of her most memorable roles in Annie Get Your Gun. Two years later, she starred as a trapeze artist in Cecil B. DeMille's Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth.

All the while, Hutton kept her musical career alive with a steady stream of record releases. Between 1939 and 1956 she had 11 songs enter the top 40 Billboard charts. Her most successful, a 1945 rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," stayed on the charts for 17 weeks and peaked at No. 1.
 

 

 

 

 

But by 1952, her world began to unravel.

It started when she insisted to Paramount that her second husband, dance director Charles O’Curran, direct her next film. When the studio balked, she walked away from her contract, perhaps expecting rival studios would jump at the chance to sign one of Paramount’s biggest earners. They didn’t. She was by then 31 years old and had a reputation of being difficult, even physically abusive on the set ("When they work with me," she once bragged to Time magazine, "they gotta get insurance policies").

She made the jump to television in 1954 with Satin and Spurs, a show created especially for her, but it flopped. The same held true with The Betty Hutton Show, a sitcom produced by Desilu in 1959. Hutton then went to Vegas, headlining shows there before briefly replacing Carol Burnett in a Broadway production of Fade In, Fade Out in 1964. But struggles with alcohol and prescription medications began taking their toll.

Her addictions got worse after her mother died in a house fire in 1967. Hutton had by then divorced her fourth and last husband. "My husbands all fell in love with Betty Hutton," she once said. "None of them fell in love with me." At the peak of her success, she was earning $150,000 a week. By the early 1970s, she had burned through a fortune estimated at $10 million and was broke and suicidal.

She was spiraling down the same self-destructive path that claimed fellow 1950s luminaries Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. But unlike many Hollywood flameouts, she was able to turn her life around.

Hutton moved to Rhode Island, and with the help of a Roman Catholic priest named Father Peter Maguire, kicked her addiction to drugs. By 1974, she was working as a cook in a rectory, a fate that made headlines when it was discovered and prompted comedian Joey Adams to host a benefit for her.

She returned to school, earning a Master’s in psychology at Salve Regina, a Catholic women’s college in Newport, R.I. In the late 1980s, she taught theater classes at Emerson College and returned to Broadway as Miss Hannigan in a production of Annie.

There would be no late career comeback, but by the time Betty Hutton succumbed to cancer in 2007, she had long since proven to herself that there was life after showbiz. The incendiary blonde, unlike some of her Hollywood contemporaries, had kept herself from exploding.
 

 

 

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