John Barrymore: A Lesson For Topaze

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Twilight closing in. John Barrymore

While there would be sporadic moments of genius, the year 1933 would in essence mark the last great period in film for John Sidney Blyth better known as John Barrymore.

This once larger than life talent would ultimately lose the battle against the many demons (chief among them alcoholism) that haunted him from an early age.

His latter day performances are not always for the squeamish.

For every film such as the Howard Hawks classic Twentieth Century with the up and coming Carol Lombard there was Spawn of the North or Hold That Coed.

Even when he did get the occasional solid film like Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer, the erosion of his talent is on painful display.

Self parody became the order of the day and more often than not Hollywood obliged him casting Barrymore as the drunken has been.  No way to treat a man once hailed as the “greatest living American tragedian” but unfortunately Barrymore was his own producer in this sad real life melodrama.

But 1933 showed this great artist was not yet ready to bring the curtain down on his own brilliance.  In fact it capped a remarkable run in Barrymore’s career.

From Grand Hotel as the ill-fated jewel thief falling in love with Greta Garbo to Counselor at Law as a high powered lawyer fighting for justice but far from perfect himself, Barrymore with his great voice and incredible acting chops was well within his element during this period of his career.

With Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932)

One of his minor gems around from 1933 was the role of a man who gets a hard lesson in real world corruption.

Topaze is the story of a naive school teacher who by and large has been isolated from the outside world.

Barrymore as Topaze has always prided himself on honesty, strong principles and a passion for nurturing young minds. His reputation is sterling, no one can question that.

Yet it is that strict adherence to principle that gets him in trouble. A Baroness shows up at the school to complain about the failing grade Topaze has given to her son.

The kid deserves it of course but that’s not the answer she wants to here. The dean of the school played by the underrated Frank Reicher is only too eager to appease the Baroness so without a second thought he fires Topaze on the spot.

With Myrna Loy in a scene from Topaze (1933)

Unfortunately for Topaze his education into humanity’s dark side  is only beginning when he runs afoul of The Baroness’ husband and his mistress as they use Topaze’s good name and gullible nature to run a scam on their fellow countrymen.

When he finally realizes he’s been played for a chump Topaze decides to turn the tables. The hucksters realize too late that is was better to leave well enough alone than to raise the ire of a brilliant teacher who proceeds to show exactly how it’s done.

Even the paramour Topaze falls in love with (played by Myna Loy) gets a lesson. While she does get spared she still gets used to drive home Topaze’s point.

This movie is one of the many gems from the Pre-Code era. Adult, frank and smart. Neatly directed by Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast  with a wonderful supporting cast including a special shout out to Reginald Mason as the Baron.

Actors like Mason are fascinating to watch. He began his acting career circa 1903. Mason and many others of his generation are supposed to be the old school style of actors who couldn’t quite shake their theatrical roots with it’s touches of melodrama.

In someone like John Barrymore you do see that but with others like Mason there is a wonderful naturalistic quality to what they’re doing.

Reginald Mason as the Baron. Often unbilled and sorely underrated Mason could hold his own with anyone whether on stage or screen

It’s like the medium of film holds no mystery for them. Act and make it believable regardless of whether they’re on stage or in front of a camera. Mason does it beautifully.

But this is John Barrymore’s vehicle and he makes the most of it. There are flashes of the not so good future on occasion yet thankfully they’re few and far between.

What Topaze shows is an artist not at the peak of his greatness but still with enough skill and power to turn in a strong performance. Just like there are flashes of decline there are moments when Barrymore shows you why he was considered the greatest living American tragedian.

Mr White Goes To Hollywood: Walter White And The Battle For Black America

Walter White Executive Secretary of The NAACP from 1929-1955

Walter White Executive Secretary of The NAACP from 1929-1955

Before Breaking Bad there was another Walter White. An actual living breathing human being who’s impact on the United States in regards to the advancement of African-Americans was incalculable.

“I Am A Negro”

In his autobiography A Man Called White (1948) the author described himself as such: “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

Yet White embraced his Blackness with a passion respect and love that would be his guiding light for the majority of his life.

Born to George and Madeline White on July 1, 1893, Walter was one of seven children. Given the family complexion George and Madeline could have easily chosen to pass as Caucasians.

But these two former slaves had no intention of turning away from who they were. It would have been understandable given the hostile racial climate of the time (and in many instances Negroes did pass) but George and Madeline proudly claimed their African American heritage and passed that pride to their children.

