Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Kay Aldridge, Queen of the Serials



Nyoka Gordon -- a scholarly adventurer in the grand tradition of Sir Richard Francis Burton and T. E. Lawrence.  This bold, two-fisted archaeologist displayed an uncanny ability for extricating herself from certain doom.  Her saga is fraught with sensational tales, but perhaps her most incredible exploit was the war with Vultura, as each sought to secure the Golden Tablets of Hippocrates, perhaps the greatest treasure the world has ever known.

Movie serials began to appear early in the 20th century, doubtlessly drawing inspiration from the lurid stories found in pulp magazines of the day, and Nyoka was no exception.  Her source material was ostensibly Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel, JUNGLE GIRL (1932), which originally ran in the May to September 1931 issues of the BLUE BOOK MAGAZINE under the title "The Land of Hidden Men".

Edison's WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY (1912), starring Mary Fuller, was one of the earliest serials, if not the first, and one of many to feature a heroine who finds herself in deadly predicaments in every reel.  The lengthy PERILS OF PAULINE (1914), starring Pearl White, was one of the most influential.  The list is too numerous to mention here, but women dominated the form during the 1910s.  Pearl White alone made nine serials in that decade, and did most of her own stunts.

Republic Pictures, arguably the best producer of the sound era movie serials, purchased the rights to a filmed version of the story.  What they were really after was the right to use the author's name to entice theatre goers, as Burroughs' most famous creation, Tarzan, was being successfully adapted by MGM (and, later, RKO), with Johnny Weissmuller playing the role of the ape man.  From 1918 to 1929, four silent Tarzan feature-length movies and four serials were released. TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932), Weissmuller's acting debut, was the first of the talkies.

Right about now Nyoka Meredith is starting to appreciate the more tedious aspects of being an archaeologist, like brushing dirt off of pottery fragments.

Republic's JUNGLE GIRL was released in 1941, and starred Frances Gifford as Nyoka Meredith, but the serial had nothing to do with Burroughs' story, other than appropriating the title of the book.  In fact, Nyoka was entirely Republic's own creation.  The chapter play was successful enough to warrant a sequel, but Republic avoided having to pay Burroughs by dissociating the new serial from the previous one.  Thus, PERILS OF NYOKA (1942) was anything but a sequel.

This new cliffhanger starred Kay Aldridge as Nyoka, whose surname was changed to "Gordon".  Aldridge was a second-tier actress who (to her credit) was never able to shake her country bumpkin roots during her brief tenure in Hollywood.

Kay was born Katharine Gratten Aldridge, July 9, 1917 in Tallahassee, Florida.  Her mother, Cornelia Aldridge (nee Ward), had earlier dabbled in verse, but her efforts were scant and appeared in periodicals such as ST NICHOLAS MAGAZINE, which paid little, if anything, to the amateur submissions of its young readers.  Kay's father, John Aldridge, a surveyor, died October 23, 1920 when she was three, leaving a widowed Cornelia with five children to take care of.  It was more than Cornelia could manage, so she returned to the Ward family home, a large wooden house known as "Bladensfield".

Bladensfield was located near Lyells, an unincorporated community in Richmond County, Virginia.  The home was built for the original owner, John Jenkins, around 1690, on his 1,000 acre plantation, then known as Billingsgate.  It came into the possession of Robert Carter, who assigned it to his grandson, also named Robert, in 1733, and it was renamed Bladensfield in 1847, presumably by his wife, Frances, whose mother's maiden name was Bladen.  In 1790 Carter gave the home to his daughter, Ann, and her husband, John Peck.  Their daughter, Harriet, sold it to Reverend William Norvell Ward in 1842, and it stayed in the Ward family for well over a century.

Kay at 13, in 1930.  She scrawled "SNOBISH" (sic) on it, and on the back wrote, "Please don't show this to anybody." 

When Cornelia and the children arrived the property was now reduced to 575 acres, some of which held long-forgotten graves, and Bladensfield was a dilapidated manor perched on a brick basement, with most of the original structure intact, including a back door secured by the same heavy timber bar used in the 1690s for fear of marauding Indians.  In the hallway, a colonial lamp depended from the ceiling.  Outside were the original clapboards, still unpainted.

