When Betty Got Frank

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A true star is someone who can bring in the crowds no matter how flimsy the vehicle or anonymous the surrounding players. Most of Hutton's movies, which typically cast her as the good-time gal whose bravado masks her innocence, were at best inconsequential; and her costars in these modest endeavors ranged from grouchy John Lund to the craggy leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald, from hysterical geek Eddie Bracken to bulky Sonny Tufts. (Sonny Tufts??) The paucity of registered masterpieces of complementary star power simply proved her appeal. Audiences paid to see her propriety-defying shenanigans, in the implicit belief that any Hutton performance — squeezing as it did every ounce of life from her slim, sturdy body — might be her last.

That's not an unwarranted exaggeration about a performer whose forte was unwarranted exaggeration. She came out of the big band era but thrashed about like a rock star. What Elvis Presley did with his hips, Hutton did with her entire body. She didn't stand behind the mike; she ran amok across the stage, once torpedoing off it and landing on the drummer in the orchestra pit. (Rim shot.) Life with Hutton was just as perilous in Hollywood. She cracked three ribs getting tossed about by acrobats in the movie Incendiary Blonde. Her exuberance often injured her co-stars; she knocked out one actor, made another faint away, separated Hope's caps from his teeth. "When they work with me," she told TIME, "they gotta get insurance policies."

Sturges got her to channel her hyperactivity in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, a 1944 comedy that transposes the Nativity story to an American town overrun with horny soldiers. Hutton's Trudy Kockenlocker is a virginal party girl who gets drunk and pregnant on a toot with the boys in uniform. To save the family's reputation, Trudy must convince Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), the 4F loony who has loved her since childhood, to marry her while impersonating the soldier who knocked her up — whoever he was. (Trudy thinks his name might have been Ignatz Ratzkiwatzki.) Addressing all kinds of subjects that were usually taboo in Hollywood, and then flipping the bird to them, Sturges somehow got his movie past the censors, leading Agee, in his parallel nation column, to infer that the Hays Office "has been raped in its sleep."

If you haven't seen the movie, stop reading now and get a hold of it. It's unique in many ways, not least as a Hutton vehicle. Sturges, a raffish character who was every bit as rumbustious as his star, nonetheless cast her as the recipient of most of the mayhem rather than the perp; and he didn't give her any numbers to sing. The set pieces here are all conversations — between Trudy and Norval or Trudy and her savvy kid sister (Diana Lynn) — eight extended dialogues, from two to four mins. long, and most of them done without cutting away. That means the performers have to build the emotion, the tension, the comedy, on their own, relying on their timing to take each scene from zero to 60. Hutton manages this beautifully. And since, for once, she's not the prime lunatic — Bracken, perpetually hysterical, criminally inane, has that role — she's the one who has to apply the brakes. She's expert at that too.

It's a pity that Sturges and Hutton made only this film together. But her mentor, DeSylva, was Sturges' tormentor (on TCM Hutton says that "Buddy didn't like him because he didn't hit schedules") and soon hounded Paramount's prize writer-director off the lot. Partly as a result of the Sturges exile, Hutton's movies thereafter were mostly dreck, occasionally animated by her nutty novelties songs. The films are fairly summarized in these TIME reviews, most of them by Agee, wearing himself out to find new descriptions for Betty-mania:

Star Spangled Rhythm: "Betty Hutton, during a wild, bruising ride in a jeep, sings a ditty known as I'm Doin' It for Defense." Let's Face It: "Throaty Betty Hutton provides a diversion with a machine-gun-speed offering of Let's Not Talk About Love." And the Angels Sing: [Hutton] gets funnier with every picture. She is the most startling expression of natural force since the Johnstown Flood." In The Stork Club, "Her songs are undistinguished but her uninhibited way of putting them over is an eclectic mixture of Harlem and Bali, with a shout from the heyday of Ethel Merman and a gesture from the childhood of Shirley Temple." Cross My Heart "might possibly have been saved if Miss Hutton had been allowed to tear a few more songs to shreds in her interestingly destructive style." The Perils of Pauline: She "has a capacity for pathos which is rather crudely exploited in this film, and a capacity for comedy which is exploited just as crudely, but oftener and more successfully." In Red, Hot and Blue, Hutton, "given a few comic situations and lively rhythms, appears to be a fissionable element exploding into energy and noise.... At her noisiest in her songs, she has the force of a pneumatic drill and the range of a fire siren."


