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|Also Known As:||Betty Darling,Betty June Thornburg,Betty Jane Boyar||Died:||March 12, 2007|
|Born:||February 26, 1921||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Battle Creek, Michigan||Profession:||Cast ... actor singer housekeeper cook teacher|
One of the most popular screen performers of the 1940s and early 1950s, Betty Hutton gave unfettered, go-for-broke performances in musicals like "Annie Get Your Gun" and comedies like "The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek" (1942) before enduring one of the grimmest declines in Hollywood history. She battled her way out of a troubled childhood to become a star on Broadway before making her feature debut in 1942’s "The Fleet’s In." Audiences were charmed by her limitless energy and charm, and she soon became a top box office draw. The emotional problems of her early years took their toll on her personal life, and by the early 1950s, her career was in decline, jeopardized by mounting addictions and depression. She vanished from sight until the early 1970s, when she was found recuperating at a rectory in Rhode Island; Hutton mounted a modest comeback, marked by exceptional frankness about her struggles, until her death in 2007. Her unsinkable screen persona retained its popularity thanks to home video, which preserved her unique style for decades to come.
Born Elizabeth June Thornburg on Jan. 26, 1921 in Battle Creek, MI, her early years bordered on the Dickensian. Her father, railroad foreman Percy Thornburg, deserted Hutton when she was two, leaving Hutton, her sister Marion, and mother Mabel to fend for themselves. The family would not learn of his whereabouts until 1939, when a telegram informed them that he had taken his own life. To support her children, Mabel Thornburg ran illegal taverns, or "speakeasies" throughout Michigan, from which they were frequently rousted by police. Matters were complicated by Mabel’s alcoholism, which was exacerbated by the Great Depression. To help with the family finances, Hutton began singing and dancing on tabletops in her mother’s saloons. Her talent was evident even in her early years; by 13, she was singing with groups around Detroit while her mother worked dayshifts at an automotive plant. When she turned 15, Hutton headed for New York, determined to break onto the Broadway scene. She was roundly rejected, and headed back to Detroit. In 1937, bandleader Vincent Lopez discovered her at a club and hired her as the vocalist for his band; initially billed as Betty Jane Boyar, she changed her name to the more Hollywood-esque Betty Darling and hit the road with Lopez. The following year, she finally settled on the stage name "Betty Hutton," which came from Lopez’s consultation with a numerologist.
In 1939, she made her screen debut with his orchestra in a Vitaphone short, simply titled "Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra." Two more shorts for the company followed, most notably "Public Jitterbug No. 1" (1939), an entertaining bit of nonsense that gave the earliest glimpse of Hutton’s screen persona – vivacious to a fault, exceptionally talented and effortlessly charming. The following year, Hutton left Lopez’s employ to make one of her long-standing dreams come true: she made her Broadway debut in the revue "Two For the Show." The show’s producer and future Capitol Records co-founder, B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva took a liking to Hutton and cast her in his next Broadway production, "Panama Hattie" (1940) opposite reigning musical queen Ethel Merman. According to show business legend, Merman demanded that Hutton’s big number be cut prior to opening night; in an attempt to save face, DeSylva promised Hutton that he would make her a star in motion pictures. Whatever the case, Hutton was signed to a $1,000 a week deal at Paramount after DeSylva became Executive Producer there in 1941. Her film debut came the following year in "The Fleet’s In" (1942), a frothy musical with Dorothy Lamour and a young comic actor named Eddie Bracken, with whom Hutton would appear in several subsequent films. Critics and audiences took to the brassy blonde almost immediately, and she was promoted to second lead in her next film, the all-star wartime musical "Star Spangled Rhythm" (1943). By the time theMotion Picture Herald labeled her the "Star of Tomorrow" in a 1942 exhibitors’ poll, most of the country had already assumed that about Hutton.
From 1943 to 1950, Hutton was among the biggest stars in Hollywood. Paramount was paying her $5,000 a week to appear in its musical comedies, and in 1944, she demonstrated that her talents lay far beyond the genre’s limits with an expert turn in Preston Sturges’ delirious and scandalous comedy, "The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek." As a hapless small-town girl who finds herself pregnant but unaware of the father’s identity, Hutton proved that she could handle the best comedy writer in Hollywood. More substantive roles soon followed: she played Jazz Era showgirl Texas Guinan in "Incendiary Blonde" (1945) and silent film star Pearl White in "The Perils of Pauline" (1947). Her greatest screen triumph came with 1950’s "Annie Get Your Gun," a big screen adaptation of the popular stage musical. Hutton replaced an ailing Judy Garland in the role of Annie Oakley and won a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts, though in subsequent interviews she stated that the experience was a difficult one due to the cast’s reluctance to accept her in the role. However, interviews with her co-stars seemed to indicate that any conflict was due to Hutton’s single-minded focus on her career.
