While I surely first ran into Rochelle Hudson playing Natalie Wood's mother in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) that left me little reason to remember the petite actress or to really even associate the iconic James Dean film with her.
Hudson's hey day is the 1930s and while most accounts of her appearance in Rebel make no bones about her looking past her prime as Wood's mom, I don't think she looks too terribly awful for a woman of 39, she just doesn't look 18 anymore. What I suspect has happened is current classic film fans hadn't seen her between the time she left Hollywood in 1942 at age 26 and her reappearance in Rebel thirteen years later and it's a long road from 26 to 39!
In between there were some marriages, a little noticed late 40's return to film in a handful of Poverty Row productions, and some television appearances including a season starring in a series just prior to Rebel, 1954's That's My Boy starring Eddie Mayehoff.
Born in Oklahoma City, March 6, 1916 the studios would eventually backdate her birth and slide her birthplace across the map a little, but retain her historic name: she was a direct descendant from famed explorer Henry Hudson on her father's side.
The Hudsons moved to California in 1927 and when her parents separated Rochelle and her mother moved to Hollywood in 1930 to be nearer the studios. Her New York Times obituary quotes Hudson as saying she "got in pictures because my mother had a friend who had a friend who was a friend of the ex-wife of somebody at one of the studios. Anyway, this friend knew the voice coach for the Fox Film Corporation (Note: Jessie Lee was the voice coach) ... and she had me tested. I was 13 then. It was several years later before I started acting."
Indeed, she landed a 6 month contract with Fox in 1928 but was never used. Upon her release RKO signed her to a 2-year deal. While her film debut was 1931's Laugh and Get Rich for RKO, Hudson could be heard on the screen even prior to then as she accentuated her high voice to a bit of a pipsqueak to play Honey in the animated Bosko shorts. She can be heard in over thirty of the shorts issued during a period ranging 1930-1937, first for Warner Brothers and then MGM.
Rochelle Hudson was honored as a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1931 around which time RKO sensed they had something hot on their hands and moved the 15 year old's date of birth back two years to make her more believable in romantic roles.
Hudson's career picks up steam in late 1932 into 1933 appearing to really take off with a loan out to Paramount for She Done Him Wrong (1933) starring Mae West and Cary Grant. Hudson's contract with RKO expired in January 1933 leaving her to freelance. During this period she appeared in fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers' Doctor Bull (1933) at her original studio, Fox. Rogers took a liking to her and she signed with Fox again in August 1933, her birthplace now publicized as Rogers' own Claremore, Oklahoma.
She'd get in trouble with the locals after making some disparaging comments about Claremore, but Rogers himself would bail out his young co-star by explaining that the local waters had a "particular fragrance," in reference to Claremore's mineral baths, and that must have been what Hudson was referring too when saying something to the effect of Claremore stinks. The August 21, 1935 edition of the San Antonio Light recounts the incident in a Rogers tribute article by Jack Lait titled "Filmdom's Pal." The section about the Hudson incident is headed "Takes Sting from Tactless Remark." Hudson wound up appearing in four Will Rogers movies total.
It was during this period at Fox which Rochelle Hudson earned the nickname of the champion loanerouter. Like many Golden Age stars she often found herself associated with superior projects away from the home studio, but in Hudson's case it helps that her projects at Fox, where she was eventually groomed as backup to A-lister Janet Gaynor, were memorable quality projects as well. Some of Hudson's highlights during the period:
- 1933: A small part at the beginning of Wild Boys of the Road as Grace, Frankie Darro's girlfriend. On loan to First National from RKO.
- 1933: Doctor Bull and Mr. Skitch at Fox with Will Rogers. Hudson also appears with Rogers in Judge Priest (1934) and Life Begins at Forty (1935).
- 1934: Loaned to Universal where she plays the grown-up version of Claudette Colbert's daughter, Jessie, in Imitation of Life. Jessie falls for her mother's beau played by Warren William.
- 1935: Plays Cosette in Twentieth Century's production of Les Misérables starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton.
- 1935: Is Shirley Temple's big sister in Curly Top where Hudson sings "The Simple Things in Life."
At this point Hudson was rewarded with the opportunity to replace Janet Gaynor in Fox's remake of the silent classic Way Down East.
The opening credits are little jarring today with Rochelle Hudson's name billed over Henry Fonda's, but keep in mind this is only Fonda's second movie. Besides Fonda, Hudson heads a cast featuring Russell Simpson and Spring Byington as Fonda's parents, the Squire and Mrs. Louisa Bartlett. Astrid Allwyn is Fonda's girl who now seems inclined to accept slick Edward Trevor in his place, especially since farmboy Fonda is giving all of his attention to Hudson's Anna Moore.
Moore is a young girl with an unspoken past whose helpfulness wins over Mrs. Bartlett and seeming innocence earns her the rigid Squire's trust. She stays under the Bartlett roof as a hand around the house. Also on the scene are character actors such as Margaret Hamilton, Andy Devine, Slim Summerville, and Sara Haden.