Bladensfield, 1932 -- a fixer-upper.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and burned down in 1996.

The neglected home was in the care of Cornelia's three maiden aunts, all school teachers.  Kay wore hand-me-downs from family and friends, and did her fair share of chores alongside the help.  She supplemented the family income with her first job: "I dug up buttercups at five cents an hour.  And don't think that that money didn't come in handy."  She recalled her time at Bladensfield pleasantly: "My childhood, while impoverished, was very, very good and I enjoyed it."  One of her favourite memories was "sitting around a watermelon patch" with her mother and three aunts.

Kay was later sent to Newport News for three years, where she stayed with relatives and attended Stonewall Jackson School from Grades 5 to 7.  Her lifelong friend, Elsie Duval, remembered that when Kay arrived she had a fashionable bob and very little in her wardrobe.  She was also the class clown and a trickster, whom the children nicknamed "The Village Halfwit", eventually shortened to "Village", though she took it in stride.

St Mary's Seminary basketball team, 1932.  Conspicuously pretty, 15-year-old Kay is centre row, far right.

In 1930 Kay stayed with relatives in Westminster, Maryland, where she attended high school for one year, and in 1931 was sent away to St Mary's Female Seminary in St Mary's City, at the time accessible only by steamboat travelling down the Chesapeake Bay.  She played on the basketball team and was a member of the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority.  She also acted in a play titled "Sound Your Horn", performed at the school on January 21, 1933.  She was voted prettiest girl in class, but was also voted "the biggest nuisance".  In 1934 she was chosen as the school's apple blossom princess, representing St Mary's at the annual Apple Blossom fair held in Winchester, Virginia.  Kay graduated that year, which was also the tercentenary of St Mary's City, and during the grand graduation ceremony gave a monumental speech to mark the occasion.

Sorority, 1932.  A rather austere-looking group.  Kay is standing 2nd from left.

She found a job at the Federal Land Bank in Baltimore working as a stenographer.  "I remained with the bank for nine months, getting my $15.50 each week and sending most of it back to Bladensfield, where it was used for repairs and upkeep."

While horseback riding Kay was thrown when the feisty animal suddenly bucked.  She woke up in the hospital with a broken hip.  (A "lucky break", as one journalist later put it).  "One of the papers sent over a photographer for a picture and after it appeared in print I began to receive letters and phone calls suggesting that when I got well I become an advertising model.  I said I'd think about it..."

Still in pigtails and wearing a gingham dress, 18-year-old Kay, with $6 in her pocket, applied for a job at the famed John Powers modelling agency in New York City in 1935.  She was hired on the spot -- but there was a catch: she had to cut off her pigtails.  Kay was in a quandary, being rather fond of her long braids.  "Well, I couldn't and before I agreed to cut my hair I made Mr Powers promise that if I failed to make good as a model he would find a job for me as a secretary."  She stayed with Powers for 2 years, earning up to $300 a week.

1936 ad

Don't forget to remove the price tag!  Kay, at Saks Fifth Avenue, Palm Beach, 1938

The other girls nicknamed Kay "Woodsy" because she preferred being photographed as an outdoors girl.  However, her effortless beauty and unsophisticated charm soon gave way to the exigencies of cosmopolitan advertising.  Kay must have been dazzled by her sudden popularity, as she became one of the ten most photographed models in New York.  The mundane catalogue work quickly led to covers for popular magazines, such as LIFE, LOOK, LADIES' HOME JOURNAL, and REDBOOK.  She also posed for illustrators, earning as much as $100 a sitting, far above the going rate of $5 to $25.

Kay appeared on the cover of LIFE three times.  The contents page for the September 5, 1938 issue (her first cover) mentioned that her ambition was "to be a female Noel Coward, i.e. write and act in her own plays.  She has written several, but so far none have been produced."

Kay's first cover for LIFE.

