Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Betty Hutton in INCENDIARY BLONDE

This is a post about my favorite Betty Hutton movie and how it relates to her 1950 MGM hit, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. It involves a Hollywood story I'd read a number of times over the decades. When I was kid -- way back before VHS, DVDs and cable TV -- local TV stations often filled up airtime by showing old movies. This was terrific in Southern California because a few of the stations were hooked up to movie studio libraries. I grew up having seen many classics that have yet to make it to DVD. One of those movies was the loosely-based 1945 biopic with music, INCENDIARY BLONDE. It was the tale of the flashy, popular 1920s New York City nightclub owner/performer Texas Guinan. She became famous for her brassy greeting to customers, "Hello, suckers!" She was played briefly by Phyllis Diller in 1961's SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. In the 80s, there was talk of Bette Midler starring in a Texas Guinan biopic. Initially, Paramount had Barbara Stanwyck in mind to play Guinan until someone suggested adding musical numbers and styling it for one of Paramount's other big new stars, Betty Hutton. Hutton had come to Hollywood from Broadway. She'd also been a singer with a band. She seemed to crystallize the fresh vibe of the 1940s. She was a high-energy blonde babe who could belt out a tune and make you laugh. She could also act. In my youth, I grew up sitting in front of the TV in our living room and laughing hours away watching her romantically chase Eddie Bracken in 1942's THE FLEET'S IN (her film debut) and again with Bracken in the Preston Sturges screwball comedy, 1944's THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, as pregnant Trudy Kockenlocker.
INCENDIARY BLONDE gave Betty Hutton the deluxe Paramount Pictures glamour treatment in Technicolor with gorgeous outfits by Edith Head. There were funny moments in it. But, overall, it's the bittersweet tale of two star-crossed lovers. The story opens with Texas Guinan's funeral. Two friends of hers, mourners, comfort each other and recall her humble beginnings. We flashback and see her story from spunky tomboy who leaves home to get work in a rodeo show to help her family, to getting a spot in a Broadway show, to getting her own nightclub and becoming the toast of Broadway. There's also the handsome show manager who hires her. Very well-played by Arturo de Cordova, he falls in love with her eventually but doesn't want to marry her. We'll find out why.
In her black and white comedies, Hutton was given bouncy swing tunes to introduce. In THE FLEET'S IN (seen above with Eddie Bracken, Dorothy Lamour and fellow screen newcomer William Holden) she does "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry." In 1944's AND THE ANGELS SING, she belts out "His Rocking Horse Ran Away" and in 1945's THE STORK CLUB, there was "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief" which became one of Hutton's hit records. My dad, a brawny WWII vet who was a big Betty Hutton fan, had a record of that in our collection at home. Just like Judy Garland, a top star at MGM in the 40s, Hutton was a top star at Paramount in the 40s who introduced tunes written for her. She too was a vocalist whose records got radio play.
INCENDIARY BLONDE showed that Hutton could be quite effective with dramatic scenes. She was a crowd-pleaser in upbeat rhythm numbers. However, when a director got her to bring the emotions in and bring a softness out, she was like velvet. An example is her luscious rendition of "It Had To Be You" in INCENDIARY BLONDE. That was another one of her hit records. Her reprise of it in the final poignant moments of INCENDIARY BLONDE, as she's tearful in mink and walking off alone into a starless cold night, will touch your heart. Here's a clip of Hutton an early dramatic scene in INCENDIARY BLONDE.

1945's INCENDIARY BLONDE was a success for singer/actress Betty Hutton. It displayed her musical and acting range. Now zoom ahead to 1949. MGM is trying to get ANNIE GET YOUR GUN made with Judy Garland. Unfortunately, although only in her 20s, she's emotionally and physically exhausted from having been a hard-working contract player in that dream factory of a studio since she was 13. She was back from a sanitarium stay and really needed about another two weeks to get up to the task of that grueling musical. Things weren't going well. She was dropped -- and replaced with Betty Hutton on loan from Paramount. The story I'd often read was that Dore Schary, a head of production at MGM, had to screen a copy of Betty Hutton's 1947 comedy/drama musical, THE PERILS OF PAULINE, to see if she'd be right for the role of Annie.

