Mary Beth Hughes
by Dave White - June 2016
Years of working evenings has turned me into a bit of an insomniac. A few years ago I turned on the TV after finishing a late night shift. I immediately recognized Louis Jean Heydt from “The Big Sleep”. The movie I started watching was a key film noir titled “Sleepers West” (Fox 1941) starring Lloyd Nolan and Lynn Bari from the Michael Shayne mystery series. In the train car scene with Heydt was the most beautiful young actress I had ever seen! Mary Beth Hughes. I was puzzled why I had hadn't heard of her before and wanted to find out all I could about her.
This got me started in my quest reading everything I could find about her, buying any movie I could find that she was in-collecting photos and autographs on all the sites on the Internet. I had many questions about her but the most puzzling things about her to me was why she didn't become a major movie star. I agreed 100% with movie historian David Ragan who said in “Movie Stars of the 40's” “She could sing, dance, and most definitely act.”
Mary Beth Hughes' show business career spanned five decades. She was a survivor, doing what she needed to do to make ends meet. From movies-television-radio-night clubs-stage plays-bass player-weather girl-hair dresser-plastic surgeon's assistant-lingerie shop owner-tele marketer, whatever was necessary to support herself and provide for her son (Donald James North) born in 1947.
She was born in Alton, Illinois near St. Louis on Nov. 13, 1921. All the current bios list 1919 as her birth year, but she told several people that she was actually born in 1921. She told writer Tom Turton emphatically way back in 1971 that 1921 was correct. This would be correct as she listed her age as 22 when she got married in 1943 and her California Death Index information lists her birth as 1921.
Her parents, George Joseph Hughes and Mary Francis Lucas Hughes divorced in 1923, and she moved with her mother to Washington D.C. In 1930. She began acting at a very young age in school plays and stage productions. In 1930-31 she performed in a school play that caught the attention of Clifford Brooks, who owned a repertory company and was connected with the Washington National Theatre. He admitted her into his company and gave her the title role in a production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which toured throughout the country. She was also given key roles in the productions of ‘Daddy Long Legs’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Mary Beth also worked as a dancer for Adolf Bolm of the St. Louis Municipal Opera.
The summer of 1934 included a tour with Brooks' Company in England. A Gaumont-British Studios talent scout was taken by her poise and beauty and offered her a film contract that she couldn't accept because she had to return to Washington D.C. that autumn to continue her high school education at Holy Cross Academy. In June of 1937 she graduated from high school and returned to the Clifford Brooks Repertory Company and played a variety of roles until the summer of 1938.
She loved to talk about her maternal grandmother who she considered her inspiration: “It was my grandmother who first imbued me with the dramatic urge. When I was hardly a child, she used to tell me of her exciting experiences on the stage, of the thrill of traveling, of her wide acquaintances and all the glamor that goes with acting. What made her reminiscences all the more engrossing was her deep love of the theater.”
Her grandmother was Mrs. Flora M. Lucas, whose stage name was Flora Fosdick. She had worked with many stage personalities including Ethel Barrymore. Mary Beth also said that growing up in Washington D.C. was a large measure of her screen success:
“Ambition is in the very air in the nation's capital and I suppose I breathed my share of it.” Mary Beth added that since Washington is the place where so many people get to the top. She thinks success down there is infectious. The curvaceous blonde beauty arrived in the capital at the age of nine when her mother moved there to take a job with the Department of Agriculture.
“Even in those days”, she recalls, “it was practically impossible to find a place to live.” But it was in Washington that Mary Beth Hughes studied dancing and dramatics, before emigrating to California to find work the movies.
She met agent Wally Ross who introduced her to Johnny Hyde of the powerful William Morris Agency. He helped her secure a contract with MGM for $100.00 a week on December 13, 1938. She attributed her success to Ross and Hyde. After uncredited parts in four 1939 MGM films, she was given her first credits in “These Glamour Girls”, “The Women” and three other films in 1939 including “Fast and Furious” with Franchot Tone and Ann Southern. This role as beauty contestant Terry Lawrence turned out to be a key role in her career because the executives at Fox took notice of her acting ability and beauty! This turned out to be the main reason she was offered a contract at Fox. MGM ran a series of glamour photos of her as a sweater girl with write-ups on “How to be a Glamour Girl” using exercise, diet, posture, and proper dress and stated that she was “One of the most glamourous girls in Hollywood.”