Kay's humorous response was printed two weeks later, in the September 26, 1938 letters page:

"Sirs: Inasmuch as you chose to describe me as a 'demure brunette...[whose] ambition is to be a female Noel Coward,' I feel in duty bound to submit to you an outline of the following play:

Act I:  LIFE puts Katharine Aldridge on its cover.

Act II:  Things begin to happen.  She receives: a) four telegrams from four motion-picture companies asking her to call on their New York representatives; b) a dozen or so letters from various New York cleaners assuring her that 'no cleaner is too good' to do justice to the dress she wore on the cover of LIFE; c) assorted invitations including one from a West Point cadet to attend the Army-Notre Dame football game; d) 25 proposals of marriage including one from a man who states by way of recommendation that he 'loves vegetables, hates meat and cannot abide the Republican Party.'

Act III:  Katharine Aldridge undergoes a screen test and hopes for the best."

Kay's oval face was perfect, "considered ideal by editors of women's magazines."  Her measurements in 1937 were listed as "Height, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches; weight, 120; dress size, 12 to 14; bust, 32; waist, 23; hips, 35", her hair described as light brown, her eyes grey-blue.

Hollywood talent scouts took notice, and producer Walter Wanger, who often plundered the John Powers agency for potential talent, cast Kay in the 1937 United Artists film, VOGUES OF 1938, though her role turned out to be an uncredited bit part as a model.  She was paid $200 a week, plus expenses.

Kay Aldridge (left) in her first film for Fox, HOTEL FOR WOMEN (1939).

The following year Kay and Georgia Carroll, a fellow model who proved to be another lifelong friend, went to Hawaii and on their return made a stopover in Los Angeles, where they were offered movie contracts.  Georgia's Hollywood career consisted of a long string of uncredited roles, though she eventually enjoyed brief success in the mid-1940s as vocalist in Kay Kyser's band.  Kay Aldridge, however, had better luck, signing a contract with 20th Century Fox.  Never a star, she was relegated to supporting roles, starting with HOTEL FOR WOMEN (1939), until her final film with Fox, DEAD MEN TELL (1941), part of the Charlie Chan series, with Sidney Toler as the Chinese detective.

When interviewed Kay often expressed her motivation behind modelling and acting: "One of these days I want to return to Virginia and become the lady of the manor. That has been my dream for years."  She was hoping to return to the homestead with enough money for much-needed repairs, but her immediate concern was to install a bathtub and modern plumbing, "then other modern facilities like electricity, if I have enough money."

Sailing, 1938

In 1940 a columnist remarked that it was a pity that a "girl as glamorous as Kay Aldridge should be seen in swanky night clubs wearing cotton clothes."  Kay responded to the insult: "In the first place, I don't like night clubs and visit them very rarely and then only on the spur of the moment.  And in the second place nobody is going to tell me what I should or should not wear.  And in the third place we raise cotton on our plantation and so why can't I wear it on my back?"

Later that year Kay's mother, Cornelia, visited her in Hollywood at her "very modest" apartment, where Kay did her own housework.  "She'll be happy to find that I haven't changed a bit since the five of us sat around the watermelon patch."  They had their first Thanksgiving together in years.

Nyoka wears salaciously shredded shorts, while a gorilla drools over her, in this 1942 poster.  The outfit Kay Aldridge wore in the serial was of much more durable material.  

Kay's contract with Fox expired and wasn't renewed.  Warner Brothers promised big things for her, none of which materialised.  The farm girl's luck had seemingly run out.  Then, early in 1942, Republic Pictures tested 200 girls for their upcoming serial, PERILS OF NYOKA.  For half a year trade publications had reported that Frances Gifford would be returning to the role, and there are conflicting accounts as to why she was replaced, such as other commitments, but most likely Republic wanted to avoid any trouble with Burroughs by hiring a different actress, to further avoid any association with the previous Nyoka serial.

The part went to Kay.  Initially she had misgivings about the project, which seemed a step down after working at a major studio: "It was a comedown in one way, but it was a comeup in another way because I was the lead.  They paid me about $650 a week, which was pretty good money at the time."

