You can’t get a role with a gun: the story behind “Annie Get Your Gun”

I had always read that “Annie Get Your Gun” was a horrible experience for actress, singer Betty Hutton.

Actors and stage workers were cold towards her, she wasn’t invited to the movie premiere and MGM wasn’t the warm home she found at Paramount.

For years, I read this treatment was attributed to the fact that Betty Hutton quickly stepped in to the role when Judy Garland was unable to make the film. MGM workers resented that someone was kicking their Judy out of a highly coveted musical biography about the sharp shooter Annie Oakley.

Howard Keel, Betty Hutton, Louis Calhern and Keenan Wynn singing “No Business Like Show Business.”

About a month ago, I read and reviewed Betty Hutton’s autobiography “Backstage, You Can Have.” I found that the story about “Annie Get Your Gun” wasn’t as cut and dry as “Judy was kicked out, they were mean to Betty.”  Betty Hutton might have also helped a little in digging her grave.

When the Irving Berlin musical first hit Broadway stages in 1946, Betty knew she wanted to play the part.

 “In May (of 1946), the same month we were finishing up work on “The Perils Of Pauline,” a new musical opened…The show was called “Annie Get Your Gun” and it starred Ethel Merman in the title role. I went to New York to see it, and fell deeply in love with the role of Annie Oakley. This was a part I just had to play in the hotly anticipated movie version” (Hutton 209).

 Betty begged Paramount to buy film rights. Paramount was giving her weak films like “Dream Girl” and she felt that Annie Oakley would have helped bolster her career. However, Arthur Freed at MGM paid Irving Berlin $650,000 for the play and planned on MGM’s top star Judy Garland to play the role.

Judy Garland dressed for the “I’m an Indian Too” number.

“I was heartbroken,” Hutton said. Besides Hutton, Ginger Rogers also campaigned for the role and was told Annie Oakley doesn’t wear silk stockings and high heels.

 However, when MGM began filming “Annie Get Your Gun” it was full of disasters:

•New star Howard Keel fell of his horse and broke his ankle.

•Frank Morgan, playing Colonel Buffalo Bill, had a heart attack and died and was replaced by Louis Calhern

•Busby Berkley started out being the director and was fired and replaced by Charles Walters who was then replaced by George Sidney

•Judy Garland didn’t want to do the movie at all.

 Garland felt that she wasn’t right for the role. The video below shows Judy Garland in a few shots they filmed with her as Annie. She looks unsure and not very well. Judy started not showing up to the set, her contract was suspended.

 Garland was not unhappy that Betty Hutton took her place; in fact she later told Betty Hutton that she did a good job and was pleased that Hutton got the part.

 “Years, later while we (Judy and Betty) were both working in Las Vegas, Judy and I became very good friends. She told me then she had never wanted the picture and it wasn’t right for her. She admitted the part was right for me, and after all was said and done, she was happy I got it” (Hutton 229).

 The problem was how Hutton handled getting the part. She let everyone know how much she had wanted it.

Hutton told the Associated Press, “I’m so excited I can’t sleep. For four years I’ve been trying to do Annie. I haven’t been happy with the pictures I’ve had since Buddy DeSylva left Paramount and I pleaded them to buy it. I really bawled them out when they let MGM get it.”

 Not only did this comment not make Hutton very endearing to MGM players, but also didn’t help her floundering relationship with Paramount. Hutton was already at odds with Paramount as she let fame go to her head. In her autobiography Hutton said she wasn’t as uncaring as the comment made her sound, she was just excited (228).

 After reading Betty Hutton’s autobiography, comments like these are what helped end her career. Hutton said herself that she couldn’t shut up and always put her foot in her mouth with the press. This was certainly one of those times.

 It was difficult for Hutton to come into an unfamiliar studio. She had found a family at Paramount and described MGM as much more formal-cast members addressed her as Miss Hutton rather than Betty.  While Betty may have found this off-puting, I believe this was simply out of respect for her.

Betty Hutton is hilarious in her version of “I’m an Indian Too”

Though MGM was unfamiliar, it didn’t stop Betty from trying to work under her terms.

 Betty admits that it was “probably too much Hutton, too fast.”  She wanted to be applauded when she did something good like she was at Paramount and insisted on having air conditioning on the set (231 Hutton).  I personally, think these are mighty large demands to make for a studio that isn’t your own. I would have been peeved too if I was part of the cast.

 Betty was a force of nature and gave her all in performances. Louis Calhern, who played Colonel Buffalo Bill, told Keel, “She’s upstaging the hell out of you.” Keel brushed it off saying he was new and that the camera would come around to him once in a while, according to Howard Keel’s book “Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business (119). At one point, Betty got upset because she said Keel was upstaging her and they redid the scene 35 times until it was how she liked it.

 Regardless though, Howard Keel said he thought Betty Hutton was sweet and they got along okay. He admitted however, that the rest of the cast wasn’t happy with her.

 However, Hutton apparently thought differently and was also sort of bratty in her recount of the situation:

 “Here he was in his very first film role. Was this greenhorn attempting to call the shots? ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ is Annie’s story, not that of Howard Keel’s character, Frank Butler. If the story had been reversed, I would have gladly handed Howard the burdensome responsibility of carrying the film as I had. Keel Proved to be my primary adversary during the shooting of the film. There was much bad blood between us” (Hutton 232).

