Kathlyn Williams began work in motion pictures as an actress with Biograph in New York. “I was playing in stock,” she recounted to Photoplay in 1917. “One week when I was not working someone called me up from the Biograph studio and asked if I would work two days for them. I was dreadfully insulted at first, but I went out of curiosity expecting to be offered about fifty cents a day.” To her amazement, D. W. Griffith paid her ten dollars for each day’s work (77). Williams told Photoplay that she performed in three Biograph titles, but in combination, Paul Spehr and the American Film Institute catalog credit her with a total of five, with release dates beginning in 1909. Sources agree that she joined the Selig Polyscope Company in 1910 and quickly became the company’s leading actress. From the start, she played an action heroine, although she was also featured in dramatic roles. In 1913-14 she starred in the Adventures of Kathlyn, generally regarded as the first serial with “hold-over” suspense. While with Selig, she wrote scenarios for at least five titles, one of which, The Leopard’s Foundling (1914), written by Maibelle Heikes Justice, the Selig release notes credit her with directing. In 1916 she began her second marriage, to Charles Eyton, described in most biographies as a Paramount executive, but likely general manager of the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company, which released through distributor Paramount at the time. Wiliams appeared in a series of Morosco pictures. In 1917, Julia Crawford Ivers produced her scenario for Lost in Transit at Pallas Pictures, also releasing through Paramount and, like Morosco, soon to be absorbed in Famous Players-Lasky-Paramount. Lost in Transit is Williams’s last known screenwriting credit. In 1919, Moving Picture World reported that she would organize her own company, but probably the company never materialized (359). Williams worked steadily as a performer through 1935, when she retired from the screen with well over one hundred titles to her name. Although several titles in which Williams acted survive, there are no known prints of the titles she either wrote or directed.
Kathlyn Williams c. 1916. Private Collection.
Kathlyn Williams, The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913). Private Collection.
Kathlyn Williams and Goldie Colwell The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913). Private Collection.
Kathlyn Williams with Fluffy the dog. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Wallace Reid, Kathlyn Williams, and Alfred Paget, Big Timber (1917). Private Collection.
The relationship between Williams’s star persona and her roles as screenwriter and director poses an interesting, and not atypical, problem. As with many other early women filmmakers, her success in front of the camera created opportunities behind it, but her reputation as a performer may well have limited those opportunities as well. Known especially for her work with the big cats in Selig’s zoo, Williams exemplifies the “nervy movie lady” described by Jennifer Bean. Unlike her action-hero counterparts, Bean argues, this figure was represented as “nonknowledgeable and unknowabable” (14). Her hallmark was the ability to confront extreme bodily dangers with a childlike lack of concern—not, one would think, a quality prized in a director. A 1915 item in Selig’s in-house paper, The Paste-Potand Shears, suggests the blithe unconcern Bean finds typical: asked to account for her success in working with wild animals, “‘I just act with them’ was the answer of the blonde and enticing Kathlyn.” Three titles Selig credited her with writing and (in the one case) directing in 1914 and 1915 each drew on this devil-may-care persona: The Leopard’s Foundling (1914), The Strange Case of Talmai Lind (1915), and A Sultana of the Desert (1915).
According to Harold McGrath’s illustrated novelization, TheAdventures of Kathlyn is set in the mythical Indian kingdom of Allaha. The serial’s thirteen episodes chronicle Kathlyn’s perilous encounters with wild beasts and agents of the insidious Council of Three as she strives to rescue her explorer father and free the enslaved population. She finds help from a white hunter and native servants she befriends. The Leopard’s Foundling (1914), the first of three films, and the one written and directed by Williams, moves its action to Africa and makes its heroine a wild child lost to her human parents, raised by leopards, and redeemed to civilization by an American hunter. Moving Picture World in November 1913 described the then-unreleased film as “a new note in dramatic daring in dealing with the oarnivora [sic] as though the treacherous big cats were the most tractable and gentle of animals” (1017). The Strange Case of Talmai Lind (1915) returns to a mythical beast-filled India to tell the tale of Talmai, who dies tragically saving the white man she loves, and the final film, A Sultana of the Desert (1915), features Williams as Jean, the daughter of a French exporter who objects to her romance with Christoph and banishes her to the convent. Christoph chases her across the desert, and in the complications that follow Jean befriends a lion subsequently killed by her father. Although detailed analysis is impossible in the absence of surviving prints, it seems clear enough that, as in Adventures of Kathlyn, these films feature stereotypically exotic settings, adventure plots, big cats, great white hunter figures, native friends, and absent, wicked, or otherwise inadequate fathers.
