Saturday, March 11, 2017

Celebrating Betty Hutton's Heart

By Mary Claire Kendall

Betty Hutton Annie Get Your Gun.jpg
Publicity photo of  Betty Hutton for Annie Get Your Gun

Now, like never before, America needs individuals of mettle and resolve.

Ten years ago today, one such person left this world. She played the brassy, gun-toting Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), airing on TCM this coming Wednesday. Her name is Betty Hutton. And, while she is little known, her story is very relatable. 

She hit rock bottom when she became addicted to prescription pills while making The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) . She was dealing with multiple stresses: the dissolution of her marriage, work on this very challenging film and the need to lose weight given that “the skimpy circus costumes revealed everything,” as she wrote in her autobiography Backstage You Can Have

Dexamil increased her energy level while reducing her desire to eat. “An amphetamine, later known as street speed (it) was given out freely” at that time, she wrote. Unaware of the side effects, she rushed to the doctor to get a prescription for this “simple pep-me-up” that would also “control my weight” and increase self-esteem, making her, she wrote, “more sociable and quite self-confident.” But, the side effects were crippling.

Next up was Dexadrine, which the Air Force was giving its pilots to stay alert and focused on long missions. “If it was good for our men in uniform, it had to be right for me!” she wrote.  

Not. She had the delicate and sensitive constitution that enabled great performances, but was ill-equipped to roll with the pharmacological punches. And, so she fell down, down, down, after tearing up her Paramount contract in 1952 in a fit of pique. Then, one day, 20 years later, she looked up in the rehab center where she was recovering—having entered skin-and-bones, wanting to die. She saw this saintly priest checking in his bombed cook. And, she said, “He’s going to save my life.” So he did.

Her story was first told to me by the late A.C. Lyles, who was Ronald Reagan’s best friend, starting at Paramount Pictures. A.C. had made his way to Hollywood at age 18, and landed a job as Adolph Zukor’s office boy, rising fast, because he was good. Later, he was the first one to tell “Ronnie” he thought he would be president one day, but he ought to run for Governor of California first! Soon Reagan was changing his registration to the GOP, when a woman at a local gathering told him he sounded like a Republican. And, he asked A.C. to follow suit. The rest, as they say, is history. 

A.C. told me about how Betty prepped for the role of Holly, the trapeze artist

“Cecil B. DeMille was going to make a picture, The Greatest Show on Earth, about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the lead lady not only had to be a good actress but she had to be a good aerialist,” he said. (Sadly, Ringling Bros. is closing this year.) Betty was the former not the latter. “So she went to Stage 5 and talked to friends at Paramount and they did a rigging for her and she went there every day for 8, 10 hours, even down on weekends and she brought in… one of the premier aerialists of the world. Betty was there for weeks without anyone knowing because they locked the stage doors.” When she was ready to perform for DeMille, “She sent a big wreath of flowers… (about 8 feet tall),” said A.C. “And, she said, come to Stage 5, I have surprise. And DeMille went over to see” her act, which was “tremendous. She was actually a professional and he was just not only amazed but intrigued.”  

“So he gave her the lead,” said A.C. “And she got top billing above Charleton Heston and so many big, big stars and the picture won Cecil B. DeMille the Oscar.” (DeMille beat out High Noon and The Quiet Man, starring Gary Cooper and John Wayne, respectively.) “And, Betty was just great in it. She not only acted but she did all of those aerial stunts herself… which made it great for her role in the camera because you can actually see her performing.”

Today we celebrate Betty Hutton’s heart.  The kind of heart that will save our country.


Mary Claire Kendall is the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends. She will appear on Rita Cosby’s show on WABC on Sunday, March 12, to talk about the stars she writes about in Oasis, which include Alfred Hitchcock, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Mary Astor, John Wayne, Ann Sothern, Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Betty Hutton, Ann Miller and Patricia Neal.