Kathlyn Williams - Silent Star of April, 1998

by Kally Mavromatis

She was the Queen of the Serials, the first woman to be put in danger, week after week, her safety unassured until the next installment.

Pearl White?

No. Kathlyn Williams.

In 1913, Colonel William Selig, in a last-ditch effort to help save the floundering Chicago Tribune, began a collaborative effort to boost the paper's circulation and increase attendance at his pictures. The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913) perfected the concept of the cliffhanger, with the paper publishing each chapter's story in conjunction with the latest installment. While the idea of a continuous series was not new -- it had been done earlier by Edison and Ladies World with What Happened to Mary (1912) with Mary Fuller -- what made Adventures different was its heady mix of wild animals, thrills, and vicarious adventure.

The combination proved to be a winning success. The Tribune's circulation increased 10%, and its star became so popular that a dance was named in her honor, as was a cocktail, with her hairstyle and hats widely copied. Men carried a postcard of Kathlyn, with over 50,000 of them selling out in days.

Kathlyn Williams was born in Butte, MT, May 31, possibly 1888, to a Norwegian father and a Welsh mother. She began acting on stage at a fairly young age, becoming the protege of Senator W.A. Clarke. She attended Wesleyan University, going on to study at the Empire School of Acting in New York, appearing on stage and touring with several companies.

Kathlyn eventually migrated west to Los Angeles as a member of the Belasco stock company. She worked for a time with D.W. Griffith and Biograph, making her first screen appearance in Gold is Not All (1910). By winter of 1910 she began working with Selig, appearing in Two Orphans (1911), The Adventures of Captain Kate (1911), and The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913). With the rousing success of Adventures, Selig continued to make a whole series of films using animals that came to be known as the Selig Zoo, and later the nucleus for the San Diego Zoo. In 1913 Kathlyn married Victor Kainer and had her only child, a son named for his father.

In addition to the serials, she appeared in quite a few Westerns, including Chip of the Flying U (1914), The Spoilers (1914), and The U.P. Trail (1919) for Zane Grey Pictures. The Spoilers was Selig's most famous production to date, with Kathlyn's portrayal of Cherry Malotte universally recognized as the best performance of her career.

In 1915 Kathlyn had her best year yet, with a string of hit features: The Ne’er Do Well, The Carpet From Bagdad, The Rosary, Sweet Alyssum, and Thou Shalt Not Covet, all directed by Colin Campbell. Despite the popularity of Kathlyn and her films, in 1916 Selig Studios rapidly lost ground as a major producer of motion pictures. Like many of the company's players Kathlyn moved on, signing a long-term contract with Oliver Morosco's company whose films were released by Paramount.

By 1916 her marriage to Kainer had failed, and she married Charles Eyton, an actor-producer who later became a studio manager for Jesse Lasky. That same year saw her first real hit, Redeeming Love, directed by William D. Taylor. Kathlyn's career continued to build, and she continued to work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including two pictures with matinee idol Wallace Reid: Big Timber in (1917) and The Thing We Love in (1918). In 1918 she starred in two Cecil B. DeMille epics, The Whispering Chorus and We Can’t Have Everything. Despite her successes, her marriage to Eyton ended in divorce. Kathlyn never remarried.

In 1919 she worked with William de Mille in The Tree of Knowledge and in 1920 The Prince Chap and Conrad in Quest of His Youth. In 1921 Kathlyn starred in five films with May McAvoy: A Private Scandal, A Virginia Courtship, Morals, Everything for Sale, and Clarence. But after 1921 Kathlyn began playing major supporting roles; too old to play the ingenue she was more believable in character roles. Her contract with Morosco/Paramount having lapsed, she continued to free-lance in films such as The Spanish Dancer (1923), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and Honeymoon Flats (1928). More devastating, however, was the death of her son Victor in 1922 who accompanied her on a trip to China.

After a few talkies, Kathlyn retired from movies in 1934, pursuing her hobbies and interests full-time. In 1949 she lost a leg in a car accident, and spent her remaining years in a wheelchair. On September 24, 1960, Kathlyn Williams died from a heart attack in her Los Angeles apartment.


In doing research on Kathlyn Williams, I found conflicting evidence regarding her marriages and her son. While using what I thought was the more reliable information, I received the following from Bruce Long, author of Taylorology:

Most of my sources are cited in Taylorology 48; there is a Motography item from March 15, 1913 reprinted there with the name of her husband and date of marriage. There is also an item from Photoplay, May 1922 on the death of her son; the age (16) is given but not the name or father. It is stated that he attended Hollywood High School, so he must have been born before her 1913 marriage. I have seen other 1913 items which say "Robert Allen" was the name of her 1913 husband, not "Frank Allen." Don't know which is correct.

In "Ladies in Distress", Lahue says Victor Kainer had been her first husband. So I assume Allen was the second, Eyton the third. (I don't have Bodeen's books, but I think he devoted a chapter to her career somewhere.).

Many, many thanks for the clarifications, Bruce!

And so .The Adventures of Kathlyn. continue....

Glen Pringle / pringle@yoyo.its.monash.edu.au
Kally Mavromatis / only1kcm@yahoo.com
Copyright © 1998 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431