As with Cleo Madison and Grace Cunard, two other serial queens who also wrote and directed the films in which they appeared, press coverage of Williams emphasized her femininity along with her daring. For instance, in 1914 the Los Angeles Times reported that for The Lady or the Tigers, “Miss Williams was required to enter the cage of three tigers lately brought from the jungle, which were untamed and didn’t know a moving-picture genius from a meat-pie,” and in the next breath that “Miss Williams has five new Paris gowns for use in The Rosary and The Ne’er Do-Well (4). In addition to uniting the daredevil and the fashionable lady in a single body, this story also implicitly parses those roles into two different genres.
In fact, Williams’s first credited screenplays were modern dramas with fairly conventional romance plots. The Last Dance (1912) relates the tragic story of a nightclub dancer who retreats to the country to recuperate from heart trouble. She falls in love with the local minister, who nurses her back to health but ultimately spurns her because of what he regards as her disreputable past. To prove the virtue of her dancing, she performs for him and wins him over, but her heart condition finally kills her. Williams did not appear in The Last Dance, but she plays the lead in The Young Mrs. Eames (1913). Here, a young widow rejects an ardent younger suitor after she overhears him declaring his love for her daughter. She marries a man closer to her age. After leaving Selig to work at Paramount under the direction of William Desmond Taylor, Cecil B. DeMille, and others, Williams’s films continued more in this dramatic vein. Her screenplay for Lost in Transit (1917) follows an infant boy kidnapped first from his wealthy father and then from an Italian junk man who cares for him.
In April 1917, a story in the Los Angeles Times reported that Williams “has had more than a dozen of her photoplays produced and two of them she directed herself.” It added, “Deep in her heart Miss Williams has always felt a great desire to devote all of her attention to directing, but she is too popular as an actress with the managers and the public to permit her to indulge her ambition” (18). The story leaves us with two puzzles. First, there is a discrepancy between the number of titles it attributes to Williams and known credits. Second, one might well wonder how studio producers understood her popularity and how that understanding did and did not translate into opportunities to write and direct.
Bean, Jennifer M. “Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body.” Camera Obscura vol. 16, no. 3 (2001): 9-57.
“Kathlyn Williams’s New Play.” Moving Picture World (29 Nov. 1913): 1017.
“Kathlyn Williams to Produce Her Own Picture.” Moving Picture World (17 May 1913): 689.
“Kathlyn Williams Will Organize Own Company.” Moving Picture World (19 Apr. 1919): 359.
Kingsley, Grace. “Film Flams.” Los Angeles Times (14 Oct. 1914): sec. 3: 4.
MacGrath, Harold. The Adventures of Kathlyn. Kathlyn Williams De Luxe Edition Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1914.
MacGrath, Harold. The Adventures of Kathlyn: Synopsis of a Serial Novel. [Folder 1, William Selig Collection]. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.
“Miss Kathlyn Williams Tells of Experiences with Wild Animals.” Paste-Pot and Shears. (27 Sep. 1915): n.p. [ Folder 562, Selig Release Notes]. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.
Warnack, Henry Christeen. "Versatile Kathleen—a Close-up of a Fascinating Practical Idealist.” Los Angeles Times (1 Apr. 1917): sec. 3: 1, 18.
The Tragedy That Lived. Dir.: Colin Campbell (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1914) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Wheeler Oakman, si, b&w. Archive: BFI National Archive [GBB].
The Carpet from Bagdad. Dir.: Colin Campbell (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1915) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Wheeler Oakman, si, b&w. Archive: BFI National Archive [GBB].
The Ne’er Do Well. Dir.: Colin Campbell, sc.: Lanier Bartlett (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1915) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Wheeler Oakman, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Rosary. Dir.: Colin Campbell, sc.: Lanier Bartlett (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1915) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Charles Clary, si, b&w. Archive: BFI National Archive [GBB].
Sweet Alyssum. Dir.: Colon Campbell (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1915) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Wheeler Oakman, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: George Eastman Museum [USR].
Number 13, Westbound. Dir.: Frank Beal (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1916) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, si, b&w. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM].
