Friday, January 29, 2010
The Morning Midway: Betty Hutton Before and After The Greatest Show on Earth
I had known almost nothing about Betty Hutton other than the sweet -- some would say cloyingly sweet -- role she played in Cecil B. De Mille's mega movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. Not until a few nights ago, when TCM aired one of her films, Red, Hot and Blue. Instant discovery! WHAT A FABULOUS TALENT! I'm talking fantastic energetic dancer, VERY funny performer -- two talents that are virtually no where to be found in her De Mille assignment. So, all these many years in my mind I have unfairly typecast her.
And then, after that movie, Betty's career was fast fading. Interviewed in 2000 by Robert Osborn for Turner Classic Movies, and so far far away from the Hutton we knew (impossible to see the old Hutton in this Hutton), she talked from her heart of how horrible she was treated by cast and crew while away from Paramount making Annie Get Your Gun at MGM (I've heard they could treat people with cruel indifference -- think Judy Garland on pills). "They were mean to all their stars."
That experience, she said, killed her love of making movies and was what eventually drove her away from the cameras.
Betty was honest about feeling regretfully alienated from her kids and of finding a saving friend, at last, in a Catholic priest, at one time, down to pennies, working in a kitchen. When she returned to L.A., she hoped to reconnect with her children, and sensed they resented her reaching out; she could identify with aging parents suffering health problems being shunned aside by family members.
This was the same person who brought glamour and vitality to a movie about the American three-ring circus that thrilled millions. who entertained the troupes during World War II, as in this photo to your left.
So strange to understand why the playfully humorous, infectiously fun-loving Betty Hutton we saw in Red Hot and Blue is missing from the Greatest Show on Earth. And so, I had not a clue about her incredibly captivating dance and comedy gifts. Now, fifty years later, she was nearly crying her heart out before TCM cameras, so grateful for the attention she was being paid by Robert Osborn.
Hollywood: it's a heartless place. Betty talked about her campaign to get cast in De Mille's film. She said that she'd heard he was planning to cast a real trapeze artist and teach her to act (that doesn't make sense to me). On her own, Betty had circus people teach her how to work trap tricks. "Oh, Mr. De Mille, please let me try." Answered the director, "Let me see your feet." She removed her shoes and socks. Director looked. Director approved. "Okay, let's talk. What can you do?" A few weeks later, De Mille was watching Hutton amaze him at a circus training location in Los Angeles.
"I don't believe it. I just don't believe that you haven't done this since you were three years old," said De Mille.
"Mr. De Mille, I've done it for a year."
So that's how she got the part.
"Hey, Duffy, off your back and on your toes!"
"He wanted that Oscar so badly. He said, 'Betty, How do I get it?'"
"I said, 'Mr. De Mille, all that stuff you do is corny. But the circus IS corny; don't do anything to it!'"
While Betty was standing on a swinging trap bar filming a scene in Sarasota, De Mille handed his star an award from Photoplay magazine for her performance in Annie Get Your Gun ... the most popular actress of 1950.
"Now, don't fall off! I need you for the rest of the greatest show on earth!"
And they needed her -- until they no longer needed her. Betty Hutton. What a marvelous performer she was. And how touching was her story of finding her way back to a more real world and learning to embrace her dramatically diminished circumstances with gratitude and humility. She died on March 11, 2007.