 It’s funny that Hutton’s most memorable role was one of her unhappiest experiences as a film star. Though, as much as I love her, I think some of the unhappiness was caused by Betty.

 After “Annie Get Your Gun,” Hutton made three more feature films and a handful of television appearances. Her difficult behavior and use of pills ended her career.

 It’s almost ironic how Hutton’s career ended for one of the main reasons Judy Garland was fired from the film: pills. Unfortunately, while Judy was still revered and loved at the time of her death in 1968, Hutton was largely forgotten by the early 1960s.

Addendum: Comet Over Hollywood has received a large number of search results on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, asking who dubbed Betty Hutton in “Annie Get Your Gun.” I want to share that Miss Hutton did her own singing and was never dubbed in any of her films. Hutton was a singer who got her start as a singer for Vincent Lopez’s orchestra. 

Sources:

“Backstage, You Can Have: My Own Story” by Betty Hutton

“Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business” by Howard Keel

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page  or follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet.

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12 thoughts on “You can’t get a role with a gun: the story behind “Annie Get Your Gun”

  1. ALTHOUGH I AGREE HUTTON WAS A BETTER CHOICE FOR ANNIE, IF YOU GET A CHANCE TO HEAR GARLAND’S RECORDINGS FOR THE MOVIE, YOU WILL REALIZE SHE HANDLED THE SCORE MUCH BETTER THEN HUTTON. BUT MGM DID NOT TREAT GARLAND ALL THAT MUCH BETTER THEN HUTTON, BECAUSE AFTER A SHORT REST, SHE WAS PUT INTO “SUMMER STOCK”. THEN GIVEN ANOTHER “SHORT” REST, SHE WAS SLATED FOR “ROYAL WEDDING”…..TOO SOON….THEN WHEN SHE BEGAN MISSING HER SHOOTS, THEY FIRED HER….VERY COLD……CONSIDERING HOW MUCH MONEY SHE HAD MADE FOR MGM…..

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    • Judy was certainly a wonderful performer. Its unfortunate that they loved and appreciated her as she made money for MGM while they drugged her up. Once the drugs got to be too much they discarded her. Very sad and unfair, but I guess that’s show business.

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    • I have had the chance to listen to Garland’s versions of the songs on the Annie soundtrack. She does a great job, its just hard to get used after hearing Betty. They have SUCH different singing styles. Garland definitely wasn’t given the help or respect she deserved.

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  2. Super-interesting post!

    I’m not a big fan of Betty Hutton, although, I guess this would be my favorite role of hers. That’s mainly because I ADORE Annie Get Your Gun! I would have probably preferred Judy in the role, but Betty did well enough.

    This post was great because I liked hearing both sides of the story.

    I agree that she probably more excited than trying to be mean to the press, but what was up with that really catty remark about Howard Keel in her autobiography?

    It’s nice to know that he still responded kindly to her in his book (published later).

    And really?! Upstaging her?! If he had a big scene or song — he did it (and awesomely), but in her scenes he really just stayed in the background! It’s quite odd. haha

    Sorry about the random, rambling comment! This was a super-interesting post!

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    • I agree, I thought the remark about Howard Keel was super catty. Even bigger actors sometimes try to help out others. I know Bette Davis gave Mary Astor alot of tips in The Great Lie.
      I think if it had been earlier in Judy’s career she would’ve done really well, but this was just a bad time for her. I also don’t think Doris Day or Ginger Rogers would have been too bad in the part either, even Keel said Doris would’ve been great after working with her on Calamity Jane.
      I’m glad you thought it was interesting and I didn’t think your comment was rambling 🙂 I love to hear others reactions!

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  3. Enjoyed your informative post – it’s interesting to tangle out the reality of backstage relationships from what’s said in star bios (which sometimes can be a bit self-serving, to say the least). Hutton can be a bit off-putting in the way she blasts off the screen,but I love Howard Keel, and it seems that he handled the film, his part, and Betty like a real pro.

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    • It is interesting, but sometimes disappointing, to read about what goes on behind the scenes of films. In my head, I like to think they all get along as well as they do on screen, haha but then they are only human beings 🙂
      It’s also crazy to read the “he said-she said” stuff in different biographies.
      I like Betty, but I had to groan at some of her remarks in her autobiography. Keel seemed like a big ladies man in real life, but he was one heck of a performer.

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  4. INTERESTING HOW THIS “ANNIE” BLOG BRINGS UP SO MUCH NTEREST….YOU CAN GET SOME OF JUDY’S CLIPS FROM THE MOVIE ON YOU TUBE……HAD A CHANCE TO WATCH “ANNIE” AGAIN YESTERDAY ON TCM, AND SAW NO UPSTAGING BY KEEL….CONSIDERING THIS WAS HIS FIRST MAJOR MOVIE AND HE HAD TO WORK WITH TWO TEMPERMENTAL LEADING LADIES, I THINK HE DID A GREAT JOB…..

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  5. Upstaging literally means that one actor moves upstage (to the back of the stage), forcing the other actor to turn his face and body away from the audience. On film, it means moving back in the shot, or doing something else to force the other actor to turn away from the camera. Eleanor Parker said that Glenn Ford did this to her a lot on Interrupted Melody, for example. This is probably what Calhern was referring to when he told Keel that Hutton was upstaging him.

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