In issue #79-80 of Classic Images 1982, noted film historian Buck Rainey began a new series called “Buck Rainey's Filmographies” of female stars of the cinema. He made Mary Beth Hughes his first entry, quite an honor for her. Talking about her he said:
“Anyone seeing Free, Blonde, and 21 (Fox 1940), could hardly escape being pleasantly attracted to the beauty of blonde, Mary Beth Hughes, playing the scheming gold-digger of the title. Her beauty was stunning! Studio executives and directors who saw her in the film all remarked about her striking personality, which seemed to come out of the screen and grab hold of one. Most men seeing the film simply thought about how nice it would be to grab Mary Beth. She was five feet, four inches tall, weighed 120 pounds, and was a very striking, natural blonde (She was actually a natural red head) with the creamy complexion and blue eyes which generally goes with true blondness. She was no willowy wisp, but she had one of the most envied figures in Hollywood....”
Despite her talent and beauty, there were problems. Because she came along at the same time as Lana Turner, Betty Grable, and Alice Faye and other blondes already established she did not get the studio promotions she should have. In “Trail Talk” a book by Bobby Copeland Mary Beth is quoted as saying: “I started out with MGM and appeared in two films with Lana Turner. I got a glimpse of myself in the first picture” These Glamour Girls “but in the second” Dancing Co-ed “I missed myself altogether! At the preview I had dropped something and stooped to pick it up. In that instant occurred my brief appearance on the screen.” She also said in a People Magazine article in 1976. talking about her resemblance to these other female stars: “We looked so much alike the Director would screen the dailies and ask, 'Which one was that?'. “Then they'd cut all my entrances.” Many of her early screen scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Another clipping from a magazine at this stage of her career ran a photo of Mary Beth and Lana Turner with this comparison: “Mary Beth Hughes was a contemporary of Lana Turner's, but unlike Lana, whose star rose almost immediately, Mary Beth never graduated from the B's at Fox during the 30's and 40's. She was usually cast as a tart or a tramp; in the 50's she became a Gladys George type moll of madam. Talent notwithstanding, Mary Beth just didn't have a hot personal life to perk up the public's interest, like MGM's sweater girl”
1940 was an important year for Mary Beth Hughes. After MGM lent her to 20th Century Fox to star in “Free Blonde and 21” in December of 1939 she was offered a seven-year contract with Fox at $200.00 a week. One clause stated she wouldn't marry for 3 years. She was asked to go on arranged dates with stars such as Lew Ayres, George Montgomery, Milton Berle and others. In his autobiography Milton Berle had some nice things to say about her: “On screen, Mary Beth looked tall, seductive, and a little dangerous. Off screen she was tall, lovely to look at, and a regular gal. She was the kind of rare woman who could have just as much fun eating a hot dog at a ball game as sipping champagne at Ciro's. We had a lot in common - Mary Beth's mother tried to stay as close to her as mine did to me. I saw a lot of Mary Beth....” Hugh Dixon's Hollywood column dated Dec. 30, 1940 said: “Mary Beth Hughes and Milton Berle are still going together because she's still a good listener.”
One 1940 disappointment was a movie that producer Edward Small wanted her to star in about Jean Harlow, one of her inspirations, but he couldn't get the approval of the Harlow estate to do the picture. One movie success was being billed opposite John Barrymore in “The Great Profile” This must have really pleased her grandmother Flora Lucas who had worked on stage with Ethel Barrymore. Mary Beth was accompanied to the opening of The Great Profile by Robert Stack who she had just started dating. Fox was none too happy about this because he was from a rival studio. They were together until the summer of 1941.
In a general statement about marriage she said: “Hollywood men are scared to death of marriage. I'm not. In about three years from now, after I've put my name up in the highest neons, I'll be glad to relinquish my place and just be someone’s wife.”