I am not white. There is nothing within my mind and heart which tempts me to think I am. Yet I realize acutely that the only characteristic which matters to either the white or the colored race—the appearance of whiteness—is mine.”

The Great Awareness

In 1906 Clark Howell and Hoke Smith were candidates for governor of Georgia. Both men had been in the newspaper business and had mastered the fine art of pushing all the right emotional buttons in print and campaign speeches.

The buttons in this case were white people’s fears of Black people taking over the state. As the prime example Smith and Howell pointed to Atlanta’s prosperous Black Middle Class even though neither one was exactly clear why a certain segment of the population pulling themselves up by their boot straps (amid Jim Crow laws and a hostile environment built and exploited by men like Smith and Howell) was a bad thing.

It didn’t matter the fuse was lit and on September 22, 1906 after being given the usual excuse that white womanhood was under attack Atlanta exploded in a four day orgy of racial violence that left scores of people (mostly Black) dead or wounded.

Illustration of The Atlanta Race Riot

And the area that was hit the hardest? You guessed it – The one containing the homes and businesses of the Black middle class.

As he and his father armed themselves in order to defend their home from the roving mobs, Walter White then 13 years old described years later in vivid detail his coming of age.

“I knew then who I was. I was a Negro, a human being with an invisible pigmentation that marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, or discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance, in order that those whose skin was white would have readily at hand a proof of their superiority, a proof patent and inclusive, accessible to the moron and the idiot as well as to the wise man and the genius.

No matter how low a white man fell, he could always hold fast to the smug conviction that he was superior to two-thirds of the world’s population, for those two-thirds were not white”

Their home was spared but from then on White was on a mission.

Into The Breach

In 1917 White began working for the NAACP. For the next decade he would put himself in harms way in order to investigate lynchings, riots and police brutality that afflicted the Black community on an all too frequent basis.

The crowd reaction after a lynching. You can see the victims legs dangling at the upper right. For many in White America lynching was nothing short of a party. Walter White’s complexion allowed him to investigate scenes like this first hand,

His pigmentation allowed him to go deep deep undercover. White collected photographic evidence and actual confessions from many of the perpetrators. It also granted him access to the mentality that was at work. After being sworn in as a deputy sheriff one of his colleagues told him, “Now you can go out and kill any Negro you see and the law will be behind you.”

White was discovered on a few occasions but never caught.

Taking Charge

In 1929 James Weldon Johnson retired as Executive Secretary of the NAACP. Johnson had done an exemplary job increasing membership and bringing national awareness to many issues that plagued the African-American community.

Yet for all of his efforts Johnson and the organization had little to show when it came to political and legislative victories.

That would change dramatically when Walter White was chosen to replace Johnson. White would turn the NAACP into a political and legal force to be reckoned with. This was demonstrated in 1930 when he spearheaded the drive to block the confirmation of Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court. Parker had made no secret of his approval of racial segregation. President Herbert Hoover chose him anyway. After a close Senate vote Parker was rejected. White and the NAACP had finally won a major political battle.

Members of the NAACP. Walter White front row 4th from left would turn the organization into an undeniable force for change.

The Arts

Yet it wasn’t just politics. Like James Weldon Johnson before him Walter White had a passion for the arts and in particular the promotion of African-American talent.

A writer himself White was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance and helped many artist gain notoriety among them were Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and operatic tenor Roland Hayes.

So it came as no surprise that eventually White would turn his attention to Hollywood.

The Dream Factory

Hollywood has always been a curious place. Isolated from the rest of the world and yet in tune to what was going on around it.

Yet the tune Hollywood was singing when it came to its portrayal of Black people looked and sounded a lot like Dixie.


A place of make believe that fired the imagination. Hollywood (1937)

While it had been there before the movies, Tinseltown became the greatest distributor of racist stereotypes the world had ever seen. None more so than D.W. Griffith’s landmark ode to slavery the confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan commonly known as Birth of A Nation.

It became a battleground for the NAACP in 1915 which sought to have the film banned. The organization did have a small amount of success but not enough to stop the Nation from becoming the first blockbuster of American movie making.

Yet Birth of A Nation was only a symptom of what ailed Hollywood and the rest of the country. Shutting down the film was not going to stop the proliferation of negative African-American imagery Hollywood seemed to delight in.

No doubt by 1942 progress had been made. Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to be nominated for and win the Academy Award.

