Bright Lights Film Journal

Let’s Dance? Must We? Fred Astaire Collides with Betty Hutton

Ouch!

By 1950 Fred Astaire’s return to the screen after his “retirement” following Blue Skies (1946) was looking a little frayed. His first post-retirement film, Easter Parade (1948), had been a huge success, thanks to solid dancing from both Fred and Ann Miller, not to mention Judy Garland’s singing, excellent production values, and a baker’s dozen of Irving Berlin’s best vintage songs. Fred was set to be teamed with Judy again in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), but Judy, acting out in response to her long years of exploitation on the MGM plantation, bailed on the picture (or was bailed — accounts vary), and Ginger Rogers, who had been hinting that she might be willing to work with Fred, took Judy’s role.1

Reunions, well, they often don’t work out, and this one didn’t. Ginger showed up about ten pounds overweight,2 and songwriter Harry Warren turned in a lackluster score. Fred and Ginger went their separate ways, and for his next film Fred was teamed with the seriously petite Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words, with Red Skelton along for the ride. Three Little Words, a “. . . and then we wrote” tale of songwriters Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby, did have a decent score3 but Vera, despite her excellent dancing skills, didn’t really project the way a star should, while Fred and long-time choreography compadré Hermes Pan, it must be said, did not outdo themselves in the dance department.

While Fred was struggling, Judy Garland was too, and she took another dive, from the film version of Irving Berlin’s monster musical comedy hit Annie Get Your Gun, leaving the producers scrambling. The replacement they came up with was the painfully self-conscious, painfully dykey Betty Hutton, one of the least feminine leading ladies in the history of Hollywood, one step, maybe, behind Martha Raye. Like Martha, Betty covered up her insecurities by constant and painful mugging, which often made her difficult to watch. She’s probably most appealing in the famous Preston Surges comedy The Miracle of Morgan Creek, one of his rowdy, two-fisted, regular guy comedies.4 As it turned out, she was a perfect fit for Annie Get Your Gun, the story of a shy, awkward, sharp-shootin’ tomboy longing to be pretty in pink. And, no matter how over the top she went, there was no way she could emasculate strapping, 6’3″ Howard Keel. Annie Get Your Gun was a huge hit, and Betty Hutton was suddenly a serious star.

Why anyone thought Fred and Betty would go together is anyone’s guess, but they did. In fact, Betty was so hot that poor Fred had to accept second billing, which I doubt he enjoyed.5 Composer/lyricist Frank Loesser, hot from his work in the Esther Williams mélange Neptune’s Daughter (“Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “On a Slow Boat to China”), who had worked with Betty on The Perils of Pauline, was called in to do the score.

In retrospect, it’s hard to see why anyone would think that putting Mr. Elegance and Miss Ballbuster in the same film together would be a good idea. And Loesser, whose Guys and Dolls would open on Broadway at the same time that Let’s Dance was released, probably saved his best tunes for the Big Apple.6Let’s Dance isn’t quite Fred’s worst musical — I’d give that distinction to Yolanda and the Thief — but it’s second in line — not quite a complete disaster, but almost always in critical condition.

Surprisingly, the film starts out with a genuine bit of wit. It’s nighttime, and the camera prowls along corridors of darkened WWII bombers. What’s up, a daring midnight raid? No, something way more important, a show! Yeah, war is war, but it can’t top show business!

Fred and Betty are old-fashioned vaudevillians, entertaining the boys with a patter number delivered by Betty, “Can’t Stop Talkin’ About Him,” the sort of facetious material with which she was most comfortable. As they take a bow, Fred announces to the crowd that they’re getting married. Offstage, Betty breaks the bad news: she’s already hitched to a flyboy from a fancy Boston family, and poor Fred is out of luck.

