Friday 26 February 2021

Incendiary Blonde (1945)

Director: George Marshall
Writers: Claude Binyon and Frank Butler
Stars: Betty Hutton and Arturo de Cordova

Index: 2021 Centennials.

After Klondike Kate turned out to be such a wildly inaccurate biopic that it was a precious detail indeed that came close to the truth, I probably ought to have sworn off Hollywood biopics for quite a while. But here I am with another one, after only a week, because 26th February would have been the one hundredth birthday of Betty Hutton and I couldn’t track down the film I wanted to explore anywhere. That was Cross My Heart, a comedy musical remake of the Carole Lombard movie, True Confession, in which she confesses to a murder that she didn’t commit so that her lawyer husband can secure her acquittal in court and so build a stellar reputation. It kinda sorta worked with Lombard because I could believe her as a sympathetic pathological liar, but Hutton? I was eager to find out if she would be able to carry it, but it’s a Paramount film from 1946 that was sold to Universal in a job lot of 700 for TV distribution and legal issues prevented it from being shown with the others. It seems like those issues may finally be solved, so fingers crossed.

But it’s Betty Hutton’s centennial today and so I plumped for Incendiary Blonde, as it’s another musical comedy in which she has the lead, playing a fictionalised version of Texas Guinan, a fascinating character from the early decades of the previous century. What’s important to note here is that we’re often not entirely sure what’s true and what isn’t from her life, because she made so much of it up out of thin air, so this Hollywood biopic could do the same and we might not be able to tell the difference. Yes, a lot of things got changed, but it’s not particularly important in the grand scheme of things and much of the sweep of the story resembles the truth. At least they got her name right! She really was known as Texas Guinan, for much of her time in the spotlight, and she did claim for years that it was her real name, though she was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan instead, in 1884 in Waco, Texas. When she died in 1933, she was known as “the queen of the nightclubs”. There were 7,500 people at her funeral and a biopic was inevitable.

For no apparent reason, it’s told in flashback, because we start in 1933, with everyone including the cops talking about her amidst a teeming mass of people. “Even her funeral’s a sellout,” one tells the other. And Old Man Guinan, who has the unmistakable voice of Barry Fitzgerald, starts to reminisce to Tim Callahan about how she left home with only a toothbrush and into the flashback we go. Everything else unfolds chronologically and it all begins in 1909 at the Big Rodeo Fair Grounds in an unnamed Texan town that we can only assume is Waco, where we’re about to experience the first musical number. Texas watches the parade until she slides her way under a hitching rail to start her own and suddenly there’s a crowd following her down the street while she sings, dances and even surreptitiously steals a cowboy’s gun to fire into the air. It’s jolly and it’s fun and... uhoh, dad stops her. “You’re not going on the circuit!” he tells her. He has plans for his little girl, who isn’t as little as he thinks she is, and that’s finishing school and a future.

Dad’s Mike Guinan and he’s an Irish immigrant who honestly wants to provide the best for his family but gets himself too caught up with wacky get rich quick schemes to actually do that. While Texas is singing and dancing in the street, he’s in the bar buying up all the potatoes in Texas with money borrowed against a livery stable. That night, the freeze hits and we know all the potatoes will die. Realistically, any future the family has is going to rest on Texas’s capable shoulders, because as unpolished as she is, she’s a capable girl indeed. We find that out at Cherokee Jim’s Wild West Show out at the fair grounds. They offer $50 to anyone who can stay on a horse called Diablo for eight seconds. “Mum, I’ll be back in a minute,” she says and it’s soon her turn. She falls off just like the local legend before her, but creates a stink as it was all a con—the saddle’s cinch was loose—so manipulates her way into a second try and wins both the $50 and a job, working for Bill Kilgannon, who recently won the show from Cherokee Jim in a poker game.

Betty Hutton is a dynamo on legs here. She plays Texas as roughly as the vaudeville performer she would become and it takes some getting used to. Even that song and dance routine wasn’t remotely polished, but it was believable as a girl from the sticks who knew how to get noticed doing exactly that for us to see. I adjusted in the end, because what begins obnoxious and brash becomes vibrant and grounded. She’ll never be the lady that her dad thinks she needs to be in order to succeed, but she’ll succeed beyond his wildest dreams anyway, through talent, perseverance and the right publicity. And here I’ll point out that the characters that we’re about to meet mostly didn’t exist, except as individual aspects of Texas Guinan herself, as it was mostly her talent, her perseverance and her mind for publicity that took her places. Kilgannon, the one and only love of her life in this film, didn’t exist and, most importantly, Tim Callahan, a journalist turned publicity agent, didn’t exist either. Whatever he’s credited for here was probably really Texas.