Hattie McDaniel celebrating her Academy Award with Fay Bainter (1940). The irony was The Ambassador Hotel which hosted the Oscars had a no Blacks allowed policy.

Unfortunately her triumph as Mammy in Gone With The Wind reinforced the same old ideology. For Black Leaders of the time including Walter White, Hollywood hadn’t come nearly as far as it could or should have. The only way to get something done was to go once more into the breach.

Watch Hattie McDaniel’s Acceptance Speech

Walter At The Movies

Walter White on motion picture stereotypes

Walter White on the future of African-Americans in movies and theater

“Restriction of Negroes to roles with rolling eyes, chattering teeth, always scared of ghosts, or to portrayals of none-too-bright servants perpetuates a stereotype which is doing the Negro infinite harm.”

In February of 1942 White and Wendell Wilkie landed in Hollywood. Wilkie lost the 1940 Presidential election to FDR but remained very active in the public arena including working with the NAACP.

White was there to do two things. One was to persuade movies executives to focus more on the Black middle class and thereby move away from menial stereotypes.

Bette Davis signing autographs for soldiers. Davis owned and operated the legendary Stage Door Canteen of WWII with John Garfield. The Canteen in Davis' own words was for men and women in uniform of all races. Exactly the kind of thing Walter White talked about.

Bette Davis signing autographs for soldiers. Davis owned and operated the legendary Stage Door Canteen of WWII with John Garfield. The Canteen in Davis’ own words was for men and women in uniform of all races. Exactly the kind of thing Walter White talked about.

The second was even more ambitious. White wanted more integration in the movies. Scenes where Black people were truly part of the mosaic and not isolated off only to be left on the cutting room if necessity dictated it.

White wined and dined with the Hollywood elite and by some reports became quite starstruck.

No surprise. Hollywood since its inception had that effect on heads of state. The executive Secretary of the NAACP was not immune.

But that didn’t stop him from making his pitch. And after shuttling back and forth on a number of occasions. White sealed the deal:

“In 1942, NAACP Executive Director, Walter White, worked with politicians and studio executives to establish an ad hoc committee with the major studios to monitor the image and portrayal of African Americans on the screen.”

The agreement was trumpeted in Black media across the country. The leading Black Newspaper of the day The Pittsburgh Courier opined:

“This is one of the greatest moments this industry has ever had for doing the job we have all dreamed of doing for our country and the world.”

The Fine Print

While there were many in Hollywood that truly desired a more honest depiction of African-Americans, Hollywood as a whole was not interested.

Moguls and producers were not willing to offend their Southern market or any other market that may show their disapproval at the box office.

Daryl F. Zanuck was the only studio head willing to meet with Walter White.

But more that that many were comfortable of the way Blacks were portrayed because they had the same prejudices as the audiences they catered to.

White got to meet a few in the Hollywood power structure. Most avoided him like the plague. The ad hoc agreement was hailed as a step forward. In truth there was no leverage to enforce it.

You could point to a change of sorts with movies like In Sahara and Bataan (in both these films the integration was due to war time necessity) but Star Spangled Rhythm and Follow the Boys(1944) not only showed what White was up against it also proved his point to a tee.

In Follow the Boys a troupe headed by George Raft travels around entertaining military personnel On one occasion a Black soldier comes and ask can they pay a visit to his outfit. The white entertainers are asleep Raft explains and he doesn’t want to wake them. A Black performer (Louis Jordan) wakes up and says he and his combo will go.

Raft and Jordan go in the heavy rain and do a rousing number with Raft doing some fancy stepping to the delight of the Black soldiers.

The question is why couldn’t Raft wake the others to do the same? After all the motto was for the boys. Anytime anyplace.

It was pretty obvious from the way the scene was staged that it could (and would) be cut out when it was sent to different parts of the country.

We’re all in it together…but not really. Rochester Anderson and Katherine Dunham in Star Spangled Rhythm. For all their use of talent Hollywood made sure everyone knew African-Americans were separate from the rest of the American landscape.

Star Spangled Rhythm is the same. The final scene headed by Bing Crosby is a salute to America. One guy is not buying it so in one sequence they have a White southerner answering him.

As a backdrop he references black singers humming. They are in no way part of the American landscape as they are positioned more off to the side. For that matter so are the other Black performers including Eddie Rochester Anderson.

For all of the fanfare White’s venture garnered Hollywood was not ready to give up the ghost.

