January 16th, 1914 — April 4th, 1998
Above: A late-1930s studio publicity portrait of Kay Hughes.
Although Kay Hughes served as the leading lady in three different 1930s chapterplays, even dedicated serial buffs are unlikely to remember her very clearly–if they remember her at all. This obscurity is no fault of the delicately pretty Hughes, whose screen personality was as attractive as her appearance; she could easily and appealingly convey cheerfulness, empathetic kindliness, and quiet but firm determination. However, she was given few chances to display this appealing personality on the serial screen, since all but one of her chapterplays kept her firmly in the background–and thus prevented her from making a particularly strong impression on most cliffhanging devotees.
Catherine Mary Hughes was born in Los Angeles, California. Her father, an Ohio-born electrician named Evan Hughes, moved his family back to Ohio a year after her birth, in order to be near his aging mother; the Hughes family stayed in the Midwest for eight years, moving back to California following the death of Evan’s mother. It was during the Ohio portion of her childhood that young Catherine underwent surgery for a near-fatal lung infection; this illness would return during her teenage years in California, necessitating another operation. After spending two years in college, she pursued a childhood ambition of becoming a dancer, but found this occupation too strenuous for her shaky health, and decided to work as a movie actress instead–although she did make her film debut as a dancer, playing a member of the ensemble in the 1935 MGM musical Broadway Melody of 1936. She played her first on-screen speaking role the same year, an uncredited bit in the Columbia B-drama After the Dance, and followed it with a small but pivotal credited part in the 1936 MGM Western Robin Hood of El Dorado; it was probably the latter film that brought her to the attention of the Hollywood Press Photographers’ association, which named her as one of the ten 1936 starlets “most likely to succeed.” This accolade in turn attracted the notice of the new studio Republic Pictures; Catherine (who’d already shortened her first name to “Kay” for billing purposes) signed a contract with this outfit later in 1936.
Although Hughes would spend less than a year at Republic overall, the studio utilized her very frequently during her brief time there; in the remaining months of 1936, she played the heroine in four Republic B-westerns (two Gene Autry films and two “Three Mesquiteers” films) and in the crime movie A Man Betrayed, and took supporting roles in one of Republic’s “Jones Family” comedies and in their Ellery Queen whodunit The Mandarin Mystery. She also found time to play the heroine in the 1936 Republic serial The Vigilantes Are Coming, which paired her with her one of her Three Mesquiteers leading men, Robert Livingston. This uneven but enjoyable Western serial pitted a masked avenger known as the Eagle (Livingston) against Jason Burr (Fred Kohler), a renegade American general bent on making himself dictator of California with the assistance of Imperial Russia. Hughes was cast as Doris Colton, the daughter of a mining engineer forced to oversee Burr’s gold mine (the source of the aspiring dictator’s funding); her character spent most of the serial as a prisoner in Burr’s fortress, periodically sending the Eagle helpful messages via carrier pigeon. Though Hughes’ role gave her a couple of good opportunities to be resolutely spirited and fervently sympathetic (particularly when she was trying to save the Eagle from execution in Chapter Eleven), she received little screen time overall–probably because of her busy feature-film schedule; almost all of her scenes took place in the same location, and were undoubtedly shot within two or three days.
Above: Kay Hughes reluctantly agrees to tell Fred Kohler (right) where a captive Russian emissary has been hidden by the Eagle, in order to save the off-camera Robert Livingston from a firing squad in The Vigilantes Are Coming.
Kay had only slightly more screen time in her second serial (and final Republic production), the atmospheric and action-filled 1937 chapterplay Dick Tracy; this well-produced adaptation of the popular comic strip starred Ralph Byrd as ace FBI agent Tracy, and chronicled his fight with the villainous organization known as the Spider Ring, whose members kidnapped Tracy’s brother Gordon and used brain surgery to turn him into a criminal. Hughes was assigned the role of Gwen Andrews, Tracy’s secretary and laboratory assistant; she was confined to Tracy’s office and crime lab for most of the serial, although she frequently got to help Tracy analyze important clues, and occasionally assisted him in the field as well–usually by piloting an FBI plane. Hughes brought an appropriately self-assured demeanor to this role, rattling off forensic data with conviction–but also gave Gwen a warmth that kept her from seeming like a mere efficient employee; she interacted with Tracy’s mischievous ward Junior (Lee Van Atta) in cheerfully sisterly fashion, and conveyed both loyalty and affection in her scenes with Tracy himself, particularly when she was sympathizing with his concern for the missing Gordon.