I never bought that story. Hutton was, like Garland, a major Hollywood star known for musical comedies. Every quality you needed for an actress to have for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is evident in INCENDIARY BLONDE. She's a tomboy in cowgirl attire singing "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" in the first ten minutes, she's in a rodeo show, she had a tender romance, became a singing and dancing Broadway star, and does a dreamy rendition of "It Had To Be You." Why would he need to screen THE PERILS OF PAULINE? What other top female musical star at a big studio would've been as perfect to replace Judy? Columbia had Rita Hayworth. She was great but wrong for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. And she was not a singer. Deanna Durbin at Universal? Wrong for it. Betty Grable at Fox? Good, but also wrong for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Warner Bros didn't have a big female musical star in the 40s. Doris Day would be in place for the 1950s and do her own version of sorts, the original screen musical CALAMITY JANE. MGM had June Allyson, Betty Garrett and Jane Powell. All talented but none quite special enough a star to carry that project with her name above the title. Betty Hutton would be the obvious consideration. In fact, she wanted Paramount to buy the property for her. The studio, however, was outbid by MGM, the Tiffany of studios for Hollywood musicals.

Ethel Merman scored another Broadway triumph in Irving Berlin's ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, the musical that gave her the show biz anthem, "There's No Business Like Show Business." Ethel brought in Broadway audiences. Butt, in the 40s, she wasn't a movie star like Judy Garland or Betty Hutton. Think of Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD (1950). When down on his luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, gets a script pitch meeting with a Paramount producer named Sheldrake. As the broke screenwriter pitches his idea, the producers says "We're always looking for a Betty Hutton. Do you see it as a Betty Hutton?"

Betty Hutton was a star. There was no need to double check by screening THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Also, Hutton would've felt landing the role would be a bit of karmic justice. In 1940, Merman starred in the Cole Porter Broadway musical, PANAMA HATTIE. Betty Hutton was a featured player in it and, reportedly, had two numbers that wowed audiences in pre-Broadway tryouts. Diva Merman had the numbers cut and left Hutton with one number near the end of the last act. Hutton's understudy was June Allyson. When done with PANAMA HATTIE, dejected Hutton headed for Hollywood. Her screen debut in 1942's THE FLEET'S IN was an out of the park home run.

In the 1990s, I worked on a local weekend live news program called WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK on WNBC. One morning, I did a liveshot from the Manhattan site of an upcoming charity event. A socialite involved with it would be my guest to tell viewers about it. She was most gracious when we met before we went on air. Her last name was Clark. As I shook her hand and looked at her, I asked "Were you Merman's best friend? Were you in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN?"
The fact that this Black guy from a local TV news show knew that she was Benay Venuta warmed her up to me even more. She was in the Broadway show and the movie as Dolly.. We did our bit on the air and then I wanted dish about Betty Hutton replacing Garland.

Benay Venuta told me she was at a Hollywood party. Director Charles Walters and production head Dore Schary were discussing the footage Judy had shot up to that point for the movie. Both agreed that she just was not up to her usual performance level and would have to be replaced -- because it was too expensive a project. Benay said, "I called Betty and told her 'If you want it, you'd better start going after it.'" She did.

The property was repackaged for Hutton. She starred in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and it was one of MGM's biggest box office hits of 1950. Also in 1950, she sang and danced with Fred Astaire in the musical comedy, LET'S DANCE. In his autobiography, Astaire cited that movie as one of his personal favorites. Hutton went on to do trapeze acts as the leading lady in De Mille's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1952.

Oh! As for the actor who played Sheldrake in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD., that was actor Fred Clark. He was married to Benay Venuta. Enjoy Betty Hutton in INCENDIARY BLONDE if you have a chance to see it.



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