Thunder From Within

Upon his initial trips to Hollywood, White had made the mistake or calculated decision to not meet with the people working in Black Hollywood.

They didn’t take it well

Clarence Muse called him a committee of one and claimed that White wanted only a few Black skinned Negroes on the screen with the emphasis shifted to more light skinned and mulattos. He also argued that roles for Black actors and actresses were better than before.

Louise Beavers may have been speaking for many in Hollywood when she stated

”We do not have to be led by anyone taking our hands and leading us to the studios. Actors and actresses are all Dr. Jekylls and Hydes. We play a role and then we forget it. It is not a matter of degrading the Negro race”

Hattie McDaniel. Her personal attacks on Walter White revealed something ugly inside of her

Hattie McDaniel. Her personal attacks on Walter White revealed something ugly inside of her

But it was Hattie McDaniel more than anyone who took it personally. McDaniel in no uncertain terms declared war on Walter White. More than Clarence Muse, McDaniel hammered home the racial aspects of the conflict.

“I even though of darker skin and stout must have a right to gain my economic security also”

In reference to a smear campaign against her she let it fly:

“…the instigator of this campaign happens to be one of lighter skin than myself.”

Walter White according to McDaniel was only one eighth Black and that alone disqualified him from speaking for Black America. She also accused him of being prejudiced toward those who were dark skin.

Striking A Nerve

Black America knew the exact opposite. Walter White for all of his faults was virtually unmatched in his service to African Americans of all hues. He had risked his life to investigate lynchings without asking if the victim was light or dark skin. He would embark on a worldwide trip to examine the conditions of Black soldiers and continue the battle for equality at home.

Muse and others were correct when they stated White didn’t know anything about the movie business.

But he knew what he saw on the screen and more than Muse, McDaniel or Black Hollywood combined he had his fingers on the pulse of Black America and understood explicitly that they wanted what he wanted. A change.

White had no desire to see dark skin actors disappear from the screen. Nor servants either. Many people that contributed to the NAACP worked menial jobs.

He was asking for a fair and more inclusive representation of Black people. That they’re not off to the side or cut out because it might offend someone or if they do menial jobs there shown as people not caricatures.

That shouldn’t have threatened people like McDaniel and Muse. Since they were quality performers couldn’t they adapt to these roles? Wasn’t Clarence Muse a good enough actor to play a lawyer and not just the help? In real life Muse had a degree in international law. Something he had earned from Dickinson College in 1911.

More talented than Hollywood would give her a chance to display. Butterfly McQueen.

What many didn’t understand about Walter White is the fact he was trying to expand their opportunities. McDaniel was a terrific singer and dancer. Why couldn’t she be the star of a musical instead of sweeping up backstage and making wisecracks?

For White all the noise coming from Black Hollywood (though to be fair quite a few Blacks working in the industry supported him) was about one thing. Protecting their livelihood.

As one actress told him if the only way she could stage a comeback was to play menial roles she would do it.

White later wrote he had never been “quite so disgusted in all my life as I was at the sheer selfishness of some of these people.” It was all about the paycheck regardless of the “effect their actions would have upon the future of Negroes as a whole.”

Right on cue McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen would have supporting roles in David O’ Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944) a wartime drama in which they reprise their Mammy and Prissy roles as two house servants. Set in Connecticut McDaniel talks like she’s on loan from Tara and McQueen reminds us how dependably flighty she was.

Something From Nothing

White’s gambit yielded very little in the way of substance when it came to actually changing things in Hollywood. Wendell Willkie died in October of 1944 and with him White’s always fragile lifeline to Tinseltown died as well.

While he would continue the fight he was never able to come close to forging the progress he had such high hopes for in 1942. Reluctantly by the early fifties White had for all intent and purposes given up.

But no matter how slow the process things did start to change in Hollywood. White may have lost the initial battle yet he lived long enough to see the tide turn in Black America’s favor. The late forties and early fifties saw Canada Lee in Body and Soul, Juano Hernandez in Intruder in The Dust and The Breaking Point, Ruby Dee in the Tall Target and others begin the breakthrough.

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier Raisin In The Sun. It had been a long time coming but by this time  the breakthrough regarding Hollywood’s depiction of African-Americans was underway.

Sidney Poitier would take it to new levels of humanity in the 50’s and 60’s. Poitier would win the Academy Award of 1963 for Lilies Of The Field as Homer Smith a fully drawn character that proved Blacks had star power other than the ones rooted in racial stereotypes. .