1940 roles included a small part in “Star Dust”. She played opposite Cesar Romero in “Lucky Cisco Kid”, showing her singing and dancing abilities. She showed her acting range in a very good first rate film “Four Sons”. In September of 1940, she appeared in an article in Life magazine titled; “Hollywood Starlet Helps Recruit Marines”: 'In Hollywood on Aug. 7, 1940 Marine Major James P. Schwerin asked starlet Mary Beth Hughes to act as “recruiting hostess” for the day. In four booming hours her blonde peachy presence lured 50 applicants in for interviews-the best day's work in the history of the local office. With the aid of other starlets Major Schwerin hoped to sign up 300 recruits before the end of the month. The heading under a great photo of her in a Marine uniform says, “Mary Beth Hughes, 21-year-old starlet, lends her charm to the U. S. Marines. She is the first of several girls who will aid recruiting in the Marine's Hollywood office”
1941 brought no less than seven films for Fox, four more in 1942 and five in 1943. 1941's “The Cowboy and the Blonde” and “Sleepers West” with Lloyd Nolan and Lynn Bari show Mary Beth at her best! She shows an excellent range of talent including a very good piece of comedic talent in “Cowboy” and indeed in “The Night Before the Divorce” with Lynn Bari and holds her own in “Over My Dead Body” with Milton Berle, all excellent Fox “B” standards.
1942 began with the release of her third appearance opposite Lloyd Nolan in his “Michael Shayne” mystery series, “Blue White and Perfect”. In this January release Mary Beth stars as beauty parlor proprietor “Merle Garland”. Quite ironically, some 35 years later, after taking a 1976-77 course in cosmetology, Miss Hughes opened her own beauty emporium in Canoga Park, California. The salon was open for a decade.
1942 included “Orchestra Wives” with Glenn Miller, George Montgomery, and Lynn Bari. Her role while rather small did contain one of the great cat fights with her and Carole Landis and Virginia Gilmore that included three great face slaps between her and Landis and a pretty nimble kick by Mary Beth to Carole's backside. “Orchestra Wives” is one of the classic musicals of the 1940's! In his wonderful article on the movie in “Films of the Golden Age” #46 Jeff Gordon quoted from the promotional booklet about this great scene; “Less was written about Mary Beth Hughes and Virginia Gilmore although their hotel-room cat fight with Landis was covered in great detail, being called 'one of the greatest knock-down and drag out feminine battles of all time'”
Her stay at Fox unfortunately lasted only until 1943. It told the story of her career, with ups and downs, successes and disappointments but most of all Fox never took advantage of her wide range of talents. Jeff Gordon, author of “Foxy Lady”- the story of Lynn Bari summed up her stay at Fox in FGA #46: “Mary Beth Hughes, shone all too briefly at Fox. The studio had initially been grooming the shapely young blonde for big things, handing her plum assignments in three top 1940 productions (Star Dust, Four Sons and The Great Profile.) Meanwhile Betty Grable had come on the scene, followed by Carole Landis. The field was now over crowded with blondes and Hughes was the one to suffer; she would essentially be handed over to the “B” unit in 1941. Mary Beth could be as bubbly as Betty and sexy as Carole, but she also evidenced a headstrong quality that would make her less marketable than her competition. Her tendency toward obstinacy would be perfect for playing orchestra wife Caroline, but it would not see her through a stellar career at Fox. Hughes would be gone from there by 1943.”
Mary Beth Hughes and Lynn Bari were in 4 films together, “Free Blonde and 21”, “Sleepers West”, “Night before the Divorce”, and “Orchestra Wives”. She commented about Mary Beth talking about “Night Before the Divorce” in Jeff Gordon's book Foxy Lady: “That was cute, it wasn't a bad picture at all...Mary Beth was good in it, but the studio (Fox) never gave her a fair shake.” Also in Classic Images Feb 2007 an article by Colin Briggs titled 'Lynn Bari-a much titled lady' quoted Bari, “Mary Beth has a Monroe like quality that wasn't developed, she married and Zanuck lost interest.”
That marriage was December 12th, 1943 to Edward Ernest Steinel, an actor known as Ted North. They had met during the filming of “Charlie Chan in Rio” The wedding took place at The Wee Kirk O' the Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn. A copy of their marriage license list her age as 22 which supports her 1921 date of birth as accurate.
David Ragan in “Movie Stars of the 40's” also talked about her stay at Fox: “...looking like Betty Grable and being at the same studio (Fox) in the early 40's was hardly a plus for this dishy blonde; so it was her lot to star in “B's” or play the lovely, if sometimes bitchy, 'other woman' in big-budget movies, the studio repeatedly promised to star her in a film based on the life of Jean Harlow (“My real inspiration'), but that never happened. Leaving 20th Century fox in 43' she remained a popular leading lady (and pin-up favorite) through other pacts at Universal and Paramount.”
Her next to last film at Fox was “Over My Dead Body” 1942 with Milton Berle. Her last film at Fox was "The Ox-Bow Incident" 1943 with Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews, a well made indictment of mob violence. Unfortunately she is only in one all to brief scene as Rose, the Belle of Bridger Wells. Other scenes were filmed with her but did not make the final editing.