Betty's notion of acting while singing was to break each lyric into its components, mine each phrase for the mood or situation, then act that out to the hilt, however short the phrase. Given the Johnny Mercer–Victor Schertzinger ballad "Not Mine" in her debut feature The Fleet's In, she dreamily croons the first line ("It's somebody else's moon above"), then immediately pulls a little girl's mope face for the words "Not mine." She took the same approach to acting, with multiple personalities flashing across her face with lightning speed and violence.

Others might run screaming from this jackhammer assault; Loesser ran and embraced it. He didn't want subtlety, he wanted salesmanship, and Betty has the pertest peddler around. He wrote more than a dozen songs for her, all to be found in The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser . They started with the 1943 "Murder, He Says," about a girl's jive-talking beau; during the number she jitterbugs, seesaws her shoulders, puts her hand to her tummy and sashays sexily — all stops out for Betty.

Loesser kept feeding her novelty numbers to test her skills of pronunciation and breath control. Often the songs have her complaining, if not about a boyfriend, then about work. "The Sewing Machine" (from The Perils of Pauline): "I bobbin the bobbin and pedal the pedal / And wheel the wheel all day/ So by night I feel so weary / That I never get out to play." And in another Pauline song, the sublimely frantic "Rumble Rumble Rumble," Betty practically falls off the piano top she's perched on, so agitated is she singing about how she can't get to sleep because the guy upstairs plays boogie-woogie all night: "He goes a-rumble, rumble, rumble on the bottom,/ He goes a-tinkle, tinkle, tinkle on the top./ Rumble, rumble, rumble, / Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, / Positively won't stop!" (Get this on the CD Spotlight on Betty Hutton: Great Ladies of Song).

Play is at the root of these songs, which often hinted that they were about something more ribald than their putative topic. "The Fuddy Duddy Watchmaker": "Well I don't know how he does it but he does it!"A song from Red, Hot and Blue, "I Wake up in the Morning Feeling Fine," has Betty in a post-coital afterglow: "It must be cause you kiss me good ev'ry night." (Yes... kiss.)

They were the anthems of a good-time girl who cried out, in the words of "Poppa Don't Preach to Me (The Perils of Pauline): "Let me fling till my fling is all flung." Yet she could also give heart (and soul) to a torch song, like the Pauline ballad "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" ("My love for you / Should have faded long ago"). Simple, sad and beautiful.

Hutton and Loesser reconvened at MGM in 1950 for Let's Dance. Theoretically it was a Fred Astaire musical, but Loesser didn't go highbrow. He gave her a patter number with these lyrics — "I can't stop talkinaboutim antalkinaboutim antalkinaboutim, I can't stop talkinabout the man that I adore" — as Astaire stands by in understated disbelief. The singer and the songwriter never worked together again, which is a shame, since Hutton might have inspired a snazzy Broadway score from Loesser and kept her own career in flourish. In a way they did duet once more, once removed. Hutton's last hit record was a cover of "A Bushel and a Peck" from Guys and Dolls. It went to #5.


And her last great performance — certainly her most startling and touching — was the Osborne interview for TCM. I'm told that the show, which lasts 56 mins. including clips, took four days to shoot because Betty's anxieties kept getting in the way of her showmanship. But still she's a wonder: her vitality undiminshed, she jumps up and down in her chair, rising with some memories, falling back crushed with others. At one point she gets up and hugs the genial Osborne in thanks for his kindness to her.

She talks about her troubles with co-stars, saying that the Paramount contractees gave her a hard time because "they thought I was sleeping with Buddy De Sylva" and saying that the actors in Annie Get Your Gun, for which she recorded all her songs in one day, "were awful to me" because she had replaced the emotionally bereft Judy Garland. "Annie Get Your Gun was the end of me, inside." I'm guessing Howard Keel would have had a different take on that story.

The thing about movie stars' relation to the audience is: we don't have to live with them; we just watch them do their best for us. "My private life has been hell, really hell," Hutton told Osborne. "But my professional life was wonderful, because the audiences understood I was working for them with all my heart. ... I just love 'em, Bob, and the only way I could show 'em is from a stage, I guess."

Hutton was 79 at this time, and she knew she was nearly spent. But she had that incorrigibly chipper spirit she'd broadcast so fortissimo in her films. "Finally you're gonna die from something. I'll die from stage fright, but it won't be anything else."

Actually, it was colon cancer that took her. But Betty Hutton is still strutting — fearlessly — in the juke boxes and revival movie houses of her fans' memories. And I guarantee: her admirers will be worn out before she is.

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