The original Way Down East, a D.W. Griffith film, stars Lillian Gish in the role Hudson would later play with a young Richard Barthelmess in the Fonda part. It contains one of the most exciting of Silent Film climaxes as Barthelmess hops numerous ice floes in attempting to rescue the unconscious Gish as she floats atop her own sheet of ice towards certain death over a waterfall at the end of the rapids.
Director Henry King reproduces this big scene for Fox in this remake and it's very difficult to watch without recalling the superiority of the original scene. I imagine it would have played much more effectively if I could wipe the Griffith version from my mind, that said, the talkie version originally appeared only 15 years after the silent classic. Measuring up must have been impossible.
What I could do was distance myself from the original in the first 75-80 minutes leading up to the classic scene and that made Way Down East an enjoyable experience, despite the sinking feeling in my stomach once that ice began to crack around Hudson.
Hudson gives a fine account of herself in this regard, my favorite scene being the one in which she goes out one evening to pump some water from the well and is horrified to meet face to face with the man from her past who holds all of her secrets. She drops the pump and the bucket cascades to the bottom of the well as the rope unwinds and the handle spins around. Hudson is motionless, shock, even terror registering on her face.
From that point her character loses a lot of the lightheartedness displayed in earlier scenes as the truth comes closer and closer to being revealed. Hudson's Anna must eventually struggle with being in love with Fonda's David Bartlett, who also loves her, but not being able to have him because of fear of being found out and what the revelation would mean to Tom.
Way Down East is currently available for Instant Viewing from Netflix, and is well worth checking out. The original version from 1920 is also available for Instant Viewing at this time.
- 1935: Plays the lead in Show Them No Mercy, a crime picture from Twentieth Century that I really need to find after reading Barrie Roberts' enthusiastic mention of it in Classic Images, February 1998 issue. Especially the part about Hudson spraying fire with a machine gun in the climax!
- 1936: In Paramount's Poppy starring W.C. Fields.
From here Hudson drifted back into B-pictures as Loretta Young was awarded parts which would have belonged to her during her previous peak at Fox.
She next signed with Columbia and was in the first of the Chester Morris Boston Blackie pictures, Meet Boston Blackie, in 1941.
Rochelle Hudson's interesting, busy career was on the down slide by this point and while it's hard to tell exactly why, another look at the Barrie Roberts piece for Classic Images finds the suggestion that she may have turned down the advances of both Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox and Harry Cohn at Columbia. I could buy that.
Rochelle Hudson had married Harold Thompson, the first of four husbands in 1939 and was at his side to one degree or another as he gathered information for the American government during World War Two.
Roberts gives a good amount of detail, but as I wasn't able to source it anywhere else I don't want to go there. I don't know if the repeated strains of Rochelle Hudson's spy activity across the internet is just this same information being parroted over and over again or if there is either more or less to it than Roberts claims. TCM at least words it originally in their Hudson biography when they write "During WWII, worked for US Naval Intelligence with then-husband Harold Thompson."
Okay, I'll settle for that, though I'd love to know more!
It seems possible that Hudson left Hollywood in 1942 for a number of reasons. Perhaps she was forced out for not giving in to Zanuck or Cohn; perhaps she was in love with Thompson and simply wanted to be at his side; perhaps even the driving factor was to serve her country by being at Thompson's side.
She's quoted at that time as saying, "You can only be an ingenue for so long." So maybe it was just career dissatisfaction that was the cause of her exile.
As mentioned earlier she would return, first to low budget films, then television, then Rebel Without a Cause. She'd leave Hollywood again only to come back and enter the great 60's horror re-cycle appearing in Straight-Jacket starring Joan Crawford.
She married three additional times, divorcing Thompson in 1947 and marrying Los Angeles Times sportswriter Dick Hyland the following year. That second marriage lasted through to 1950, her third marriage was even briefer, of indeterminate length actually, during some part of 1955 to a Charles Brust. I'd love to say Hudson lived happily ever after with fourth husband, Robert Mindell, whom she married in 1963, but they divorced in 1971 with the final decree coming through just ten days before her death in 1972.
She'd found success as a Realtor back in California after her film career had ended. Just prior to her death she'd been battling a cold and laryngitis and when she failed to appear for an appointment on January 17, 1972 her partner went by her home to make sure she was okay, but Hudson had already died. Rochelle Hudson had had liver ailments which brought on the pneumonia that claimed her life at age 57.
An interesting life, a varied career which seemed to move backwards and forwards at an unpredictable pace, especially throughout her most active time of work in the 1930's.
Rochelle Hudson Movie Collectible Gallery
If you haven't yet please do be sure to read Rochelle Hudson: Square Peg in a Round Hole by Barrie Roberts on ClassicImages.com (It's no longer posted online - It can be found in the February 1998 issue of Classic Images.) as it was my top source for Rochelle Hudson biographical information.
Other sources included this a wonderful tribute from just over a year ago on Vintage Film Nerd, various period news clippings including obituaries published at the time of Hudson's passing in 1972, and the movies themselves.