After Fox came a mix of films with Universal Studios-Paramount-Monogram-Producers Releasing Corporation-and Robert Lippert. “Follow the Band” by Universal was her first post Fox film. Mary Beth sings several tunes including the standard “Ain't Misbehavin”. Eddie Quillan was with her in this film and in Monogram's “Melody Parade” another wartime musical. Her singing is quite good and Melody Parade concludes with a musical tribute to the war effort of 1943 with Mary Beth in sexy short skirt military uniform. At this same time she was in Universal Studio's “Good Morning Judge”. I didn't think it was possible to make Mary Beth look bad but in the final scene with a black eye and a missing front tooth did the trick. It was quite a funny look. 1943 also brought a pretty good “B” picture by Paramount, “Timber Queen” with Richard Arlen. She sings and acts quite convincingly in this well put together drama.
1944 saw her in a top billed role that really showcased her talents. “Men On Her Mind” by PRC is a story of a girl who needs to decide which of 3 suitors will win her affections. She sings “Heaven on Earth” and even “Ave Maria” albeit a short rendition but beautifully done. Her singing is excellent and acting also very good. She appeared on the cover of a sheet music for “Heaven on Earth” in an absolutely stunning close up photo showing her pensive mood in trying to decide which man she will end up with. Exquisite indeed!
Sadly at the start of 1945, Mary Beth's Grandmother passed away at the age of 84 on Feb. 15th in Los Angeles. There is a small obituary in the March 3rd issue of Billboard Magazine: “LUCAS-Flora May, 84, grandmother of Mary Beth Hughes, screen actress, in West Los Angeles February 15. six daughters, a son and 10 great grandchildren survive. Services in Wee Kirk O' the Heather Forest Lawn Memorial Park Glendale, California February 19.” This was the same chapel where Mary Beth married Ted North in December of 1943. Her inspiration was gone. It is also interesting to note here that her own mother, Mary Frances Hughes' funeral was held in this same chapel at Forest Lawn. That happened on October 1, 1970. She had passed away Monday Sept. 28th.
Mary Beth appeared in another PRC “Camp Classic' 1945's “I Accuse My Parents” The film has received cult classic treatment by Mystery Science Theatre. The message of the film is about juvenile delinquency. She sings several songs and looks as beautiful as ever in helping reform a troubled young man who falls in love with her but accuses his parents for his down fallen state.
1945 also saw her appear in a Republic Pictures vehicle for Erich Von Stroheim “The Great Flamarion”. She and her character, a convincing gold digger, steal the film. In this well made sleeper Hughes appears as a red headed amoral beauty who brings about the ruin of the men in her life and her own demise at the hands of Stroheim. The film was reviewed in July of 2012 by Jeremy Heilman in glowing terms for MovieMartyr.com; “for a film of its era, Flamarion is unafraid to equate sex to dangerous power. Ms. Hughes in this film is one of the screen's great ice queens. All too willing to flirt, she turns like a snake the moment she's expected to reciprocate a man's affections. The film hinges on her ability to convincingly manipulate the 3 leading men against one another, and she more than succeeds. Her unrepentant character is rotten even by the standards of the femme fatale. The Great Flamarion stands out for its pessimistic view of sex and its willingness to admit that our impulses sometimes ask us to act against our better judgments.”. Even though she plays a ruthless character in this film, she is at her best and literally steals the picture from all her co-stars!
Next came another PRC murder mystery with Hugh Beaumont of 'Leave It to Beaver' fame, 1946's “The Lady Confesses”. It was a pretty good little film in which Mary Beth tries to clear her fiancé of a murder charge. His wife returns after being missing for several years only to end up murdered. Beaumont turns out to be the killer when he tries to do away with Mary Beth but he gets caught and killed in the end. In her next Paramount entry, she does indeed end up dead. “Caged Fury” with Buster Crabbe, Richard Denning and Sheila Ryan. Crabbe succeeds in killing off Mary Beth at the hands of the circus lions way too early in the film only to be killed himself in the end by the same lions.
Another quite good Paramount film followed - "Waterfront At Midnight” She plays a flippant gun moll who turns informer when the mob eliminates her undercover-agent lover. Sadly, this film is nowhere to be found on VHS, DVD or television.
