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Betty Hutton got the role of a lifetime when MGM asked her to step in as a last minute replacement for Judy Garland in the 1950 musical smash, Annie Get Your Gun. But though she had a role tailor-made for her that put her on the cover of Time magazine, Hutton also got a musketful of heartaches that would contribute to the end of her movie career.
The original stage musical had been written as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, but there was little question of her reprising the role on screen. She had made a foray into the movies in the '30s, and most executives felt that her out-sized personality just didn't play well on camera. On stage, however, she was strong enough to keep the show running for years, and initially songwriter Irving Berlin balked at selling film rights while the musical was still filling theatres. But the most recent film on which he'd worked, Blue Skies (1946), though popular at the box office, was only getting mixed reviews. Wanting to re-establish his Hollywood career, he finally gave in to MGM producer Arthur Freed, who paid the then record sum of $650,000 for screen rights. Although Judy Canova and Doris Day were considered to play Annie Oakley, and Betty Hutton campaigned for the role, Freed had bought the property for MGM's top singing star, Judy Garland. Hutton was heartbroken and shared her feelings with Esquire magazine: "It's the biggest disappointment I've known. It's been my whole life, and right now it isn't worth that. I thought a really big picture success would be the greatest thing in the world. But it's a rat race. No matter how good you are in one film the next has got to be better. You've got to keep topping yourself or you're dead."
Because MGM couldn't release a film version of Annie Get Your Gun until the musical had completed its Broadway run, production was delayed until 1949. By then, however, Garland's personal problems had grown to the point where she was barely functioning. She was severely addicted to pills -- both uppers and downers -- and even went through a series of shock treatments to try to break her dependency before shooting started. At first, she was on her best behavior. But Freed had assigned Busby Berkeley to direct the film, and Garland still had scars from her work with him as a young woman, when her problems with pills began. The more he shouted on the set, the sicker she got. To make matters worse, co-star Howard Keel broke his ankle on the second day of shooting in an accident caused partly by Berkeley's insistence that he ride his horse faster over a slick studio floor. As a result, Garland was the only principal available for shooting while Keel recovered. As the pressure wore on her she developed insomnia, lost weight and even started losing her hair. When she looked at each day's rushes, she knew she wasn't getting the role right, which made her even more insecure. Eventually, Freed fired Berkeley and replaced him with Charles Walters, who had directed Garland successfully in Easter Parade (1948). By that time, however, her spirit was broken. Try as she might, she couldn't conquer her personal demons and get to the set on time. Finally, the studio fired her, an unprecedented action to take against a star of her caliber. Garland went to a mental hospital, and the production was put on hold until they could find a replacement.
The studio's first choice was Betty Garrett, who had performed as a comic second lead in MGM's musicals. But her contract had expired and her agent made the mistake of asking for too much money. Freed briefly considered studio player June Allyson, but then reached a deal to borrow Hutton from her home studio, Paramount, for $150,000 and an option to use her in a second film. Hutton's dreams had come true, though she made the mistake of telling the press that she had prayed for this break, a statement that did little to endear her to the film's crew.
By the time shooting resumed, other changes had also been made. The original choice for Buffalo Bill, Frank Morgan, had died in his sleep, so Louis Calhern took over the role. The children cast as Annie Oakley's siblings (MGM had considered using Garland's three-year-old daughter, Liza Minnelli, then decided she was too young) were now too old for the film. And as a result of studio politics George Sidney had replaced Walters as director. Walters only found out about that by reading it in Hedda Hopper's gossip column.
Hutton was determined to work hard on this role, following Sidney's advice: "You have to be directed on this picture; you are playing a character. You are not playing the girl from Vincent Lopez's band [where Hutton had gotten her first big break]." But though some appreciated her hard work, most of the crew treated her coldly, almost as if they were blaming her for Garland's firing. When Garland visited the set after her hospital stay, Hutton greeted her with a bouncy "Hiya, Judy," only to be answered with a string of profanities. Hutton would later say this was the beginning of the end for her in Hollywood, citing this harsh treatment at MGM as the reason she lost interest in the movies.
With a new star and director in place, Annie Get Your Gun actually came in ahead of its revised schedule. The budget had risen to $3.7 million (almost half of that spent before Garland was fired), but that was more than matched by the film's box office success. With $8 million in U.S. receipts (counting a 1956 re-issue) and an equal figure internationally, the picture was Freed's most successful. At the time, he planned to re-team Keel and Hutton in Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962), a stage musical the studio had bought in the '30s. By the time Hutton was available, however, her career had fallen apart.
Despite her box office success in Annie Get Your Gun, Hutton got only mixed reviews, with critics comparing her performance unfavorably to Ethel Merman's. Years later, Pauline Kael would suggest a new take on her performance: "Betty Hutton's all-out comic desperation is very appealing; she seems emotionally naked and even strident, but in a way that works for her..." (Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies. Re-evaluation of her work would be put off for years when a dispute between the Irving Berlin estate and MGM kept the film out of circulation from 1973 until 2000. By then a new stage version starring first Bernadette Peters and then daytime diva Susan Lucci and country-western star Reba McEntire, had brought the musical saga of Annie Oakley to new generations of audiences.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Sidney Sheldon, based on the musical play by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and Irving Berlin
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Irving Berlin, Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Betty Hutton (Annie Oakley), Howard Keel (Frank Butler), Louis Calhern (Buffalo Bill), J. Carrol Naish (Chief Sitting Bull), Edward Arnold (Pawnee Bill), Keenan Wynn (Charlie Davenport), Benay Venuta (Dolly Tate), Clinton Sundberg (Foster Wilson).
by Frank Miller