Betty Hutton isn't just another funny face, even though she makes lots of them, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says.
"I worked out of desperation. I used to hit fast and run in hopes that people wouldn't realize that I really couldn't do anything."—Betty Hutton
Because her movie career was short-lived, thanks to contract troubles with Paramount, many movie buffs might have forgotten Betty Hutton. The operative words there are "might have," because every once in a while you'll read about her performances in a few well-remembered movies such as Trudy Kockenlocker in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek or Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. With that in mind, it's probably a good idea for a movie buff who hasn't seen everything yet to take a look at a Betty Hutton movie or two.
Facts of the Case
This double-feature DVD features one of those Betty Hutton movies that I'd long heard about but never seen, The Perils of Pauline, plus a bonus, The Stork Club.
The Perils of Pauline
That introduction scrolls on the screen after a brief scene of cliffhanger perils, then sends us to someplace even more horrible—the Metropolitan Garment Co., where our heroine Pearl White (Betty Hutton) sews rhythmically to musical accompaniment.
"So you like music, eh? Maybe you should work in a phonograph store," the boss chides her. Pearl retaliates—and shows her acting ability—by mimicking him after he leaves. When he walks back in, he docks everyone half a day's pay.
Her big break comes that night when she delivers a costume to a theater, where they're running late and send Pearl out on stage to fill time until the players are ready. She's greeted with tomatoes and answers the crowd back brashly, winning them over with a song. You'll feel like you've stumbled into Anachronism Theater, because it's definitely got the 1940s swing sound and Pearl White hailed from the silent era, but you'll have to admit she's got good pipes. Pearl gets a job with the touring players, but they don't cough up the $98 to pay her boss for the costume.
Wouldn't you know it? Pearl's first job with the theater company turns out to be mending and ironing, which she does while practicing her Shakespearean elocution. Her first role in a play garners laughs from the audience, mainly because of the way she unintentionally knocks over a lamp with her waving hands, and sharp words from Mike Farrington (John Lund, The Wackiest Ship in the Army), the company's leader. Friends Timmy (Billy De Wolfe, The Doris Day Show) and Julia (Constance Collier, Rope) are more supportive.
Eventually, even though a kissing scene shows everybody but Farrington that Pearl's fond of him, she departs the company and soon finds herself inquiring about a job in flickers. Pearl makes a shambles of her first day in the studio, of course. Seeing fellow Farrington refugee Julia humiliated in a pie-in-the-face scene during a screen test, Pearl lobs a custard at the director (William Demarest, My Three Sons), then stalks off with Julia in tow. This scene, in which Pearl and Julia unknowingly wander through the sets of other movies as the cameras are rolling, is a riot—and one you've seen parodied elsewhere, I'm sure. The director's impressed; he hires her.
The Stork Club
Even though it doesn't have much to do with the Stork Club, the New York nightclub was believed to have ponied up money for this movie, at least according to the blurb on the DVD case. Goodwin's old-softy Sherman is a font of trivia about the Stork Club, delivered with the same pitchman style you saw in his Carnation evaporated milk spots on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.
Judy Peabody (Betty Hutton) is out for a swim when she rescues a drowning man (Barry Fitzgerald, And Then There Were None). She takes him for a vagabond but—gosh, darn, wouldn't you know it?—he's filthy rich. He wants to do something to help Judy out. At first, his lawyer (Robert Benchley, How to Sleep) is dubious, but he sends Judy a letter extending her credit from an anonymous benefactor. "You have been most accommodating," the letter says, creating lots of opportunities for misunderstanding. Wouldn't you know it?
Lots more chances for misunderstanding arise when Judy's beau Danny (Don DeFore, Hazel) arrives, back from a stint in the Marines to pursue a career as a bandleader. When he hears about her new digs at the York Towers, he's worried. You know that his "That's a very nifty dress you've got on" when he sees her new look isn't a compliment. Danny's trying to get a job at the Stork Club, but he's suspicious of Sherman, who has a nasty habit of putting his arm around Judy paternally every time they leave his office together—with Danny perpetually waiting just outside.
Betty Hutton plays both roles broadly with an "aw, shucks" quality of naïveté combined with spunky determination. Her many musical numbers are comical, delivered with a rubber face full of expression and a mock-klutzy style of moving her arms and body. When she sings the line "Anyone want to fight?" in Stork Club, the beautiful Betty we saw a moment before is gone and her contorted face looks like that of a real bruiser. Hutton's funny faces are used to best effect in the denouement of Stork Club, revealing her slyness as she's pulling strings in an attempt to untie some tangled plot knots.
The supporting performances are generally competent, intentionally broad, and unmemorable, sort of like Don DeFore's barely remembered years on Hazel or Bill Goodwin's Carnation pitches. The best include William Demarest's George McGuire in Pauline, whose only response to the declaration of American involvement in World War I is "Everything happens to me," since he has to rewrite scenes on short notice, and Barry Fitzgerald's Pops in Stork Club, who reacts with initial indignation at the slights inflicted on him as a tramp, but shows with his shifting facial expressions that he's inwardly enjoying the situation. His part's too small to register, but you'll notice that Laurel and Hardy sidekick James Finlayson makes a brief appearance as a pie-throwing chef in Perils of Pauline.
The picture quality on these two movies isn't great. The Technicolor in Perils of Pauline appears washed out and overly bright. The black-and-white picture in Stork Club is often too dark, meaning that guys in tuxes fade into the background. You'll also see lines on the screen and the circles that indicate reel changes. I noticed a hiccup or glitch in the soundtrack of Pauline, but the sound was otherwise adequate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While entertaining, Perils of Pauline generally shapes Pearl White's life into a typical Betty Hutton musical vehicle, providing little for anyone actually interested in the actual life of the serial heroine. It also depicts ethnic stereotypes portrayed in theater and films early in the 20th century.
Both of these movies are likeable with broad comic strokes that show off Betty Hutton's timing and style. Her working-girl hijinks are a bit more obvious than, say, an Alice Faye would be in similar roles, but it's Hutton's way of making roles her own. You'll find more about Betty Hutton at IMDb and at Slipcue, with a link accompanying this review.
Because the movies give you a glimpse of Betty Hutton's comic virtuosity, I'll find them not guilty, though VCI might have found better prints in both cases. It's definitely worth a look if you spot this in a sale bin.
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