Hollywood as a Precursor to Faith
The stories of Jane Wyman and Betty Hutton — and an entrance into the Church on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Hollywood, amazingly, has served as a precursor to faith — as in the case of Jane Wyman and Betty Hutton, who were as different as night and day.
From childhood, Wyman was quiet and reserved. After her parents divorced and her father died, she was adopted at age 4. In contrast, Betty Hutton was age 3 when she became an entertainer, already belting out songs, accompanied by a warm smile and energetic moves.
The two stars’ paths crossed in 1951 as Hutton’s star was fading and Wyman’s was rising.
At the time, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer had written In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening expressly for Hutton. But Paramount Pictures used the Oscar-winning song in a different film, Here Comes the Groom, starring Bing Crosby and Wyman.
Wyman’s next film, The Blue Veil (1951), set in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, longtime friend Virginia Zamboni confided, was her “favorite” — and the catalyst for her conversion.
Though Protestant, Wyman had begun attending Mass with fellow actress Loretta Young. In the wake of her divorce from Ronald Reagan in 1948, she continued to grieve over the death of her newborn, Christina, in 1947. A favorite destination was the Dominican sisters’ Monastery of the Angels.
While filming The Blue Veil, premised on the loss of the protagonist’s newborn son, the teachings of the Catholic faith, especially the redemptive meaning of suffering, “hit” Wyman “in the face,” Zamboni recalled. Wyman developed a strong devotion to Mary; three years later, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, she was received into the Catholic Church.
In 1969, her film career over, she tucked away her Oscars and focused on the present.
Since 1994, Wyman attended Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert, Calif. Father Howard Lincoln, the pastor, observed that “whenever our parish or our diocese rang the doorbell of Jane Wyman’s heart, she always answered.”
He had never seen a $100,000 check, he said, until she wrote one for the church.
In 2007, Jane Wyman died at age 90. A Third Order Dominican, she was buried in her habit in a pine coffin. At her funeral, Father Lincoln described the former star as “the antithesis of Sunset Boulevard and Norma Desmond” — the has-been silent-film star in Billy Wilder’s classic film who craved a “return.”
Her faith, Zamboni said, “meant everything” to Wyman.
While Wyman’s path to the faith was neat and orderly, Hutton’s was long and circuitous.
Hutton’s early childhood was a hardscrabble existence. She was 2 years old when her father abandoned the family. The following year her singing debut was prompted by a drunken man who threatened to beat her mother up in her speakeasy. Decades later, she described the frightening scene for TCM’s Robert Osbourne in a July 2000 interview.
During the Great Depression, Hutton sang on street corners to help keep food on the family table. Then, when her mother — a “total alcoholic” but the “most brilliant, wonderful woman,” Hutton told Osbourne — took her to see a Charlie Chaplin film. Watching the film, Betty began making her future plans: “I’m gonna be a star, and my mother will stop drinking.”
She quickly began getting one break after another, until the Broadway producer Buddy DeSylva became the production head at Paramount and brought her to Hollywood.
From her first film in 1941, Hutton consistently wowed audiences. But she could never escape the wounds of her childhood, especially the lack of a father figure.
In January 1950, she divorced her husband of five years. Three months later, she landed the role of a lifetime in Annie Get Your Gun. But despite her professional success, her life unraveled in 1952. Hutton injured her arm while filming The Greatest Show on Earth and became addicted to prescription pills. That same year, she tore up her Paramount contract.
By 1971, two years after good friend Judy Garland died of a drug overdose, Hutton feared she was destined for a similar end. She confronted a legacy of four shattered marriages and a wrecked career. “I almost didn’t care anymore. I didn’t want to go on,” she told Osbourne.
Then, while recuperating from her addiction to prescription pills, something miraculous happened.
As Father Peter Maguire of St. Anthony’s Church in Portsmouth, R.I., checked his cook into the same rehabilitation center where Hutton sought treatment, the star saw a very special priest calmly showing affection and respect for his ailing employee.
And, she thought, I’m going to meet that man. He’s going to save my life.
Hutton later asked the cook about Father Maguire and was told, “Betty, he helps everybody.” One thing led to another, and soon Betty was at the rectory cooking and cleaning.
When she met Father Maguire, Hutton said, “My life just turned around.”
“I never found me until Father Maquire,” she told Osbourne. The priest “had the heart to understand me. ”
And, for the first time ever, she said, she didn’t have to pretend she wasn’t upset.
“Betty, you’re just a very hurt child,” Hutton said he told her. “Let’s start from the word go.”
“And that’s how I became a Catholic,” she recalled. “It was so great — because as I walked down the aisle and I know I’m going to receive Christ, I would sob so, because this brought something out of me I never knew was in there. That’s my heart. Christ is my heart. But I didn’t know him. I did not know God.”
Hutton also had a great devotion to Our Lady, explaining, “I don’t move anywhere without my rosary.”
After completing high-school studies under Father Maguire’s tutelage, Hutton attended Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I., earning a master’s degree in liberal studies in 1986. She taught drama there, as well as at Emerson College in Boston.
In March 1997, she moved back to California, where she lived in Palm Springs until her death at age 86, in 2007.
So it is that God enveloped Wyman and Hutton in his love — by way of Hollywood.
Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter.