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.
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?"
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.