In a way, the story is all there in the clips. "Betty Hutton Ready to End Show Career" (Sept. 29, 1954). "Betty Hutton Seeks Third Divorce" (June 15, 1958). "Betty Hutton Ill from Exhaustion" (Jan. 20, 1961).

She is seated in the lobby of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. It is midmorning and the sun is glazing through, etherizing the day to a California cleanness.

She came down the night before from Newport, R.I., where the star of some 20 pictures in the '40s and '50s lives now, alone, and works as a greeter in a jai alai arena.

Sometimes, she says, the customers recognize her and ask her to belt out a couple bars from an old number, maybe "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry," maybe something from "Annie Get Your Gun."

No, she doesn't mind at all. That's the kind of thing she's there for.

She'll be 58 this month, and looks it, even though she has taken obvious pains to make herself look attractive. Which she is, in her soft white turtleneck, black pantsuit and pink lipstick. There is a handsome brooch on her left lapel. She touches it with hands fine and wrinkly as old fruit.

When she says, straight out, "My life has been one stinky nightmare," you can believe it. Once, she says, she was up to 100 Miltowns every two days. You don't pancake that away with makeup. But Betty Hutton nee Betty June Thornberg of Battle Creek, is smiling. Five years ago she found the Lord. She's telling the story now in a book.

"I don't really want to be in show business anymore," she says in a gravelly voice that sounds as if it might cry by the next sentence. (It doesn't.) "I'd do something for Eddie, maybe. But go back to California? No way."

Eddie is Eddie Bracken, lastingly famous second banana of stage and screen, her old pal and costar of five World War II Paramount flickers. Back then, Betty Hutton was the blond bomber, never box-office magic, but a star all the same. She lived the Hollywood high life in a chartreuse Cadillac, spending up, before the dream burst, some $9 million. Her role in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" may have been her finest.

Bracken is to be toasted tonight at the American Film Institute. Hutton, who hasn't seen him in 30 years, has come down specially for the celebration. She doubted she had the nerve or stamina for the trip. But Father Maguire insisted she go. He is the Rhode Island parish priest who rescued her from her depression and barbiturates in 1974, getting her eventually to St. Anthony's Rectory in Portsmouth as a maid and housekeeper. (She's no longer at the rectory.)

"I'm very much better off now," she says. "Compared to what I was just a couple of years ago.Not that I'm totally cured. Healed is closer to what I am. I said to Father Maguire: 'Father, why did I have to get so old to first feel happiness?' He said: 'Betty, it was your destiny. That's the way God works'."

There is moisture in her eyes. But the waterworks hold.

Now Bracken arrives, not exactly sweeping through the nearly vacant lobby with his wife and daughter in tow, but making a fine entry anyway for a man who says he's celebrating his 60th year in show business. He is elegant in chalk stripes and a curl of moustache, which may or may not have some wax in it. There are greetings and hugs all around. The mood has soared. Bracken is the pilot.

"This kid," he says, with a madcap grin, clapping his palm over Hutton's hand, "I don't know about her. I think she was reborn up there in New England. Look at her: She looks terrific! When I met her at that plane last night, somebody could have said: 'Bracken, Hutton. Be on Stage 5 in 15 minutes.'"

"If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be sitting here this minute," says Hutton. "Our tirst picture was 'The Fleet's In. I was 19 and scared stiff. Eddie was already a veteran."

Bracken: "Yeah, in your first scene you were supposed to come in and say, 'Hello, Bonnie.' Remember? Only, you didn't know about facing the camera. I showed you how to do it. Well, believe me, that was the last time anyone ever had to tell Betty Hutton to face the camera."

Exaggerated yuks. Eddie and Betty are on again.

But she wants to be truthful, too: confess it like it is. After all, that was the core of the problem all those years, living up to the public's eggshell image of her, pretending something she was not. Applause is a narcotic.

"There's no reason to lie about it. I was rotten." She blurts this out.

But Bracken remembers her effect on the screen. "You were never rotten. You were always trying to be happy. But inside, I knew. See, when you can pick up men with your strength" -- he rises off the sofa, grabbing air in a fist -- "well, that's a cover for some kind of hurt. I could see it at moments."

She listens to him excitedly. "That was it exactly. I couldn't get love anywhere else except before an audience. I never had love at home. I was a bastard child. My mother was an alcoholic and bootlegger. When they'd applaud, I'd get my love. But it couldn't be just any love. I had to have screams of love."

She is on her feet. Her voice level has attracted the bellmen. This is old Hectic Hutton, the Blond Blitz, the Platinum Screwball, again.

"Uh, uh, yes," says Bracken.

It goes that way a few minutes later when the photographer is getting a picture. You don't have to ask Hutton, and certainly not Bracken, to mug. It comes like breathing.

"How about if I hit you?" says Hutton, feigning a right to the jaw. She looks genuinely happy.

Arrrrgh: Bracken's face, gone red as beets, is all comic pain.

"'Is that the Language of Love?'" she belts out -- half-singing, half-reciting.

Back down again, they are asked if they are recognized on the street nowadays. "Oh, yes," Hutton says. "Yesterday, on the plane, the stewardess came up and whispered, 'Are you Betty Hutton? I'm pulling for you.'"

And Bracken? Do they recognize him? "Yeah, they say, 'There goes Eddie Albert.' Or, 'Look, there's Donald O'Connor.' I'm a name-dropper. Of my own."

When they broke up, Hutton says, when Bracken came into her dressing room that day after they finished "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" in 1944 and said he was leaving Paramount, she just cried her eyes out: "I couldn't stand it."

She can't stand it all over again: The floodwalls have broken.

"I can't help it," she says. "It's just the sort of thing that makes me cry."

Bracken is a prince. "Anybody who wants to cry over me, I'll let 'em," he says, encircling her in a hug.

The showbiz fires are permanently banked, she says. She did the Phil Donahue show a couple of months back, and then a segment on "Good Morning America." They weren't enough.

She goes to daily mass, she says. Sometimes, when she's lonesome, she looks up and says just that: "Lord, I'm lonesome." She doesn't expect, or even want, a man to come along. Four husbands were enough in that department.

"When Father Maguire found me, I wanted to die. I had tried to commit suicide.Well, I'm a long way from that now. I may not be rich, but I have the richness of God's love."

"That makes you richer than all of us," enjoins Bracken.

Time to leave:

Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken waltz toward bright sunshine, arm in arm, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard."

It could be 1942 and the back lot all over again.