Rochelle Hudson: From WAMPAS to William Castle

There are many reasons for us to be especially interested in Rochelle Hudson (1916-1972): her roles in classic comedies, her status as a beauty queen, and her late dabbling in schlock horror among them.

Originally from Oklahoma City (and supposedly a direct descendent of explorer Henry Hudson), her career was pushed into being by an aggressive stage mother. She studied acting, singing, dancing and piano from childhood, and also became fluent in French and Spanish. After she got to Hollywood, she studied dance with Marge Champion’s father, Ernest Belcher. Hudson rounded out her high school on the Fox lot, though her first studio contract was with RKO. She was 15 at the time of her signing, although the studio gave out that she was two years older.

Hudson’s first screen role turned out to be historic, although it’s usually not foregrounded in her biographies. She was the voice of Honey in Looney Tunes’ Bosko shorts, some of the first cartoons to come out of Leon Schlesinger’s studios, starting in 1930. Bosko kind of gets swept under the run nowadays, for the glaring reason of the character’s relationship to blackface minstrelsy and Li’l Black Sambo, which of course is the very reason it ought to be discussed. I also strongly suspect that the inspiration for the name came from Bosco Chocolate Syrup, which was founded in 1928. Honey was Bosko’s love interest, basically the Minnie to his Mickey Mouse. (Some have noted that Mickey’s gloves also owe their lineage to blackface minstrelsy. It must be said and said again that, on racism, few show business performers of the 20th century, even mice, get a clean bill of health). Logically, Hudson got the part of Honey at least partially because of her natural Southern accent. She played the character in over three dozen of these Bosco shorts through 1937.

Through those same years, she also enjoyed her greatest successes on camera, as well. Initially, she was an extra in things like Everything’s Rosie (1931), with Robert Woolsey, and Wheeler and Woolsey’s Girl Crazy (1932). Even so, she was made a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931. Her unique, wide face reminds me somewhat of Constance Cummings.

Hudson was soon demand as an ingenue. She had a prominent role as a young innocent in Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) and she was the title character in W.C. Fields’ Poppy (1936). With Will Rogers she appeared in Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934) and Life Begins at 40 (1935). She was Shirley Temple’s older sister in Curly Top (1935). She was also in Harold Teen (1934, based on the comic strip); The Mighty Barnum (1934) with Wallace Beery, Bachelor Bait (1934) with Stuart Erwin, She Had to Eat (1937) with Jack Haley, and Rascals (1938) with Jane Withers. Hudson also had key roles in important dramas, such as the original version of Imitation of Life (1934), Les Miserables (1935), and the 1935 remake of Way Down East. Another interesting movie from the period was Reunion (1936), in which she appeared with the Dionne Quintuplets.

In 1939, Hudson married Harold Thompson, head of the storyline department of Walt Disney Studios. From 1938 through 1942, she continued to be extremely active in pictures, but now co-starring in B movies, mostly gangster, crime and spy flicks, such as Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938) and Meet Boston Blackie (1941). Her last movie of this period was PRC’s Queen of Broadway (1942), in which she played a lady bookie! According to several sources, she and Thompson worked for a time as spies during World War Two, keeping an eye out for German activity in Mexico in the guise of tourists. Thompson and Hudson divorced in 1947, and Hudson returned to the screen in the low-budget pictures Bush Pilot (1947), Devil’s Cargo (1948), and Sky Liner (1949).

Late career head shot

Hudson worked in TV through the 1950s, with a highpoint in the middle of the decade, when she appeared as Natalie Wood’s mom in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and co-starred in the sitcom That’s My Boy (1954-55), based on the eponymous Martin and Lewis comedy. In 1956 she married her third husband, Charles K. Brust and retired to a large ranch in Arizona.

This marriage, like her first two, however, ended in divorce, and Hudson returned to Hollywood for the last phase of her career, when she appeared in the William Castle films Straight-Jacket with Joan Crawford and The Night Walker with Barbara Stanwyck, both in 1964. Her last film was Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1967) with John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr.

After this, Hudson left films for the last time, and dealt in real estate. She was found dead of liver failure by a business partner at the Palm Desert Country Club at the young age of 57. She had divorced her fourth husband the previous year.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.