We flash forward to the postwar years and learn that times are tough for Betty. She got married, and pregnant, but her husband was killed in action. Now she finds that her snooty, Back Bay former in-laws want her son! So she kidnaps the tyke to save him from the clutches of those blue-blooded schmucks and runs off to New York, where nightclubs aren’t regarded as entrances to Hell.7

Naturally, she runs into Fred, who’s trying to quit dancing. Why? Well, we do need a plot. Before hanging up his pumps, Fred does one last number for the gang at the club, “Piano Dance,” which I suspect was choreographed for him by Hermes Pan8 to prove that Fred could be just as cool as Gene Kelly. It isn’t bad — although it does have some “bad Gene” style mugging — and it’s the best dancing you’re going to see in this flick, but it isn’t great.

What else do we get? Well, Fred sings a cutesy song about Jack and the beanstalk to Betty’s son Richie,9 and makes a paper beanstalk.10 The film reaches bottom, ha ha, in the execrable “Oh Them Dudes” routine, in which Fred and Betty, dressed as cowpokes, kick each other in the ass about five hundred times. Not surprisingly, Betty appears liberated now that she’s in drag, and I suspect that Fred really suffered for his art in this one.11

There’s quite a bit more to Let’s Dance, but not much more to say about it. At the end of the shoot, Fred must have been thinking a lot about his career.

Afterword

Long-time readers of Bright Lights may remember that I have been working my way through Fred’s flicks since back in the VHS days. I took a time-out for Let’s Dance, waiting for it to come out on DVD. I’m still waiting. Like A Damsel in Distress, Yolanda and the Thief, and The Sky’s the Limit, Let’s Dance falls into the “low-wattage co-star” category — Fred’s presence alone doesn’t seem to be enough to guarantee significant sales. Yolanda is no real loss, but Damsel, with its brilliant score, courtesy of the Gershwins, is a serious treasure, and The Sky’s the Limit, though obscure, features Fred’s greatest solo performance, the spectacular “One for My Baby” routine. When will we have these essential films?

  1. Ginger won an Oscar for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940; full title Kitty Foyle: the Natural History of a Woman), but by the late forties her career seemed to be slowing down. She didn’t work at all in 1947 or 1948, which apparently made her desperate enough to go back to Fred. []
  2. I have been widely, widely, booted around the Internet for making this statement, but I only tell the truth! Reality, not myths, people! Reality, not myths! []
  3. Bert and Harry are not household names, but they did write some good songs, usually with a peppy, “period” flavor. If you liked Groucho Marx singing “Hooray for Captain Spalding” in Animal Crackers, you’ll probably like their tunes. If not, then not. []
  4. She plays “Trudy Kockenlocker.” Get it? []
  5. He was billed behind Ginger in their first film together, Flying Down to Rio, behind Irene Dunne in Roberta, and behind Judy in Easter Parade. []
  6. Terrell-4” from San Antonio is not one to mince words: “None of the songs are noteworthy, and they often blend heavy rhythmic repetition, loudness and jitterbug style with ample opportunity for Hutton to mug and exaggerate.” []
  7. Boston, now perhaps the most liberal city on the East Coast, was once the most prudish. The old-line Puritans and the immigrant Irish Catholics (right) hated each other, but agreed that sex was hell. []
  8. I’m basing my suspicion on an interview I saw with Hermes done back in the seventies in which he praised this dance. []
  9. Richie is played by Gregory Moffett, best known, I guess, for his performance as “Johnny” in the famous dog Robot Monster. []
  10. Back in the fifties, Orson Bean had a long-running nightclub routine about making a “paper eucalyptus tree,” which is what Fred does. I don’t know if Bean took the gag from the picture or vice versa. In the cult favorite Being John Malkovich, we see a photograph of Orson holding his paper eucalyptus tree. I couldn’t figure out why until I finally realized that one of the geezers in the flick was Orson Bean. []
  11. I really don’t like seeing Fred Astaire being kicked in the ass. It was lame when he did it with Gene Kelly in Ziegfeld Follies and it’s lame here. I think the bit might have worked better if it had been two women. Two women kicking each other in the ass I might enjoy, if it was artistic enough. []