Eventually young white directors would come along and cast African Americans in roles that their forbears could only dream about.

This was the legacy of Walter White in Hollywood. As the recent dust-up over who was nominated for an Academy Award and diversity in general illustrates there is still a ways to go.

But the fact that we’re even having this conversation owes a huge debt of gratitude to Walter White and his efforts on behalf of African-Americans and truth to tell all Americans some seventy years before.

Annie Get Your Gun

They say Hollywood is not very good at portraying real history and that’s certainly the case with Annie Get Your Gun. We have no idea whether Annie Oakley sang in real life but she sure does in this one. Although in this instance Hollywood doesn’t have to take the blame for fictionalizing an actual person. Broadway did that long before Tinseltown came a calling.

Wolves At The Door

“I sing what?” Annie Oakley circa 1880.

By the age of 8 Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Mosey) had already become extremely proficient with firearms. In many ways that skill was born out of necessity in helping to support her family who due to circumstances was always on the verge of being overtaken by abject poverty. Annie hunted game and sold what she bagged to restaurant owners and shopkeepers.

Life was tough but by the age of ten Oakley found it could get a whole lot worse. A promise of money and an education in exchange for helping one of the area families turned into a living nightmare. Oakley became a slave and endured all of the harshness and cruelty that went with it.

Finally deciding enough was enough Oakley ran away and was eventually reunited with her family. Yet at the same time her reputation for marksmanship was growing. It would take a monumental leap forward on Thanksgiving Day 1875.

Meeting Frank

Annie Oakley telling it like it is

Jack Frost owned a hotel in Cincinnati when shooting Champion Frank Butler of the Baughman and Butler traveling show wagered one hundred dollars that he could beat any of the local area sharpshooters in a contest.

Frost had a surprise for the former dog trainer:

“The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year-old girl named Annie.”

When Butler first laid eyes on Phoebe Ann Mosey he knew the bet was lost:

“I was a beaten man the moment she appeared,” Frank later said, “for I was taken off guard.”

Her appearance wasn’t the only thing that caught Butler off guard. It was Oakley’s remarkable prowess as well. According to accounts Butler hit 24 out of 25 targets, a pretty impressive feat and in most cases good enough to win the bet.

Except Annie nailed 25 out of 25. Butler had lost the contest but he also lost his heart. It wasn’t soon after their initial meeting that Butler started courting Oakley and on August 23, 1876 they were wed.

Let the girl shoot

Meeting Frank Butler may have been the ticket out for Annie and her family but that didn’t mean Butler was ready to take her on as a full fledged partner.

Annie Oakley and Frank Butler

Six years after they were married he had no choice.  Butler’s regular partner was unable to go on one night and as a result Annie stepped in to hold the targets.

Apparently Butler couldn’t hit the side of a barn during his performance and the crowd was not happy.

Tiring of his ineptness somebody (or somebodies) shouted at Butler, “Let the girl shoot.” Butler did probably figuring it was better to appease the audience instead of ticking them off any further.

He gave them what they wanted and Annie just like before rose to the occasion. The crowd went wild and shortly afterward Frank Butler had a new partner.

In 1885 they joined the most phenomenal stage show of the 19th century. The owner and impresario was one William F Cody.

Volumes have been and still can be written on Buffalo Bill Cody. While the entirety of his life is out of the scope of this post it’s suffice to say that Oakley and Butler’s joining up with the Colonel was a major boom to all involved. Oakley’s legend was now international.

She and Butler would remain with Cody until 1901. Oakley continued performing until 1913 when she officially retired but not before waging a war to clear her name.

Phoebe Ann Mosey. A young girl who had experienced poverty and slavery at their cruelest had arrived as a global icon. And she did it by beating men at their own game.

Little Sure Shot Goes To Broadway

By 1945 Ethel Merman was “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.”  A supremely talented force of nature Merman had tried her hand in films but Hollywood never figured out what to do with her. All the things that made her so powerful in the theater did not (in their opinion) translate to film.

Ethel Merman. Movie fame may have eluded her but on stage she was the queen.

The theatrical talent that was drawn to this woman had a different opinion.

But it was on Broadway that Miss Merman belonged. Composers vied for her, knowing she would hit every note on the mark, hold it as long as needed, give it the right shading, follow the trickiest rhythm flawlessly. Lyrics writers were equally certain that she would make every syllable distinct and evoke every bit of laughter from a comic line.

