During the 1940s and early 1950s, Betty Hutton was among the most popular entertainers in Hollywood. She starred in a number of hit films, including “Star Spangled Rhythm” (1943), Preston Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944), and “The Perils of Pauline” (1947). She was also a top-selling vocalist, and her renditions of “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry” and “Orange Colored Sky” were among the top tunes of the 1940s.
But in the 1950s, following her back-to-back triumphs in “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950) and the Oscar-winning “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), Hutton’s career crashed. A reputation for being difficult made her persona non grata with the major studios. Attempts to parlay her film success into television and theater were dismal failures. By the 1960s, Hutton’s career sank to the level where she was headlining in summer stock and making minor appearances on TV westerns. By 1970, she was bankrupt and unemployed. For several years, her whereabouts were unknown, until it was discovered she was working as a cleaning lady in a Roman Catholic rectory in Rhode Island. Yet from that humble station, Hutton was able to regain her self-worth and dignity – and a new career as a college professor! She died in 2007.
Gene Arceri’s new book Rocking Horse: A Personal Biography of Betty Hutton culls a series of interviews that Arceri conducted with Hutton. The book, published by BearManor Media, offers a unique insight into Hutton’s rise and fall and rise.
Film Threat spoke with Arceri from his San Francisco home on Hutton’s career and lingering impact.
Why would today’s moviegoers want to know about Betty Hutton?
To me, Betty Hutton was an anomaly. She sang swing, blues, ragtime, ballads, show tunes, jazz a limitless sound uniquely her very own. Also, she was an engaging performer whose vitality jumped off the screen and seemingly grabbed you to her. Today’s moviegoers want that connection. According to the various Web sites, YouTube, new CD releases, Betty is not just back, she’s here to stay. As contemporary as ever.
What was the genesis of your book?
I had no intention of writing a book about Betty Hutton. It was her idea. We met here in San Francisco, and I did an interview with her on my program for KQED-FM. She was so open and comfortable talking to me about herself it became a intimate conversation, rather than one of those formula question and answer interrogations. She wanted to continue and we did almost daily until she suddenly left town without fanfare. And so many questions remained unanswered.
Betty Hutton hit a career peak in the early 1950’s – but then went downhill and never truly recovered. What went so terribly wrong for her?
True. After flying high with “Annie” and “The Greatest Show” Betty wanted to take complete control of her career with co-pilot, and new husband, Charles O’Curran, and crash landed. She made some bad decisions. Having walked out on her Paramount contract, she was summarily blacklisted. She was on speed, which compounded her recklessness.
Did Betty Hutton deserve the reputation for being difficult?
Yes, she did because she was. She needed a studio, an authoritative figure to help her and guide her. When she had that, like a Buddy De Silva, she stayed on course. On the loose, she was fair game to flattering predators that fed into her inflated ego.
In completing your book, what did you learn about Betty Hutton that you did not realize before?
That she was a middle-aged woman, tired of the rat race. She was being used by sycophants. She was only human, not superwoman, after all. Even Garbo quit after the final curtain came down. Betty had lost her mother, husband, children, material wealth – a fortune – and all material possessions. Her epiphany was in meeting a humble parish priest Her self worth then came from within her spiritual being. Betty June Thornburg was loved – her immortal soul found its way home.
What are your next projects?
I have finished Ghosts of Gone with the Wind. It is not another rehash of the so many books out there. This is memorabilia from the files of Eric G. Stacey, the assistant director on “Gone with the Wind,” that has not seen the light of day in over 50 years. His scrapbook of candid pictures, taken from his personal collection on the set during filming, are a rich exploration of untapped resources. His memories, as documented here, encompass the pre-party shooting commencement at the Selznick Studios to the post-party conclusion of filming. Most important will be the lives of the participants after it was all over.