A surprisingly good suspense film came along in 1948 “Inner Sanctum” has her cast as a hard luck girl who thinks she’s found a man to help her escape her hum-drum existence only to discover in the end that he is a murderer. This film is a very well put together entry in her career.
In the late 40's and early 50's she was in demand to do several western films, most of which were quite well done with fairly good plots and of course old fashioned western action and adventure. 1948's The Return of Wildfire”, “Last of the Wild Horses”, “El Paso”, 1949's “Rimfire”, “Grand Canyon”, “Riders in the Sky” with a more mature Gene Autry, 1950's “Square Dance Jubilee”, 1951's “Passage West” and later in 1957 “Gun Battle at Monterey.” in these films she played an eastern bred rancher, a tomboy rancher, a stage coach pick pocket, a helpless damsel in distress, a temperamental film star, a saloon hall hostess, a stubborn modern day range owner, saloon entertainer, and a dance hall queen. These western roles led to several television appearances in westerns such as “Colt .45”, “Buckskin”, “Frontier Doctor”, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin”, “Wanted Dead or Alive”, “The Deputy”, and “Rawhide”. She talked about her western appearances in Copeland's Trail Talk: “I enjoyed the westerns. I always thought my roles were a little different and more challenging than those of most western ladies.” That statement was so true. She stood out in virtually every role she was paid to perform. And I am sure she was never paid great sums of money for these roles. Simply, she worked and worked well. She was well respected and liked by her co-workers.
Pat Buttram, Gene Autry's side kick was always known to say when talking about his work in the westerns: “That was more fun than being on the set with Mary Beth Hughes.” In 1987 on an episode of Melody Ranch Theatre, Autry and Buttram are talking about “Riders in the Sky” and the cast members. When Pat Buttrum mentions Mary Beth Hughes Gene Autry lights up with a big smile and says, “Oh Yes”, Pat goes on to call her “the Vamp of all time” and “the Miss Kitty of her day” High praise indeed! He goes on to say she does a great job in the picture!
During the filming of “El Paso” Mary Beth, John Payne and Gabby Hayes visited with golfing legend Ben Hogan in his hotel room. The date was March 27, 1949. Hogan was recovering in El Paso from the near fatal auto accident that happened on February 2nd.
In October of 1949, Mary Beth and second husband David Street toured Canada for four days with the Bob Hope Show. Hope was guaranteed $40,000 for the tour of Toronto-Gueloh-Montreal and Windsor. She had appeared with the biggest entertainers ever Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Milton Berle!
Two films of the 1950’s set in Nevada really stand out . 1954's “Highway Dragnet” has Mary Beth Hughes killed very early in the film but her short scene with Richard Conte steals the entire film. She beautifully plays an over the hill glamour model with an alcohol problem. It is a standout few minutes of her at her very best and turns out surprisingly sensual. In the scene she points to a photo on the wall when she was “the highest paid fashion model in New York”. That photo and her look in the film are quite a contrast, even though the photo and the movie role are only 2 years apart!
In 1955 she plays a gambler with “the fever' in “Las Vegas Shakedown” with Dennis O'Keefe. Her look is quite different with dark hair but the beauty is still there. A nice role well suited for her outstanding acting abilities. She is listed in the credits as “Mary Bethe Hughes”. She was into numerology at the time and the extra 'e' in her name is probably a 4-5-6 sequence of the number of letters in her name. Probably for good luck-who knows.
Mary Beth Hughes does not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her work in the movies. She deserves one. She does not have a star for her work in television. She deserves one for each media! The following incident may be the reason why she has not been honored, yet.
In March of 1960 the Los Angeles Mirror News ran stories related to a current movie industry strike. Mary Beth and others including Angie Dickinson and Dennis Hopper filed for unemployment benefits. She was quoted at the time of filing: “I guess a lots of (actors) feel it's a bread line but not me. This is good, non-taxable money. I was a contract player for 10 years and couldn't collect any of it, I'm going to make up for it now.” She also blamed the strike on the screen writers, not actors. “Everyone thinks that we started this thing, but it's mainly the producers and the writers.” It is my opinion that these comments were duly noted by the powers in Hollywood and may be the reason she has never received the honor of 2 stars on the Walk of Fame! She may very well have been singled out or even black listed by those who decide who will be honored. She was her own worst enemy. But as I said earlier she was a survivor! A short time after the strike she was doing what she could to make a living as a single mom.
