When Betty Got Frank

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Nobody came on to the movie camera — wrapped it in a bear hug and wrestled it to submission — like Betty Hutton. They called this 40s singer-actress "the Blitzkrieg blond" for an energy that would make Rachael Ray seem logy by comparison. Film critic James Agee, and other scribes at TIME, described her variously as "rubber-jointed," "brass-lunged," "super-dynamic," "bouncing, bawling," "raucous, rampageous." To Bob Hope she was "a vitamin pill with legs." She seemed to have swallowed a truckload full of them before every performance; she was indomitable, unstoppable, the Fuller Brush flack with a quick smile, a faster line of patter and her foot in your door.

Hutton, who died this month at 86, was the reigning female star of the 40s at Paramount Pictures. She is remembered for three roles: as the somehow-impregnated bobbysoxer in Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, as Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun and as the lovelorn trapeze artist in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth — top-billed in the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1952.

And like Paramount's male perennial, Bing Crosby, she often graced the pop charts: six songs in the top 10. They were mostly novelty tunes: "His Rocking Horse Ran Away," "Stuff Like That There" and the No. 1 "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief." But Hutton could also find the aching heart in plaintive ballads; her versions of "It Had to Be You" and "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" both made the top five. She would have had more hits, except that in 1942, just as she was becoming a break-out star, the musicians' union imposed a two-year ban on recording.

Her role in Annie Get Your Gun landed Hutton on the Apr. 24, 1950, cover of TIME. Back then she seemed on top of the world, and The Greatest Show on Earth was still to come. But soon she hit the Down button, and her stock fell as fast as it rose. The DeMille circus spectacular was her last major movie. She took a rodeo to Broadway (for three weeks), headlined the first big original musical for television (some considered it a fiasco) and in 1959 fronted a one-season sitcom (where her domineering attitude had other actors referring to her as Nero). Still in her 30s, she was essentially kaput in show business.

As exhausting offscreen as off, Hutton married four times: to Reeves camera scion Theodore Briskin; to choreographer Charles O'Curran, who went on to dream up dance routines for Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby and Elvis; to Alan Livingston, who created Bozo the Clown and, as head of Capitol Records, lured Sinatra, the Beatles and the Beach Boys to his label; and Big Band Hall of Fame jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli — the wedding of two brassy instruments. All these unions ended in divorce, and Betty would later say she was happy in none of them. She also became estranged from her three children.

That S.O.P. in Hollywood, where stars are endlessly creative in finding ways to hit bottom. But even under that low bar, Hutton could do the limbo. In the late '70s she was discovered working as a cook and housekeeper in a Rhode Island rectory. There, she told Robert Osborne in a 2000 Turner Classic Movies interview, she found salvation under the gentle care of Father Peter McGuire. Hutton earned a cum laude degree from Salve Regina College, then taught drama and music. Her motto might have been the Johnny Burke–Jimmy Van Heusen novelty number she sang in the movie Duffy's Tavern: "I Have to Do It the Hard Way." She made it tough on everyone: her audience, her colleagues, herself.


If there was one Hollywood figure who appreciated Hutton's talents, and who matched her drive with his, that would be Frank Loesser. As lyricist or total songwriter he authored dozens of movie hits before graduating to Broadway and composing the scores for Guys and Dolls, A Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He's also the subject of a toe-tappingly terrific new bio-doc, Heart & Soul: The Life and Music of Frank Loesser. But in the '40s he was under contract to Paramount, and there he wrote many of Hutton's signature songs.

They had a lot in common, these two brash kids who, early in life, felt unappreciated for the special talent they knew they had. Betty's railroad brakeman father left their Battle Creek, Mich., home when she was two, and killed himself 14 years later, leaving $100 each to Betty and her elder sister Marion. "Betty was jealous of her sister right from the start," Mrs. Thornburg told TIME in 1950. "She was always in my lap, always after affection. She would stand on her head, do cartwheels, yell or do anything to attract attention away from her quieter sister." Marion would become a band singer of moderate repute under the name Marion Hutton. She never achieved her sister's volcanic success. Yet it was Betty whose career was one long, desperate plea for the love she felt she never got at home.