Merman scored one stage triumph after another including Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, DuBarry Was A Lady and Panama Hattie.

Her legend would take a quantum leap forward when Dorothy Fields showed Merman the story she and her brother Herbert were working on. The story of Annie Oakley. Only it wasn’t really Annie Oakley. This story was written for Ethel Merman.

Yes it is loosely based on her life but the real Annie Oakley wasn’t loud. Merman was brash boisterous knew her way around a cuss word or two and had an all most unquenchable thirst to live life on a grand scale. In other words she was an absolute gift to the American theater.

Rodgers and Hammerstein signed onto produce with Irving Berlin (stepping in after Jerome Kern’s death) writing the score.  Berlin outdid himself due in large part to the woman he was writing for:

“You’d better not write a bad lyric for Merman because people will hear it in the second balcony.”

Berlin in one musical turned out more classics than many composers achieve in their entire career.

On May 16, 1946 at the Imperial Theater located in midtown Manhattan Annie Get Your Gun premiered. It would be the longest running show of Ethel Merman’s career.

Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley. Not really but Annie Get Your Gun would become a landmark of American musical theater running for 1,147 performances

On With The Show

Hollywood wanted Annie Get Your Gun badly. It didn’t matter they would have to wait until the Broadway musical completed it’s run. It was a surefire hit as far as they were concerned.

Surefire as long as Ethel Merman didn’t play Annie. Hollywood had tried and failed with her before and were not anxious (at least not yet) for another go round.

MGM purchased the rights and began to lay the groundwork for the big screen with Judy Garland in the starring role.

It would all come crashing down.

Judy Garland by this time was losing the battle against herself. Addiction, loss of confidence, nerves on edge and a strong sense that she wasn’t connecting with this character all but doomed her chances. On May 10, 1949 MGM fired Garland who shortly afterwards checked into the hospital.

Let Betty Do It

Betty Hutton. Bombastic funny and born to play Annie

When it became clear Annie Get Your Gun was Hollywood bound more than a few actresses expressed strong interest in playing the part. Betty Hutton was one of them. The ball of energy who wore her emotions on her sleeve was now Paramount Studios’ top female star.

Paramount execs when they looked at the box office receipts were probably feeling the love just like audiences. Why wouldn’t they? Maybe because Hutton had a penchant for letting those emotions race ahead in a very public way off screen as well. Take for example her initial response to not getting to play Annie.

“It’s the biggest disappointment I’ve known. It’s been my whole life, and right now it isn’t worth that. I thought a really big picture success would be the greatest thing in the world. But it’s a rat race. No matter how good you are in one film the next has got to be better. You’ve got to keep topping yourself or you’re dead.”

When Garland was out Paramount negotiated a deal with MGM to get Betty in. Of course she was ecstatic. Maybe too much:

“I’m so excited I can’t sleep — I just lie there singing ‘Doin’ What Comes Naturally, 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 with them to buy it for me. I really bawled them out when they let MGM get it.”

When your top star tells the public she’s not happy with the movies she’s been making and cusses you out for not getting the rights to a smash Broadway play then there’s a problem. Especially when it’s true.

Hutton’s body of work post Miracle at Morgan’s Creek is lackluster. Even after returning to Paramount after making Annie she only made one really good movie. Cecil B. DeMille’s Greatest Show On Earth.

Annie Get Your Gun was Hutton’s chance to get the role. She knew what she wanted and why:

After all, Judy [Garland] is more the wide-eyed, retiring type. Annie calls for the loud kind of hokum that. I can do.”

Hutton understood she was born to play Annie. Yet part of her determination may have been revenge. Merman while starring in Panama Hattie (1940) on Broadway had demanded that one song be cut from the production. Whose song got cut?

Whatever the reason Annie Get Your Gun was the role of a lifetime and Hutton was going to make the most of it.

The Rocky Road

“You have to be directed on this picture; you are playing a character. You are not playing the girl from Vincent Lopez’s band.”

George Sidney to Betty Hutton

Betty Hutton with frequent Paramount co-star Eddie Bracken in Miracle at Morgan’s Creek written and directed by Preston Sturges.

If this piece of “directorial” advice is any indicator no wonder Hutton found the experience of working at MGM unpleasant.

Betty Hutton had been a top star at a major studio five years running. She had worked with the great Preston Sturges on the classic Miracle at Morgan’s Creek so she obviously knew something about story and character.