Several newspaper articles appeared throughout the country in late March of 1962. Such as The Corsicana Daily Sun Mar 28th written by Bob Thomas in his Hollywood Column, and A.P. Wire Services Mar 28th. There were also stories with photos in the Chicago Tribune on March 30th.
Mary Beth Hughes as Surgical Assistant-
'At 9 O’clock every evening Mary Beth Hughes makes her appearance wearing a bathing suit” (actually lingerie)” in a sexy farce called “Pajama Tops” at the Le Grande Theatre in Hollywood. At 8;15 every morning she enters a Vermont Ave. doctor's office in nurse's white, beginning her full day as a surgical assistant. The double life involves no hard luck story, as with Veronica Lake (discovered last week working as a cocktail waitress in New York). “The picture business has changed”, said Miss Hughes, a 20-year veteran in films, “on the last three television films I worked on, the producers were former prop men. The directors were not just amateurs; they were incompetent amateurs. When I pointed out to one director he was making technical errors that would require retakes, he told me to mind my own business! Sure enough, they had to call me back for two days of retakes. The business was also economically unsound for me. Two years ago, I worked eight days in films during one year. I've got a 15-year-old son and a house to support; my expenses run $550 a month. I couldn't keep dipping into my resources.” For some time she had been telling her mother she wanted to be a nurse. “Mother is a registered nurse herself.” She met a plastic surgeon at a cocktail party. He recommended an operation to remove small pox and acne scars and life drooping eye lids. She had the operation. “I don't mind admitting I had a facelift, it's good for business.” She urged the surgeon to give her a job. He tested her sincerity by asking her to accompany him on a couple of operations, a skin graft on the legs of a burned girl and removal of a cancer from the head of a 70-year-old woman. Miss Hughes watched both with no adverse effects, and the surgeon hired her last October. She underwent hospital training and soon was assisting the surgeon in operations. “Doctors and Nurses tell me I am a natural”, she said with hidden pride. “I learn more quickly and my reactions are right. Believe me, this gives more satisfaction than anything I ever did in show business!” She now is working for another surgeon, who has placed her in complete charge of his office-bookkeeping, receiving patients, assisting with operations and everything. He even went on a two-week vacation to Acapulco, leaving her to dress patients' operations. “I agreed to do 'Pajama Tops' (only after asking the doctor's permission),” she said. “I had done the show before and loved it, but I wouldn't consider it if it interfered with my job. I have turned down the Milton Berle special and two Red Skelton shows because they would have conflicted.” (We all make mistakes in life, do things we wish we could undo, say things we wish had gone unsaid, made decisions we later regretted! These all apply to her turning down offers from Berle and Skelton. This was a huge mistake in judgment on her part. You just don't turn down offers from 2 of the biggest names in television history! She could have explained things to her doctor boss, mentioned the benefits in publicity to his business. He probably would have given her permission to miss a few days of work as his assistant. These TV opportunities could have paid great dividends to her career which virtually ended after this untimely decision.) 'Miss Hughes has earned $1,500 a week in films and as high as $5,000 weekly in tours. Her monthly salary at the Doctor's office is now $600. “But I couldn't be happier,” she commented.' Ironically, her work as a plastic surgeon’s assistant lasted only about a year. Her appearances in Pajama Tops continued.
The write up bio for her in the theatrical flyer for “Pajama Tops” is quite flattering: “Mary Beth Hughes-The annals of show business will record the name of Mary Beth Hughes as one of the most versatile performers in the business, for Miss Hughes' successes range from being a star at the age of ten, to being a successful mother, to extraordinary success as a night-club performer, a Las Vegas engagement she completed just prior to joining “Pajama Tops.” Hailing from Alton, Illinois, the 120-pound bundle of loveliness has appeared in more than fifty major motion pictures.... Legitimate Theatre audiences hailed her performance in “Educating Eve,” “Oh Men, Oh Women,” and “The Seven Year Itch.” With the advent of television, Miss Hughes was naturally in demand, and to her appearances adds “Ford Theatre,” “White Collar Girl*,” “Big Town,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Abbott and Costello,” “Make Room for Daddy,” “Public Defender,” “Racket Squad,” “Fireside Theatre,” “My Hero,” “Ellery Queen,” “Duffy's Tavern,” “Marie Wilson Show,” “Passport to Danger,” “Favorite Husband,” and “Dragnet,” In “Pajama Tops” Mary Beth Hughes portrays the role offered her in the original production, but which she couldn't accept because of prior commitments. The role was played by Diana Barrymore.”