As I wrote in a 1991 TIME tribute, Loesser was born into an educated German-Jewish family that prized classical music; his father was a piano teacher, his brother Arthur a keyboard prodigy and later a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Music. To the Loessers, popular music was infra dig, but Frank loved it. Like the cantor's son in The Jazz Singer, or pert Owl Jolson in the Tex Avery cartoon I Love to Sing-a, he had to battle his family's resistance to mainstream pop. Indeed, Loesser's nearly operatic score for The Most Happy Fella might have been his way of saying, Papa, can you hear it? Arthur, can you see it? I made real music!

Not that Loesser was as needy as Hutton; nobody could be. A Runyonesque character like the ones he put into Guy and Dolls, he was the classic little guy buoyed by an irrepressible belief in himself. With oceans of vim and a tough demeanor, Loesser was known to insult co-writers and directors and blow his top at rehearsals. He once got so mad at the way Isabel Bigley, Guys and Dolls' original Sister Sara, was mangling one of his songs that he socked her. Yet under the Cagney bully-bravado shone a big heart and the impulse to help other young composers. Among Loesser's proteges: Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, who did The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, Meredith Willson of Music Man fame and Hello, Dolly!s Jerry Herman.

You can hear all of Loesser's smarts and sparks in Guys and Dolls — fast and forceful, perennially revived and the one period musical that never loses its topicality. That show exemplifies the credo Loesser lived by: "LOUD is good." Which echoes in a comment Hutton made in the TCM interview: "Oh, I couldn't sing good, but boy, I sure sang loud!" Talk about true minds meeting: Loesser was just the fella to put funny words in her big mouth.


Preternaturally restless, Betty left home at 15 and came to Manhattan, hoping to be noticed by people who could get her into show business. By 17, she had hooked up with Vincent Lopez' decidedly demure band, to which she immediately brought verve and volume. One night when impresario Billy Rose was in the audience, did her madcap routine, picking up the elfin Lopez and carrying him about. That stunt earned her roles in the Broadway musicals Two for the Show and Panama Hattie, where, she later said, her one number was filched by star Ethel Merman on opening night. Betty's revenge came eight years later, when she played a ole Merman had originated onstage: Annie Oakley.

She found a valuable patron in the Broadway songwriter B.G. (Buddy) De Sylva. When he was named Paramount's production chief, he took Hutton to Hollywood and made her a star. Rather, she did it herself. He just turned the cameras on her. Which was easier said than done. Directors complained that she was too peripatetic to keep in view. According to the TIME cover: "De Sylva had a camera dolly rigged up and told the director to follow her all over the set if necessary." The film frame was a cage she was bound to burst out of.

As a new kid in movies, fresh from beltin' 'em out on Broadway, Hutton seemed unaware the camera she was playing to wasn't in the upper balcony, it was as close as a lover; or that movies had perfected a sound system that carried her voice into the theaters. So she sold every word, every note, every gesture, as if she were on a mountaintop and the audience down in the valley. "Watching her in action," TIME wrote in the Hutton cover story, "has some of the fascination of waiting for a wildly sputtering fuse to touch off an alarmingly large firecracker."

This extreme-rendition style went against the grain of the Hollywood '40s, when actors tended to whisper their threats and endearments, and the film noir aesthetic insured that movie sets had no more lighting than today's Baghdad after curfew. Not Hutton: she stuck her face into the nearest klieg light and shouted her lines and lyrics, cascaded all that talent and adrenaline.

It's hard to find a Hutton equivalent among her contemporaries, let alone now. Danny Kaye poured comic pizzazz into his tongue-twisting tunes, but had a hard time with ballads. Martha Raye did a lot of broad comedy, but without Betty's fresh-scrubbed glamour. Doris Day was another band-singer blond gone Hollywood, but with a more conventional softness. Only Betty had the whole package. She was vivacious, pretty, a Nobel-dynamite-winning thrush, an appealing actress who excelled in comedy and, if a director could just tamp down her pile-driving instincts, drama. TIME, searching for the portmanteau mot juste, was obliged to hatch a new one: "cinemusicomedienne."

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