Monday, March 19, 2007

"You Can't Get a Man With a Gun"

As the years tick-tock on, cinema aficionados (or film buffs, whichever nomenclature appeals more to yer inner snob), by the mere nature of the game of staying awake in the dark, gain increasing awareness about directors, genres, actors and the like that heretofore seemed uninteresting, boring, or squarer than your grandma's ass. In other words, ya can't just stick with the Brandos and DeNiros, the Hitchcocks and Fords,or westerns, film noir, and French new wave. For me, the movie musical has always been a tough pill to swallow, as a kid I thought they were cheesy and too artificial, as a hipster film student I thought they bordered on the effeminate and were far too devoid of rock and roll, as an aging baby boomer I've learned to dip my toe in the sparkling water fountains and under the blazing spotlights of the crayon-colored back lot settings of the grand ol' movie musical, and yep; I've grown up and learned to enjoy and admire that which is such a quintessential American spectacle.
All of this comes to mind because of the recent passing of Betty Hutton (1921-2007). Betty, born Elizabeth June Thronberg in Michigan, started performing in her Ma's speakeasy in her pre-teens, sang in Vincent Lopez's big band, hit the Broadway stage, and found her way to Hollywood, making some 20 features from 1942 through 1957. Hutton was a unique talent, a brassy, wholesome but sexy girl-next-door,with a bullhorn of a voice and loose-limbed dance moves that could rival Cab Calloway, and she could also sell a ballad,forging a decent recording career with RCA and Capitol. She basically turned her back on Hollywood in the late fifties, and somehow wound up in the kitchen of some Portsmouth, RI Catholic rectory during the 60's, and even earned a degree and taught at Salve Regina. She was classified by the powers-that-be as "difficult", and before finding God, admitted to some problems with pills and booze. Her screen presence was thoroughly unique--- Doris Day on speed, or a Debbie Reynolds as a guttersnipe, and she was a huge box office star during her brief heyday. She is near perfect, and eternally hilarious, as the virgin-who's-not-a-virgin in Preston Sturges's classic The Miracle of Morgan's Creek ('44)(one of her few non-musicals), and equally memorable as the pistol-packing mama in Annie Get Your Gun ('50), a movie in which she replaced her similarly "difficult" movie musical sister Judy Garland,and manages to equal (or even surpass) the infamous original performance of Ethel Merman in the stage production. She also did strong, memorable work in Incendiary Blonde ('45), Perils of Pauline ('47)and as the trapeze artist (a straight role) in The Greatest Show on Earth('52). I personally really dig her comedic moves as Jerry Lewis's on-screen galfriend, in a sort of guest-starring role, in the Martin and Lewis concoction Sailor Beware ('51), where she is humorously billed as Hetty Button, signifying the fact that audiences everywhere would immediately know her. Bob Hope described her as a "vitamin pill with legs" and her movie image and persona--long gams, farmer's daughter-with-a-flask-in-her-pocket looks, wackyjack dancing, belt-it-out singing and spitfire comic stylings have never really gotten the credit they deserve.If TCM reruns her interview with Robert Osborn in his Private Screenings series make sure to watch.

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