Eager to visit her ailing uncle back East, and promised bigger and better roles at Universal Pictures by her agent (who managed Universal’s biggest star, Deanna Durbin), Hughes decided to walk away from Republic after finishing Dick Tracy. She did indeed sign a Universal contract (reviving her full name, Catherine Hughes, for the occasion) in 1937, after returning from her trip East–but was promptly cast in another serial, instead of receiving the more prestigious roles she’d hoped for. Still, she enjoyed making the serial in question–the exciting and involving Radio Patrol–and received a better role in it than she had in either of her preceding chapterplays. Instead of remaining on the sidelines (like Doris Colton and Gwen Andrews), her character, Molly Selkirk, played a central role in Radio Patrol’s plot; the sister of an ex-convict named Harry Selkirk (Max Hoffman Jr.), she took a secretarial job with shady steel magnate Harrison (Gordon Hart), in order to find evidence to exonerate her brother–and soon found herself trying to clear him not only of the embezzlement charge that had originally sent him to prison, but also of the murder of an inventor and the theft of a priceless flexible steel formula. Though Molly was at first forced to work against Pat O’Hara (Grant Withers), the officer investigating the inventor’s murder, she eventually joined forces with the policeman and with the late inventor’s son Pinky (Mickey Rentschler Jr.) to solve the case and avenge her brother (who was slain by the real killer halfway through the serial). Radio Patrol gave Hughes her biggest and most complex serial part, and she did it full justice; her emotionally conflicted demeanor as she withheld information from the heroic O’Hara, her earnest worry over her brother’s situation, her grief over his death, her commiserative attitude towards the similarly bereaved Pinky, and her quietly resolute demeanor as she carried out her investigations were all eminently convincing–and made her a most appealing heroine.
Kay’s best and most memorable serial turn would also be her last; after playing leading lady opposite Noah Beery Jr. in the Universal B-film Trouble at Midnight, she abandoned acting for family life (she had married MGM still photographer Durward Graybill in 1936, and would give birth to a daughter in 1940). She made a few movie comebacks during the 1940s, receiving a small role and a memorable death scene in the 1941 Columbia B-western Riders of the Badlands, and taking heroine roles in a pair of 1945 PRC B-westerns; the second of these PRC features–the Buster Crabbe vehicle Fighting Bill Carson–would be her last movie. During her long post-Hollywood life, she lived by turns in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nevada, but would eventually return to California one last time; she moved to Palm Springs (where her sister lived) after the death of her husband, and spent her final years there.
Although she will probably (and understandably) remain the most overlooked multiple-serial heroine of the 1930s, Kay Hughes’ chapterplay performances repay closer inspection. Her all-too-brief scenes in The Vigilantes Are Coming and Dick Tracy and her prominent performance in Radio Patrol reveal a charming and capable actress–one who could have become a notable and well-remembered contributor to the serial genre, if said genre had showcased her more consistently.
Acknowledgements: Boyd Magers’ extended interview with Kay Hughes in his book Westerns Women (McFarland, 1999) provided me with almost all of the biographical information in this article. I also made use of several federal censuses, Hughes’ 1936 marriage certificate, and a newspaper blurb on the ten 1936 starlets honored by the Hollywood Press Photographers association (“Seven Blonds [sic], Three Brunettes Picked by Photographers as Future Stars of Filmdom,” from the October 17th, 1936 edition of the Milwaukee Journal). The info about the Dick Tracy deleted sequence came from the book Valley of the Cliffhangers (J. Mathis Advertising, 1975).