Betty Hutton, who died this week at 86, was a versatile star of movies, musicals, and TV, but only rarely did she hook up with a project that allowed her to reach her full potential. Though her fame peaked more than 50 years ago, her bio remains a cautionary tale for today’s Hollywood, so eager to pigeonhole its actresses.
Hutton was certainly hard to pigeonhole. Tall, gangly, and tomboyish, she had a bombshell body but not smoldering sex appeal. She had dramatic gifts, but she was better at knockabout comedy than at playing the romantic lead. She sang not prettily but with great enthusiasm. This unlikely combination of gifts turned out to make her an ideal fit for the lead role of Annie Oakley that Ethel Merman had created in Annie Get Your Gun, when the Irving Berlin musical became a film (pictured) in 1950.
She starred in a number of musicals in Hollywood and on Broadway, acted in several biopics in the 1940s, and had her own TV series in the late 1950s, but her insistence on controlling her career may have doomed her as much as her unusual mix of talents. Even today, Hollywood has few roles suited to a tall, funny, tomboyish bombshell. (Jenna Elfman may be the closest in spirit to Hutton among today’s stars.)
As a result, Hutton is best remembered today for just three movies. One is Annie Get Your Gun; another is The Greatest Show on Earth (which TCM will air on Thursday as part of a mini-tribute to Hutton, along with Robert Osborne’s latter-day interview with the actress), a movie notorious as the weakest film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar (Hutton plays the female lead, a trapeze artist, in a very broad performance). The third is Preston Sturges’ 1944 classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, one of the funniest films ever made, and still one of the most outrageous. Hutton is delightful, sweet, and effervescent in the lead role of a young woman who wakes up after a drunken night with a group of departing soldiers to find herself married to one of them — she can’t remember which one — and pregnant. Writer/director Sturges called her “a full-fledged actress with every talent the noun implies. She plays inmusicals because the public, which can do practically nothing well, iswilling to concede its entertainers only one talent.” Sixty years later, not much has changed.