Betty Hutton: A tribute

(Image: Doctor Macro)
(Image: Doctor Macro)

Elizabeth June Thornburg isn’t a name that most people would recognize, but Betty Hutton certainly is a recognizable name in entertainment.

Born Elizabeth June Thornburg on February 26, 1921, Betty was the daughter of a railroad foreman and his wife, a homemaker. The family lived in Battle Creek, Michigan. (And yes, the fact that she’s a fellow Michigander was a factor in my decision to feature her this week!)

Life wasn’t always wonderful in Battle Creek. Betty’s father left the family when she was only two years old, running away with another woman. It wasn’t until 1939 that they heard of him again – only to find out that he had committed suicide.

Also a problem was the family’s criminal troubles. Betty, who took her mother’s surname of Hutton eventually, got her entertainment start at the age of three… in her family’s Detroit speakeasy, where she would perform with her mother and sister. (Her mother also had a daytime job in one of the city’s auto factories.)

At the age of 13, Betty decided that she wanted more out of life than living in a crowded flat and singing in a speakeasy, so she began singing at a summer resort and joined a band.

Betty went to New York City with Broadway dreams at the age of 15. Unfortunately, the girl couldn’t catch a break: the bright lights and big stages of the city that never sleeps rejected her during her short trip.

She was finally scouted to join a touring band after her failure to crack Broadway. Developing her performance style as her popularity grew, this endeavor eventually led her to finally gain a role in a Broadway revue, and in 1939 she began appearing in musical shorts for Warner Bros.

So Betty got to the Broadway stage and then some. She wound up with a career that spanned the arenas of television, film, radio, music and the stage.

Betty’s hit songs include “The Jitterbug,” “Murder, He Says,” “It Had to Be You” and Perry Como duet “A Bushel and a Peck.” Here’s a wonderful performance of “Murder, He Says” from 1943:

I must admit, though I’m a big fan of Betty’s music, I haven’t seen a ton of her films, so rather than the usual list of favorites that I include in tribute posts, here are a couple of films that are close the top of my “to watch” list in which Betty stars:

Here Come the Waves (1944)
Betty plays a dual role of twin sisters Susan and Rosemary who decide to enlist to sing in a Navy band. Bing Crosby co-stars. This sounds like a fun and cute musical comedy, and I’m already familiar with (and enjoy) some of the songs from it!

Happy Go Lucky (1943)
This musical comedy has Betty playing the supporting role of Bubbles, sidekick to the gold-digging main character Marjory Stuart (Mary Martin). Dick Powell also stars, and I’ve heard some pretty good things about this, so I hope I can get my hands on it somehow.

The Perils of Pauline (1947)This is apparently a biographical film about Pearl White, who starred as Pauline in the 1914 serial that shares a title with this film. I’m always up for a good (or bad) biographical film, and this certainly looks like an interesting one, possibly of the “Let’s set the film 30 years ago but dress the actors in modern clothes” type,  tracking Pearl’s career on stage and screen.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
From director Cecil B. DeMille and co-starring Charlton Heston, The Greatest Show on Earth is one of Betty’s most well-known roles. She plays the role of Holly in this circus drama, which took home statues for Best Picture and Best Writing at the 1953 Oscars.

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2 thoughts on “Betty Hutton: A tribute

  1. Betty was certainly a whirling dervish of activity whom I’ve always found fun to watch but I know some people who think she’s just too much. I can see their point of view, if you’re not in the proper frame of mind she is quite bombastic.

    About a year ago I read her biography “Backstage You Can Have” which was an interesting read. Her childhood was for want of a better word Dickensian and her climb to the top full of hard knocks and some squalid details which Betty was quite honest about. Her time at the top was brief and fueled a good bit by Betty’s poor judgement and even through it’s not explicitly named what appears to be bipolar disorder. It was a sad tale.

    I’ve seen many of her films, none dreadful but some were better than others.

    I really liked Somebody Loves Me-a fictional bio of Blossom Seeley, her last before a foolish temper tantrum and unreasonable demands caused her to walk out on her contract and lead to her fall from grace.,

    Others worth seeking out The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a daffy comedy,

    Let’s Dance, where she’s paired with Fred Astaire-they’re not the most perfectly matched partners since their styles are so different but the film is a pleasant though minor one.

    Annie Get Your Gun-Big and flashy with great songs, but it apparently was hell for her since there was a great resentment towards her stepping in for the ailing Judy Garland.

    The Perils of Pauline-Worthless as biography but it’s one of Betty’s most appealing performances.

    I’ve seen The Greatest Show on Earth and it’s an enjoyable enough picture with all of DeMille’s customary over the top flourishes but it’s utterly ridiculous that it won best picture that year, how it even was nominated is a bit of a wonder let alone won.

    Stork Club and Cross My Heart are also worth checking out. There are two of her films which I’ve always wanted to see but have proved elusive, Incendiary Blonde-yet another biography, this time supposedly about Texas “Hello, Suckers!” Guinan and Spring Reunion-her last feature film, a non musical with Dana Andrews.

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