To be fair, the script does credit her with some savvy. There’s a fantastic scene early on where Kilgannon asks her out to dinner, as he’s about to upgrade her to the star of Cherokee Jim’s. She says she doesn’t have a dress, so he says he doesn’t care what she wears and she snaps at him: “Whatever made you think that women dress for men?” It’s a notably feminist moment for what may be 1910 and it speaks volumes. Texas isn’t really striking a blow for womankind, not deliberately at least. She’s just her own person and she won’t stand for anyone else on the planet taking that away from her, whether deliberately or through some typical demonstration of male privilege. She cheers and stomps like a kid while a singer performs at the restaurant but she’s all business when it matters. “I’m a star now,” she tells Kilgannon. “You’ll have to double my money.” And she wants everything in writing and signed. She does well on the road with the Wild West Show and she sends a lot of money home to pay for those frozen potatoes.

But, if there’s a constant in the life of Texas Guinan, it’s change, and she won’t be with the show for long. Incendiary Blonde takes her to all the critical places that it should and in the right order too, even if the reasons and the details are made up out of whole cloth. As far as I can tell, the love of her life didn’t run Cherokee Jim’s, he wasn’t married to a sanitarium patient and he didn’t keep that a secret from her when he rejects her advances so that she’d leave for Broadway with Tim Callahan and achieve her dreams, though, sniff, he secretly loves her too. But the real Texas Guinan did leave, she did travel to Broadway and she did rise up the credits from chorus girl to star in only a year. This sort of factually wrong but essentially right approach continues throughout. She didn’t really skip out on her Broadway contract to go to Hollywood because Cherokee Jim showed up and filled her in on Kilgannon’s wife, now deceased and that he was now running a studio. But she did leave, she did go to Hollywood and she did act in a bunch of movies.

I hadn’t seen any of these until I took a look at a couple on YouTube and, because they are silent films, most of them are considered lost today. We’re not even sure of how many she made, but there were certainly a lot of them in a short time. IMDb lists thirty-nine shorts and eight features between 1917 and 1921 and only a few still survive. What I can see from pictures like The Girl of the Rancho and The White Squaw, titles that wear their genre on their sleeves, is that she was neither a notable actress nor a great screen beauty but she was a natural and effortless rider who delivered the goods week in week out, sometimes literally, given how these films got churned out. I’d like to have learned more about these silent movies in this biopic but we’re off again. She doesn’t leave Hollywood because her father would have gone to jail, Kilgannon took the rap for him and then skipped town, all because, sniff, he didn’t want her caught up in the shenanigans. But she did leave, she did go to New York and she did find her way into nightclubs.

Of course, this is what Texas Guinan was best known for, so it makes sense that the biopic about her life would focus most closely in this period, but there isn’t time to do it justice and, sadly, it’s where Hutton does best. A different feature that took a different path through Guinan’s life would have concentrated on the true shenanigans that she got up to during Prohibition, and that would have served Hutton really well. Unfortunately, that’s not what this is. This has her stumble into it, through Guinan telling Nick the Greek that she’ll save his his empty restaurant, losing to the competition of speakeasies, by throwing a going away party there for gossip queen Louella Parsons. Only after it’s packed does she stand up and tell everyone that it’ll cost them $25 a plate because she won’t pay for any of it. “Hello suckers!” she cries and a catchphrase is born. I liked these scenes in the club, which she soon takes over as a performer personality if not as the owner, at least once gangster Joe Cadden strolls in and decides it’s his.

The script doesn’t do justice to what Guinan achieved here. It depicts her as being a savvy businesswoman who can use her name to build an unusual brand, one in which she pretends to gouge everyone but really treats them with a personal touch, performing the musical numbers we expect at the same time. I preferred these routines by far to the ones on Broadway with outrageous costumes and lavish sets. And not all of them are her. At one point she bumps into a waiter and has him play the piano. And it turns out to be absolutely stunning because this faceless waiter is Maurice Rocco, playing himself performing Darktown Strutters Ball in memorable fashion. His performance blew me away, playing honky tonk with one hand, tapping rhythm on the top of the piano with the other and tap dancing all the while. If that’s what went down at Texas Guinan’s place, I’d have been there watching! In reality, I probably couldn’t have afforded it. She drew the rich folk, took half the profits and, when she got shut down, opened somewhere else.

