Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Kay Hughes (The Vigilantes are Coming, Dick Tracy, Gene Autry, etc.)
Despite co-starring in two of the best remembered chapterplays of all time – The Vigilantes are Coming and Dick Tracy, Kay Hughes (1914-1998) gets no respect. While Jean Rogers, as Flash Gordon's Dale Arden and Linda Stirling, as the imperiled heroine du jour in the 1940s, have earned reams of print by once-overheated fan boys, Kay is just there in her serials, upstaged by two of the best serial heroes of all time, Robert Livingston and Ralph Byrd, and never allowed to be much more than decoration. Born Catherine Rhoads, Hughes began her show business career as a dancer and background extra. She was placed under contract to Republic Pictures for six months, June 1, 1936 to December 1, 1936, and while there also appeared in Three Mesqueteers and Gene Autry westerns. Universal's Radio Patrol (1937), where she replaced Jean Rogers, followed, after which her screen career petered out. She returned for three B-westerns in the following decade: Charles Starrett's Riders of the Badlands (1941), The Texas Rangers' Enemy of the Law, and the Buster Crabbe opus Fighting Bill Carson (both 1945). And that, as they say, was that. Kay Hughes married three times and lived most of the remainder of her life at Desert Hot Springs, CA.
The Vigilantes Are Coming (Republic, 1936)
I readily admit it: I once slammed The Vigilantes are Coming in my review on the Internet's All-Movie Guide. But a second viewing for this article has somewhat changed my mind. Yes, there are several unforgivable cliffhanger "cheats" in Vigilantes, the kind abhorred by both serial fans and Republic Pictures honcho Herbert Yates, who reportedly personally banned their use in future chapter plays. But such misdeeds are balanced at the very least by one of the most personable serial heroes of all times, Robert Livingston, and excellent portrayals by such silent screen stalwarts as blowhard dictator-in-training Fred Kohler and pug-ugly Robert Kortman, both as unremittingly evil as they would ever be. Even the ubiquitous sidekicks, Salvation and Whipsaw, described in the serial as "madcap mountain men," are more than tolerable and both Guinn Williams and Ray Hatton would enjoy lengthy A- and B-western tenures playing the type of roles they more or less tested here.
The most surprising aspect of Vigilante, however, is how cheaply it was apparently made. Despite being the longest of Republic's 66 serials, it was also the least expensive and enjoyed the second-shortest shooting schedule: a scant 21 calendar days. Granted, stock footage from both the Mascot library and Gene Autry and Three Mesqueteers Westerns helped stretch the budget but there is actually less of that stuff in Vigilantes than in many more expensive Western serials. Neither Mack Wright, a former actor, nor Ray Taylor, reputedly a hopeless drunk who would find himself replaced by William Witney on The Painted Stallion (1937), do much more than direct the general traffic, but at least they keep things moving and Livingston, et al. are good enough performers to take care of themselves. Fine location filming at Kernville, the Kern River, and the picturesque Mission San Luis Rey helps immeasurably, and you can easily forgive and forget the more than usual sloppy continuity, a restrained and at times downright irrelevant heroine, and the obvious doubling of Livingston by Yakima Canutt or Wally West. (Livingston would be much better served in the Mesqueteers films by Duke Taylor, who resembled him somewhat.) Ersatz Zorro, perhaps, Vigilantes is far from the perfect Western serial but good enough entertainment for all that.
Cliffhanger cheats ("Annie Wilkes Hall of Shame"
Cheat #1: a hitherto unseen river suddenly appears in chapter 2's takeout to cushion the Eagle's fall from Burr's fortress tower. A river apparently running inside the compound!
# 2: Chapter 4 concludes with the Eagle screaming out in pain when caught in an ore crusher. But in the takeout in chapter 5, Salvation pulls him clear well before the hammer can do any damage at all.
# 3: After being chased – screaming again – off a cliff in chapter 5, the Eagle nonchalantly parks his horse, Starlight, and smartly jumps down to a hitherto unseen ledge in chapter 6's takeout.
# 4: At the conclusion of chapter 7, Petroff and four Cossacks have the Eagle pinned down on the floor ready to skewer him with their rapiers. But the takeout in chapter 8 simply substitutes a completely different take which has the Eagle remaining on his feet and eminently able to take care of himself. "Have you all got amnesia?" as Stephen King's
eponymous heroine would have complained.
# 5: Petroff and his Cossacks suffer not only from amnesia but instant blindness in chapter 10s cliffhanger solution when, after felling the Eagle, they fail to spot the prostrate figure on the ground and blithely continue their chase. But rather than being trampled to death, as the cliffhanger suggests, the takeout in chapter 11 reveals how Loring simply rolls well clear of the lead horse, mounts his own and is once again ahead of the enemy posse!
Grizzled sidekick pronunciation 101
Whipsaw to Clem Peters: "We're forming a vigilante to fight Jason Burr and his
'Roosians'!" Clem: "'Roosians?' What are they up to?" (Chapter 2.)
Although The Vigilantes are Coming is in public domain and available everywhere today, I recommend you spend a couple of $$ more and get the Serial Squadron restored version.
For anyone interested in serials in general and Robert Livingston in particular, I heartily recommend Merrill T. McCord's "Brothers of the West: The Lives and Films of Robert Livingston and Jack Randall" (Bethesda, MD: Alhambra Publishers, 2003), in my opinion perhaps the finest publication about B-Westerns and serials next to Jack Mathis' Republic Pictures books.