Betty Hutton (Elizabeth June Thornburg)
Ms. Hutton, a brassy, energetic performer with a voice that could sound like a fire alarm, had the lead role in the 1950 film version of Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and a starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 spectacular, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
She was known for her renditions of upbeat songs like “Murder, He Says,” a Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loesser number from the 1943 film “Happy Go Lucky,” and “His Rocking Horse Ran Away” from “And the Angels Sing” (1944).
Ms. Hutton’s electric presence in films like “The Fleet’s In” and Preston Sturges’s “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” masked emotional problems rooted in a poverty-stricken childhood. As a young girl, she sang for coins on street corners and in speakeasies to help support her alcoholic mother, who had been abandoned by Ms. Hutton’s father.
Years after Ms. Hutton’s film career ended, those emotional problems still plagued her. “I tried to kill myself,” she said in 1983, recalling her decline after fading from public notice.
Ms. Hutton re-emerged in the 1970s, when reporters learned she was working as a cook and housekeeper in the rectory of a Roman Catholic church in Portsmouth, R.I. Before being rescued and rehabilitated by a priest, she said, she had become addicted to sleeping pills and alcohol and had lost what she estimated to be a $10 million fortune.
Betty Hutton was born Elizabeth June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Mich., on Feb. 26, 1921, the daughter of Percy Thornburg, a railroad brakeman, and Mabel Lum Thornburg. In the early 1920s, Mr. Thornburg left town with another woman, and Mrs. Thornburg took her children to Lansing and finally to Detroit, where she got a job in the automobile industry for 22 cents an hour. To make ends meet, she sold homemade beer to Prohibition violators. Betty and her sister, Marion, sang for the customers.
Ms. Hutton quit school in the ninth grade and started earning money ironing shirts and doing housework. She also kept singing. When she was 15 and singing in a Detroit nightclub, the bandleader Vincent Lopez hired her and gave her the name Hutton. The band was also heard on radio. (Marion Thornburg later adopted the name Hutton, too, and became a vocalist with the Glenn Miller Orchestra; she died in 1987.)
Ms. Hutton left Mr. Lopez’s band after a couple of years and in 1940 appeared in the Broadway revue “Two for the Show.” Vogue magazine called her “the most supercharged” member of the cast. A year later she went to Hollywood at the invitation of B. G. DeSylva, executive producer at Paramount. He gave her, at 21, a part in “The Fleet’s In.” Look magazine said it made her a star overnight.
Her film credits in the next 15 years included “Let’s Face It” (1943) and “Here Come the Waves” (1944). Sturges gave her more of a chance to act in “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944), a screwball comedy about wartime morality that ruffled censors with its story of a young woman who becomes pregnant after a spur-of-the-moment marriage and then can’t quite remember who the father is.
The next year she was back in a familiar role, as a hat-check girl, in “The Stork Club,” in which she memorably sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.”
Several of her films were biographies: “Incendiary Blonde,” about the actress and nightclub queen Texas Guinan; “The Perils of Pauline,” about the silent-screen heroine Pearl White; and “Somebody Loves Me,” about the singer Blossom Seeley.
In 1950, when Judy Garland was ill and unable to meet her commitments to star in the film version of “Annie Get Your Gun,” Ms. Hutton got the part, winning praise in a role that had been created on Broadway by Ethel Merman.
There were also Hutton movies that got bad reviews, most notably “Dream Girl” (1948). Ms. Hutton began to feel her career was headed downhill. To help her get the romantic heroine’s role in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” playing a trapeze artist, she sent DeMille a floral tribute 18 feet in diameter.
But her career was winding down, and after “Somebody Loves Me” (1952), she was all but finished. That year she married Charles O’Curran, a dance director, who wanted to direct her in a film. Paramount rejected the idea, and Ms. Hutton, in a fit of temper, walked out of her contract. Her final film, “Spring Reunion” (1957), received little notice.
Ms. Hutton soon turned to the new medium of television and was given a series, “The Betty Hutton Show,” but it lasted only for the 1959-60 season. In 1965 she appeared on Broadway in the musical “Fade Out, Fade In,” replacing Carol Burnett, but pills and alcohol were taking over her life.
At her lowest ebb, in 1974, Earl Wilson, the columnist, organized a benefit for her in New York. “I haven’t got a cent,” said Ms. Hutton, who had earned $150,000 a week in her good years.
She found a way to cope with her problems in religion. She renewed her interest in Lutheranism, her original faith, then converted to Roman Catholicism. She regarded the Rev. Peter Maguire of St. Anthony’s Church in Portsmouth as primarily responsible for saving her life. During one of her many hospital stays, he talked her into working for St. Anthony’s. “No one had ever talked to me before,” she said.
She later resumed work as an actress, appearing in nightclubs and, briefly in 1980, in the Broadway musical “Annie.” “It’s groovy being a star again,” she said. “But I know how fast it can be over.”
In the early 1980s, Ms. Hutton, who had never gone beyond the ninth grade, enrolled at Salve Regina, a Catholic college for women in Newport, R.I. She earned a master’s degree in psychology; the college had decided that her life experience entitled her to a bachelor’s degree. By the late 1980s, she was teaching comedy and oral interpretation at Emerson College in Boston.
She made occasional broadcast appearances in her later years, notably an hourlong interview, first shown in 2000, with Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies.
She married four times, to Mr. O’Curran; Ted Briskin, a manufacturer; Alan Livingston, a recording company executive; and Pete Candoli, a jazz trumpet player. She had two daughters, Candy and Lindsay, with Mr. Briskin, and another, Caroline, with Mr. Candoli. All her marriages ended in divorce.
“My husbands all fell in love with Betty Hutton,” Ms. Hutton once said. “None of them fell in love with me.”
- February, 26, 1921
- Battle Creek, Michigan
- March, 11, 2007
- Palm Springs, California
Cause of Death
- colon cancer complications
- Desert Memorial Park
- Cathedral City, California