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 off 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. 


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

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

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There’s No Business Like Show Business: book review of Betty Hutton’s autobiography

The zany Betty Hutton we love performing her role as Trudy Kockenlocker in “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944) dragging William Demarest.

Bob Hope called her a “Vitamin pill with legs.”

Betty Hutton was one of the top stars at Paramount studios from the 1940s until the early 1950s. She was famous for her boundless energy and shouting style of singing.

“They all knew Betty didn’t just get up and sing a song,” she said in her autobiography. “I sang, I danced, and I climbed the walls. The only thing they didn’t know is how far I’d carry it once I got up there.”

She worked hard to climb to stardom and her fame rose quickly. However, it fell just as fast.  Hutton was only in 20 movies from 1942 to 1957.

Hutton’s autobiography published in 2009.

Hutton describes this rise and fall in her autobiography Backstage, You Can Have: My Own Story, a book that was published posthumously in 2009, two years after her death in 2007.

The autobiography covers Betty’s unconventional childhood with her bootlegging mother in Lansing, Michigan and her rise to fame as the energetic girl singer for Vincent Lopez’s jazz band.  Hutton’s career jump started on Broadway with the second female lead in “Panama Hattie” starring Ethel Merman. Her Broadway career was brief though. Hutton was frustrated when Merman cut some of her show stopping songs, and was promised by songwriter Buddy DeSylva that he would make her a Paramount star. He stayed true to his words.

Hutton starred in several successful yet forgotten films, but she is best remembered for her roles in “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950) and “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1954). Unfortunately, when Hutton was at the top, she was also nearing the end-about to fall off her stardom pedestal. In the early 1950s, Hutton frustrated the press; upset the Paramount bosses and got involved in pills, all of which contributed to the end of a promising career.

“It was somewhere around the time we were shooting the film in Florida, that I took my first pill,” Hutton said. “I had just dissolved my marriage with Teddy. That coupled with the stress of working on the movie (Greatest Show on Earth), was getting to me. In addition, I was not at the weight I wished I had for the film. I don’t remember how I came upon my first Dexamil, but it was in Miami, and I took it to increase my energy level and reduce my desire to eat.”

By the 1960s, Hutton’s life as a movie star was long gone. She filed for bankruptcy, her daughters moved out and her pill addiction worsened.

“One morning I packed what I had left in the way of personal belongings in a paper bag, and headed out the door of my hotel room for the final time,” Hutton said.  “My room rent was already way overdue, and I had no means of raising the necessary money to pay the bill.”

This scene is the last we hear from Miss Hutton. She writes a note to the readers saying she is not sure if she wants to continue writing the book. Writing the book proved to be happy and painful, she said.

The rest of the book is written by Carl Bruno, who helped care for Betty off and on from the early 1970s until her death in 2007. Bruno’s partner was a Lutheran minister, Gene Arnaiz, who tried to help Hutton and allowed her to live with them in California. From 1974 until 1996, Hutton lived either in Rhode Island with Catholic priest, Father Maguire, or in California with Carl and Gene.

“Father was a Godly man, but he was a mortal all the same,” Bruno said. “There were times when Betty became too much for him…When Father felt it necessary, he would ship Betty back to the boys in California…Likewise, Carl and Gene would tire of her after a time, and back she would go to her austere lifestyle in the Rhode Island rectory.”

Betty Hutton died in 2007 in California of colon cancer while living with Carl Bruno and Michael Mayer.

My thoughts on the book:

Doing her own trapeze stunts in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1954), Betty’s last big film role.

What you see on the screen seems to be what you get with Betty Hutton. She had the same fiery, go get ‘em, energetic outlook when she talks about her career as her characters had in her films.  As Betty described her childhood, as she was fighting for her family and trying to make her way into show business, you wanted to fight along with her. I would put down the book and feel like I could face anything; Betty’s attitude is that infectious.

This autobiography is entertaining but depressing at the same time. At one point Hutton had me crying as she talked about visiting the boys overseas during World War II, and then laughing a few sentences later with the line, “We all know it’s common knowledge that movie stars don’t poop.”

Sometimes while reading I got frustrated with Betty. It was like watching a movie saying, “Oh no, don’t do that.” Quotes she said to newspapers, difficulty she gave the Paramount studio heads and the use of pills were painful to read about. I think the biggest thing that upset me in the book is when she turned down the role of Ado Annie in “Oklahoma” to do the TV spectacular “Satins and Spurs.” She later regretted turning down the role when she saw Rogers and Hammerstein were personally overseeing the film. I think that really could have jumpstarted her career. I also feel if pills hadn’t been in the picture, things would have been very different for Betty Hutton.

I have always heard about Betty’s bad relationship with her children and how they disowned her but that didn’t come up a lot in the book. Though she loved her children, Betty said she never should have tried to maintain both a career and her family.

I still enjoyed the book once Betty stopped writing and the remainder of her story was filled in by Bruno and Mayer, but I was a bit disappointed. I knew Father Maguire and the Catholic faith meant a lot to Betty and I was hoping to hear more about it in her own words rather than it being skimmed over that she lived with him.

Betty teaching daughter Lindsay how to swim in 1947.

Bruno and Mayer seemed to care about Betty, but some of the things they wrote seemed more “Oh woe is us; we had to put up with so much.” True, they did, but the book wasn’t about their trials it was about Betty. I also felt like they added a lot of asinine details that weren’t needed and could be potentially embarrassing for Betty. For an example, there was a brief anecdote about Betty goofing off in a long red wig and falling and breaking her glasses or that morphine made Betty throw up at the hospital. Neither story added anything to the story nor was there a point.

The book did clear up one thing that confused me during the time of Betty’s death in 2007. I remember when I saw Betty had died on Turner Classic Movies’ website; I looked around on the internet to find more news sources about it but could find nothing. Apparently, it was Betty’s wish not to tell the press about her death until she was buried. She thought that reporters would be hounding her until her death.

When Betty died, Bruno called family, friends and Robert Osborne, who Betty respected. The TCM website put up that Betty had died and their schedule change to honor her. The press and fans wanted confirmation of Betty’s death. Bruno and Mayer seemed miffed at TCM for this, but I wonder if they made Betty’s wishes clear. I feel like if they had, Osborne wouldn’t have put anything on the website.

Overall, the book was very good, but be prepared to feel hyped up at the beginning and pretty low at the end. Betty Hutton was one of the most energetic, talented film stars we know. It’s a shame that her life took such a turn.

Hutton, Betty, Carl Bruno, Michael Mayer. Backstage, You Can Have. Betty Hutton Estate: 2009.

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