Unfortunately, conflict came to be the norm in Hutton’s life in the years that followed her success with "Annie." She had already experienced some degree of cooling in regard to her box office status with "Dream Lady" (1948), and clashed with DeSylva over her contract with Capitol, which led to her jumping ship in 1950 to RCA Victor. She enjoyed one more hit movie – Cecil B. DeMille’s sudsy circus spectacle, "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), which she landed by sending the producer a massive floral bouquet – before her standing at Paramount collapsed. Hutton demanded that the studio hire her second husband, Charles O’Connor, to direct her next film, but the company balked. Furious, she broke her contract a year before its expiration, which had a disastrous effect on her career. No feature films came her way for five years, and her final project for decades, "Spring Reunion" (1957), made few waves among moviegoers.
Determined to wrest control of her own destiny, Hutton plunged headlong into live performances in Las Vegas and nightclubs across the country. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so Hutton decided to try her hand at the then-new medium of television. In 1954, she was front-and-center for "Satins and Spurs" (NBC, 1954), a small-screen musical comedy – one of the first to be broadcast in color – with Hutton essentially reprising her "Annie" role as a rodeo queen who falls for a handsome photographer (Kevin McCarthy). The project was roundly panned by critics, spurring Hutton to announce her retirement from show business. Hutton was absent from the screen for a few years before returning to acting in 1957 for "Spring Reunion." Its failure, along with the short network run of her sitcom, "The Betty Hutton Show" (CBS, 1959-1960), did little to revitalize her flagging career. Her personal life was a shambles as well; her marriage to O’Curran ended in 1955, and her third union to Capitol Records exec Alan Livingston (creator of Bozo the Clown and the man who signed the Beatles to Capitol) was reportedly over in less than a year. A fourth marriage to jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli in 1960 also ended in a tumultuous divorce sometime between 1964 and 1967. The constant turmoil made it difficult for her to commit to projects, many of which might have signaled a revival of her career, including "Jumbo" (1962).
The bottom truly dropped out for Hutton in 1962 when her mother died in a fire caused by her falling asleep while smoking; Hutton’s depression, which had plagued her for most of her life, took hold, as did a growing dependency on sleeping pills. She declared bankruptcy in 1967, and made no public appearances until 1971, when she was a guest in the Hollywood Christmas parade. Offers of work followed, but Hutton was unable to commit to any of them. Desperately broke and alienated from her children – she had two from her first marriage to photographer Ted Briskind, and lost custody of her daughter Carolyn with Candoli – she suffered a nervous breakdown while on tour in New England in 1973. The Reverend Peter Maguire Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, became her greatest ally during this period. He convinced her to recuperate at his rectory, where she worked as a cook and housekeeper.
The news of her whereabouts made national headlines. In 1974, New York Times columnist Earl Wilson sponsored a benefit for Hutton, which raised $10,000. She began making the rounds on television talk shows, and gave her final acting performance in a 1977 episode of "Baretta" (ABC, 1975-78). In 1980, she returned briefly to Broadway as Miss Hannigan in "Annie," which generated effusive reviews. A PBS special, "Jukebox Saturday Night" (1983) devoted a half-hour of its time to Hutton, who performed many of her best-loved songs for an adoring crowd and spoke about mounting a comeback. However, she focused most of her attention on earning a master’s degree in psychology from Rhode Island’s Salve Regina College in 1986. She stayed on as a faculty member, teaching motion picture and TV classes before heading to Boston to teach theater at Emerson College. In 1996, Hutton relocated to Palm Springs; her mentor, Father Maguire, had passed away, and she longed to make a connection with her daughter Carolyn, who had children of her own. A 1994 release of her Capitol singles had sparked a revival of interest in her music, which began popping up on soundtracks for films like "L.A. Confidential" (1997). A 1996 cover of "It’s Oh So Quiet" by singer Bjork sent record collectors in search for Hutton’s own explosive version.
In 2000, a long-standing feud between the Irving Berlin estate and MGM came to a conclusion, which allowed "Annie Get Your Gun" to be released on DVD. To celebrate the occasion, Hutton appeared on the TCM talk show "Private Screenings" (TCM, 1996- ). She was remarkably candid about the ups and downs of her career, including her struggles with addiction and marital strife. More of Hutton’s film soon made their way to DVD, as did "The Betty Hutton Show." On March 12, 2007, Hutton passed away as a result of complications from colon cancer. The executor of her estate did not inform the press of her death until after the funeral, which took place at Desert Memorial Park in Palm Springs. At the time, Hutton was working on her memoirs, which were completed by her estate several years later.
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