This film doesn’t cover all that, because it’s spinning a melodrama about Texas and Kilgannon that eventually finds a happy ending through comedy, just in time for it to all go horribly wrong. We know it’s going to end with Texas’s funeral because that’s where we came in and she had foretold all along that she would die young at the height of her success. Betty Hutton, on the other hand, came apart at the height of hers. It was 1950 and she was a big hit in Annie Get Your Gun, which could have included early Wild West Show scenes from this movie. However, behind the scenes, she felt mistreated by the cast and crew, who perhaps resented her replacing Judy Garland, who stepped away because of exhaustion. Also, her manager, Buddy De Sylva, who had guided her career from early years on Broadway through her success at Paramount, died of a stroke. She made two more pictures there and left, making just one further indie film in 1957, Spring Reunion, which wasn’t a success. Her big screen career was over, just like that.

What surprises me the most is that nobody’s ever adapted her life into a biopic of its own, because it feels like it’s ripe for that. The odd thing is that, just as Ann Savage’s life had many similarities to that of Klondike Kate, whom she played on screen, Betty Hutton had surprising similarities to Texas Guinan. Neither actress was playing herself, but both had to be aware of the many coincidences. For instance, like Guinan, Hutton felt the need to succeed for her family’s sake as much as her own, striking out early and doing the necessary. She was born Elizabeth June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Michigan, to Percy Thornburg, who abandoned the family when she was only two, and Mabel Lum, an alcoholic who ran a speakeasy. Guinan finished her career in speakeasies but Betty began hers there, alongside her mother and elder sister, Marion. Her earliest memory was breaking into song at the age of three to distract the drunk who was threatening her mother at the Blind Pig. Of course, they moved often, to keep ahead of the attentions of the police.

Like Guinan, she succeeded at whatever she put her hand to, whether it be the shows she stole on Broadway, like Panama Hattie, in which her musical numbers were reduced from three to two as she was, unsurprisingly for those who have seen her films, “always in overdrive”; the Hollywood shorts that led to a nickname of “America’s No. 1 Jitterbug” or the singles she released as a recording artist, like Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, a Hoagy Carmichael composition that led her to number one in the charts in 1945. Most of all, she succeeded as an actress and quickly too. Her first film, The Fleet’s In, brought her good notices and she built on them but it was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek that made her famous. Made in 1942, it didn’t see release until 1944 because of problems with the Hays Office, but she was perfectly cast as dopey Trudy Kockenlocker, who wakes up both married and pregnant a day after a grand send-off party for troops on their way to war, and it was a huge hit, the highest grossing Paramount film of that year.

Somehow Hutton managed to build her rougher, this goes to eleven, exuberant performing style into an abundance of features that often end up, in wildly different combinations, among the favourites of classic film fans. Because of its inherent connection to silent cinema, I’m rather fond of The Perils of Pauline, like Incendiary Blonde a very loose George Marshall-directed biopic, this time of Pearl White, the Queen of the Serials; her song from it, I Wish I Didn’t Love You So, was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, from the now self-suppressed Disney movie, Song of the South. Many appreciate Let’s Dance, in which she was billed above even Fred Astaire, and, of course, there’s Annie Get Your Gun, one of the timeless musicals of the era, which coincidentally had also been taken away from the public, withdrawn from distribution because of a rights issue over the music between MGM and Irving Berlin, which meant that it was unseen by the public for half a century.

Betty Hutton’s rise to fame was very quick but she fell back to ground just as fast. She moved back to Broadway and to television, a dedicated show, The Betty Hutton Show, surviving only thirty episodes. She married and divorced four times, each husband walking down the aisle very soon after the last one had signed his papers. Her three children were born in three different countries and she was often estranged from them. By the time her mother died in a fire in 1967, Hutton was bankrupt, her ten million dollar fortune gone, and she found herself on the streets. She lost her singing voice and attempted suicide. She gradually recovered enough to be able to perform Annie Get Your Gun in dinner theatre, but one night collapsed on stage, her addiction to prescription drugs leading her into rehab, where she “weighed only 85 pounds and looked more dead than alive.” But there she met Fr. Peter McGuire, pastor at St. Anthony’s in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and she spent five years working as a cook at his rectory and slowly recovering.

That was in the early seventies but she lived until 2007, her life very different. She returned to show business on her own terms, a two week run in Annie on Broadway in 1980 attended by her grandchildren. She performed at the 40th anniversary tribute show to Capitol Records, for whom she’d had eleven top forty hits. She pursued other activities too. She had never finished high school, as she’d left early to sing for her family’s living, but she caught up under Fr. Maguire and even went to college, graduating from Salve Regina in 1986 with a masters in liberal studies but staying on campus to teach drama. Now comfortable with who she was, maybe for the first time in her life, she did what she wanted to do as an octogenerian, even recording a memorable interview with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies in 2000. She died in Palm Springs at the age of 86 and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet made an attempt at a Hollywood biopic. She made a lot of them in her brief screen career. She deserves one of her own.

Betty Hutton’s Miraculous Recovery by Mary Claire Kendall at Forbes.

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