For Sidney to refer back to her beginnings in show business was an insult.

Yet Sidney’s put down would almost seem like a high point. According to Hutton, the cast and crew (except for Louis Calhern) treated her coldly. Possible they were taking it out on her what MGM execs had done to Judy Garland. She was the outsider coming in and taking the role that in their minds rightfully belonged to Judy.

The treatment she received had a profound impact on the lady who wore her emotions on her sleeve.

“I didn’t realize they would be that cruel. On the set nobody spoke to me. They literally turned their backs.

Do What You Have To

A publicity photo with Howard Keel. The expressions were not that far off the mark.

Howard Keel was knocking it out of the park on stage. This was his second film and he would go on to make some classic musicals of the early 50’s including Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

When asked later on about working with Betty Hutton he was quite candid.

“She was a real grabber.”

Keel is referring to Betty Hutton’s gift for hogging scenes. No doubt Hutton’s frequent co-star at Paramount Eddie Bracken could relate. And with Annie Get Your Gun the gloves came off big time.

MGM got a taste of what Paramount already understood. Betty like Ethel was loud and if she didn’t feel things were going right people were going to hear about it. Loudly.

Hutton knew what she had to do. Go into hostile territory and make this part her own and if that meant stepping on some toes then so be it. They didn’t want her to begin with and she didn’t care.

She was there to take advantage of the opportunity she had made and like Oakley and Merman before her Betty Hutton rose to the occasion:

And, indeed, on behalf of Miss Hutton, it must be said that she, too, imparts to the role of the fabulous lady marksman a great deal of humor and bounce. Being a bit of an athlete, as well as a singer of songs. Miss Hutton gives way to acrobatics with vast liberality, and she also lets facial contortions do a lot of her comical work. Especially in her earlier—or hill-billy—scenes in the show, she spreads herself broadly and loudly, which makes for explosiveness, at least. When Miss Hutton vibrates her tonsils on “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” the thing is as audible and mobile as coal going down a chute.

This may have been her theme song while working at MGM.

Annie Get Your Gun was one of the top five movies of 1950 grossing over seven million dollars (69 million in today’s terms) and combined with King Solomon’s Mines (#1 that year) and Father of The Bride(#5) gave MGM a sorely needed boost.

All the griping and complaining couldn’t hide the fact that like it or not Betty Hutton had been right all along.

To Be Frank

One thread running through all the productions of Annie Gets Your Gun is Frank Butler does not come off too well. He’s a “swollen headed stiff” who can’t deal with someone (let alone a woman) being better than him.

Frank Butler. Ahead of his time. Definitely more so than his stage and screen counterparts.

Not hardly. For one thing Butler was impressed not threatened when Annie beat him in the shooting contest. And the more famous Annie Oakley became the more Butler purposely faded into the background.

He became her manager, press agent and whatever else was needed to make sure his wife remained a star. It may have taken Butler a few years to incorporate her into the act but when he did his efforts on behalf of Oakley were genuine. A big reason being he was deeply in love with her.

In the end, the marriage of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler proved to have more staying power than their impressive careers. Annie officially retired from Wild West shows in 1913, and they thoroughly enjoyed their golden years of domestic normalcy. They amused themselves with hobbies and charities and they took long automobile trips together. Basically, they just spent a whole lot of time enjoying life as Mr. and Mrs. Butler.

Annie Oakley also put a lie to one of Irving Berlin’s classics” You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun. She got Butler with one and it was he who did the pursuing.

They were married for 50 years. When Annie Oakley died November 3, 1926 Butler could not live without her. Roughly two weeks later he joined her.

Maybe Broadway and Hollywood felt a love of that magnitude and longevity would bore audiences to tears. Or that it was not possible to write a great score with the leads actually getting along. When in doubt just do the battle of the sexes and make sure the woman loses so as to appease the male ego and allow him to save face.

This earlier version with Barbara Stanwyck as Annie takes it to ridiculous extremes.

There’s no telling what she would have said about Stanwyck, Merman or Betty Hutton’s portrayals let alone writers and producers playing fast and loose with the facts. But when it came to not doing your best in pursuit of love or whatever Oakley spoke louder than all of them combined:

“If love means that one person absorbs the other, then no real relationship exists any more. Love evaporates; there is nothing left to love. The integrity of self is gone.”

Or to put it simply 

“I ain’t afraid to love a man. I ain’t afraid to shoot him either.”