*White Collar Girl was a pilot for a never made 1953 TV series starring Laraine Day-MBH-Lee Patrick-Hillary Brooke-Dawn Addams and Queenie Leonard. Laraine Day was to play an aspiring fashion designer in New York City, she was to encounter more mishaps than success in achieving her dream of becoming the perfect woman. Mary Beth Hughes was to play her roommate. It was probably never made because it was far ahead of its time-an all-girl series set in New York City.
She did what she had to do after film offers dwindled following her brash statements in 1960.
David Ragan's must have book “Who's Who in Hollywood 1900-1976” wrote about her later years:
“Little changed in looks though in her 50's. In recent years she earned her living in nightclubs-singing and playing the electric bass-more often than not in second-rate suburban bistros where the clientele cared more about getting the bartenders' attention than listening to anyone's songs. “One day I told myself, that I either had to quit or become an alcoholic so I could stand that kind of life.” She quit. She has been unsuccessful in getting what she really wants-a running role in a TV series. She resumed her night club act. This time in the better Southern California boites. “I have been asked in the clubs we work if I am the mother of the actress, Mary Beth Hughes. At first I would become angry, then I realized it was a compliment.” She lives in a rambling ranch house in Sepulveda, with many cats and a enormous pool. Her only child, Donald North, teaches scuba diving and owns a business selling sophisticated underwater equipment; married several years, he lives nearby. ..this realistic veteran of 56 movies describes herself now as a “working girl making ends meet.” (This bio is from the 1977 edition of Who's Who.)
In the December 20th 1976 edition of People Magazine there is a story about her current status at that time: “Mary Beth Hughes Stars in a New Shampoo Sequel”:
“As the bad girl of B-movies, Mary Beth Hughes appeared in 170 films” (closer to 60) “I was sentenced to Tehachapi Woman's Prison 35 times', says Hughes. She made 'The Great Profile' with John Barrymore, 'The Cowboy and the Blonde' with George Montgomery, and 'Four Sons' with Don Ameche. Despite such leading men, she was never a superstar. What kept her from it, she says was her resemblance to such blond beauties of the time as Betty Grable, Alice Faye and Lana Turner. Mary Beth was in 4 Turner films “We looked so much alike the director would screen the dailies and ask 'which one was that?' then they'd cut all my entrances.” Today the five-times-divorcee” (should be only 3) “Mary Beth, 55, lives in the San Fernando Valley with little of the money she made in Hollywood. Last March she enrolled at a Reseda, Calif. Beauty school and hopes to open her own beauty salon'. (She did) “I've always been good with hair”, she says. “I've made all the mistakes on me.”
Many of the TV episodes she was in can be found on You Tube and other sites. Red Skelton adored her. The closest she came to a regular on a TV series was with Skelton, appearing on 11 episodes. It has been noted that the reason Red liked her is because she wouldn't crack up at his jokes and impromptu antics. However, on one episode called “Appleby's Garage' she indeed does lose it for a second, but then goes right back into character. She also cracks up several times in the January 1961 episode entitled “San Fernando Cal”.
On an episode of “My Hero” with Robert Cummings called The Beauty Queen she plays an out of work burlesque queen looking for a job. As a dumb blonde she uses her charm to try and get a job in Cummings office but knows nothing about office work. To see her try to put a piece of paper sideways into a typewriter is absolutely hilarious. She gets the job anyway. These are just a couple of examples of her comedic talent. She more than held her own with the comedians of her day. The list is quite impressive. Not only Red Skelton but Milton Berle, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, The Bowery Boys, and the Ritz Brothers. We also found a beautiful picture of her appearing on “The Dating Game” as a contestant sometime in the late 60's or early 70's!
Sadly, her movie career ended appearing in three low budget exploitation films in the 1970's. She is credited as being in more but they were another actress with the virtual same name.
She even tried telemarketing for a phone service company but was later laid off in the early 90's. One of her co-workers said she was a classy feisty dame even then. Mr. Bennett (A blogger on Mary Beth Hughes' official website) said:
“I worked with Mary when she and I were tele-marketing in 1989 for a company in the San Fernando Valley. It was for “Logi-Call”, another one of those long-distance companies. She was great on the phone, had a terrific spirit and enjoyed discussing her old films. She was great fun and was really liked by all. Nice Lady. (She is close to 70 at this time) Her secret to getting male head honchos to change their long-distance service??? Flirting, of course.”