Redeeming Love. Dir.: William Desmond Taylor, sc.: Gardner Hunting (Oliver Morosco Photoplay Co. US 1916) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Thomas Holding, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
A Man, a Girl, and a Lion. Dir.: Francis J. Grandon, sc.: James Oliver Curwood (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1917) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Charles Clary, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
Out of the Wreck (The Woman with the Forget-Me-Nots). Dir.: William Desmond Taylor, sc.: Gardner Hunting (Oliver Morosco Photoplay Co. US 1917) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, William H. Clifford, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
Pioneer Days. Dir.: Oscar Eagle (Selig Polyscope Co. US 1917) cas.: Kathlyn Williams, Charles Clary, si, b&w. Archive: George Eastman Museum [USR].
Souls for Sale. Dir.: Rupert Hughes (Goldwyn Pictures Corp. US 1923) cas.: Kathlyn Willams, si, b&w, 8 reels; 7, 864 ft. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM].
B. Filmography: Non-Extant Film Titles:
1. Kathlyn Williams as Screenwriter and Actress
The Last Dance, 1912; The Young Mrs. Eames,1913; The Strange Case of Talmai Lind, 1915; A Sultana of the Desert, 1915.
2.Kathlyn Williams as Screenwriter
Lost in Transit, 1917.
3. Kathlyn Williams as Director or Director and Screenwriter
The Leopard’s Foundling, 1914.
4. Kathlyn Williams as Actress
The Fire Chief’s Daughter, 1910; Gold Is Not All, 1910; Mazeppa; or, The Wile Horse of Tartary, 1910; Lady or the Tigers, 1914; Into the Primitive, 1916; Thou Shalt Not Covet, 1916; The Valiants of Virginia, 1916; Big Timber, 1917; The Cost of Hatred, 1917; The Highway of Hope, 1917; The Thing We Love, 1918; We Can’t Have Everything, 1918; The Better Wife, 1919; A Girl Named Mary, 1919; Her Kingdom of Dreams, 1919; Her Purchase Price, 1919; The Prince Chap, 1920; The Tree of Knowledge, 1920; The U.P. Trail, 1920; Everything for Sale, 1921; Hush, 1921; A Man’s Home, 1921; A Private Scandal, 1921; A Virginia Courtship, 1921; Clarence, 1922; Broadway Gold, 1923; Trimmed in Scarlet, 1923; The World’s Applause, 1923; The City That Never Sleeps, 1924; The Painted Flapper, 1924; Wanderer of the Wasteland, 1924; When a Girl Loves, 1924; The Best People, 1925; Locked Doors, 1925; Sally in Our Alley, 1927; Honeymoon Flats, 1928; We Americans, 1928; A Single Man, 1929.
C. DVD Sources:
Sweet Alyssum. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2015)
Conrad in Quest of His Youth. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2015)
Thor, Lord of the Jungle. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2010)
D.W. Griffith Directo, vol. 5. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2007)
The Cecile B. DeMille Classics Collection. DVD. (Passport Video US 2007)
The Whispering Chorus. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2014)
Our Dancing Daughters. DVD. (Warner Archive Collection US 2010)
In the Days of the Thundering Herd. DVD. (Harpodeon US 2010) - contains The Girl at the Cupola (1912)
D. Streamed Media:
Back to the Primitive (1911) via the EYE Filmmuseum (Dutch intertitles)
The Witch of the Everglades (1911) via the EYE Filmmuseum (Dutch intertitles)
Captain Kate (1911) via the EYE Filmmuseum (Dutch intertitles)
Lost in theJungle (1911) via the EYE Filmmuseum (Dutch intertitles)
Thor, Lord of the Jungles (1913) via the EYE Filmmuseum (Dutch intertitles)
The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913) via the EYE Filmmuseum (part of ep. 1)
Shorts from the early/mid teens are often not listed in AFI or FIAF records. Many of Williams’ credits can only be verified by Paul Spehr. The Leopard’s Foundling was credited in all publicity material as being directed by Williams, however most current sources credit Francis J. Grandon, who directed Adventures of Kathlyn, as the director. Only episode one of The Adventures of Kathlyn is believed to be extant which is somewhat tragic as The Adventures of Kathlyn is considered by most film historians to be the first motion picture cliff-hanger serial. While Kathlyn Williams does appear in Souls for Sale, she plays herself, rather than a member of the cast.
Cooper, Mark Garrett. "Kathlyn Williams." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-qh25-9013>