I owe much of the inspiration to complete this project on Mary Beth Hughes to Tom Turton, a lifetime fan of hers and who knows more about her than anyone else. I also want to thank Jeff Gordon for helping me get in touch with Tom. In 1971 Tom wrote a most compelling article about her for “Films In Review” entitled 'Mary Beth Hughes-exemplifies the truism that looks are never enough.' It is full of many photos, a very excellent filmography and insights into her career. In talking to her she asked him “Why are you interested in me?” We answer that question: because of the range of her talent and her ability to survive in an industry that is sometimes more harsh than rewarding. Tom's closing to this fine article written when he was in his 20's: “For a while Miss Hughes was bitter about the decline of her movie career and was inclined to blame everyone but herself (I have found no evidence that she ever refused a banal part, or fought for a good one.) But gradually the bitterness subsided, and rather recently she said: 'Maybe wishing isn't enough. Perhaps luck is the most important factor. It now seems to me that a freak of fortune was responsible for whatever I got'” In addition to that I would add that every single role or part in the movies or on TV that I have seen her in, she put her heart and soul and ability full throttle into it! I have not seen one single effort that she did not give her very best!
Buck Rainey concluded his article in Classic Images #79-80: “Mary Beth Hughes has not been forgotten by her loyal fans, who cherish the memory of this delightful blonde beauty who entertained them on the double feature programs of a by-gone era. They have made her a cult figure in the movie nostalgia world.” That great article was written over 30 years ago.
Mary Beth Hughes was always looking ahead. She was an optimist! In Trail Talk she said: “After 3 divorces” (Ted North 1943-1947) (David Street 1948-1956) (Nicky Stewart 1973-1977) “I became stupid and married 3 alcoholics in a row and divorced them as fast as I could. Now I'm single again and intend to stay that way unless a millionaire comes along which I seriously doubt will happen to me.”
Mary Beth Hughes died on Sunday August 27, 1995 in Los Angeles at the age of 73.
This was a remarkable woman in many ways. Talent, Beauty, Optimist, Survivor tell part of her story. She was a gifted actress, versatile with all the right expressions and remarkable timing, always prepared for any role she was offered. She gave her best! But her head strong attitude and some unfortunate decisions and untimely words cut her career short when she was only 40 years old. Those of us who have studied her say without hesitation, she should have been a major star.
We can learn a great deal from the story of Mary Beth Hughes. Tales of what might have been if things were a little different. Moments of happiness and sorrow, pain and glory, success and failure, really the lessons of life. The what ifs... We can ask ourselves the same questions about our own lives and remember that tomorrow will be a better day!
1939 Within the Law (voice/uncredited)
1939 Broadway Serenade (uncredited)
1939 The Kid from Texas (uncredited)
1939 Bridal Suite (uncredited)
1939 These Glamour Girls
1939 Dancing Co Ed
1939 Fast and Furious
1939 The Covered Trailer
1940 Free, Blonde and 21
1940 Star Dust
1940 Four Sons
1940 Lucky Cisco Kid
1940 The Great Profile
1941 Sleepers West
1941 Ride on Vaquero
1941 The Great American Broadcast
1941 The Cowboy and the Blonde
1941 Dressed to Kill
1941 Charlie Chan in Rio
1941 Design for Scandal
1942 Blue, White and Perfect
1942 The Night Before the Divorce
1942 Orchestra Wives
1942 Over My Dead Body
1943 Good Morning Judge
1943 Follow the Band
1943 The Ox-Bow Incident
1943 Melody Parade
1943 Never a Dull Moment
1944 Timber Queen
1944 Men on Her Mind
1944 Take It Big
1944 I Accuse My Parents
1945 The Great Flamarion
1945 Rockin' in the Rockies
1945 The Lady Confesses
1948 Caged Fury
1948 Joe Palooka in Winner Take All
1948 Waterfront at Midnight
1948 The Return of Wildfire
1948 Inner Sanctum
1948 Last of the Wild Horses
1949 El Paso
1949 Grand Canyon
1949 The Devil's Henchman
1949 Square Dance Jubilee
1949 Rider in the Sky
1950 Young Man with a Horn
1950 Holiday Rhythm
1951 Close to My Heart
1951 Passage West
1954 Highway Dragnet
1955 Las Vegas Shakedown
1955 Dig That Uranium
1957 Gun Battle at Monterey
1971 How's Your Love Life?
1971 The Blue Hour
1976 Working Girls