A cruel joke was perpetrated on Kay, when she was told that she would have to learn a jungle yell, ala Tarzan, for her role as Nyoka.  After she'd "practiced a jungle yell long, loudly and laboriously, they tipped her that it was just a gag -- wasn't needed in the picture at all."

Movie poster, 1942.  Unfortunately, none of the poster artists ever did Kay justice.  Here she looks more like Ann B. Davis!

The new Nyoka lost some sex appeal.  Though pretty, Kay wasn't as gorgeous as Frances Gifford, and gone was her predecessor's miniskirt, replaced by a pair of Bermuda shorts.

William Witney, who co-directed JUNGLE GIRL with John English, returned as sole director of PERILS OF NYOKA.  Witney, who directed almost two dozen serials for Republic between 1937 and 1946, specialised in filming stunts and outdoor action scenes, as well as choreographing fights.  He left the quieter moments to English, his frequent collaborator.  Serials often had two directors, explained Witney, "so you could shoot one day, and then plan the next day."  Also returning were 5 of the 6 writers from JUNGLE GIRL.

Lobby card, with Kay Aldridge (Nyoka) and Clayton Moore (Larry)

It was a gruelling schedule.  According to Witney, "We'd start shooting as soon as the sun came up and shoot till after the sun went down, and we did it for six days a week."  Lorna Gray, who played Vultura, said there would be phone calls at 3 a.m.: "When were we to sleep?  Nyoka and Queen Vultura decided to take motel rooms across from the studio!"

For the sake of economy, scenes were shot out of sequence.  Kay recalled, "They'd do everything in the Cave of the Evil Bird one day, and the next day you're in bubbling oil actually before you've been thrown in."  Reshoots were rare, said Kay: "You can have delivered your line very badly, but they won’t reshoot it unless the horse happens to simultaneously make a social error.  That’s about the only reason for a retake on a serial."

Nyoka and Larry doing what they do best: killing the bad guys.

It didn't take long for Kay to get injured on the job: "I knew how to ride, but they put me on a horse that was much too wild for me. The first day on PERILS OF NYOKA, the horse reared up and threw me over his head toward the sound truck...I got kinda bruised and everything, so after that they brought Davey Sharpe in for some of those moments I wasn’t quite equal to."

It's clear from watching the serial that Kay was comfortable racing around on a horse, but the more dangerous stunts were handled by Helen Thurston and Babe DeFreest, as well as the aforementioned David Sharpe, who wore a wig.  Kay hoped the audience wouldn't mistake his muscular legs for hers!  Still, Witney said Kay took her lumps: "She bore the bumps, bruises, skinned knees and elbows that go with being a serial leading lady without a complaint."

That swine Torrini gets the drop on Larry and Nyoka.  (A still from the 1952 re-release, NYOKA AND THE TIGERMEN.)

Each chapter opens with an ancient parchment bearing the title, pinned to the desert sands with a decorative dagger casting a long shadow.  The first chapter, "Desert Intrigue", opens in the fictitious town of Wadi Bartha, located somewhere in north Africa.  (This rather lush desert was actually the Iverson Movie Ranch, where many westerns were filmed.)  We meet Torrini (Tristram Coffin, misspelled "Tristam" in the trailer), a "friend of Vultura's", but posing as a guide sent to lead Professor Douglas Campbell (Forbes Murray) and his expedition, in search of the Golden Tablets of Hippocrates, said to be hidden with "other treasures of great value."  Being that the tablets are made of gold, their intrinsic value is obvious, but they also contain priceless "medical secrets", including the cure for a "dread disease", presumably cancer.  Rounding out the archaeological team is Dr Larry Grayson (Clayton Moore, later of Lone Ranger fame) and Red Davis (former Bowery Boy William Benedict, providing some comic relief).

The location of the Tablets is inscribed on papyrus in the ancient Assyrian language, and the only one able to decipher the text is Professor Henry Gordon (Robert Strange) -- except that he's been missing for some time, and feared dead.  His daughter, Nyoka, however, has not given up hope of finding him alive.  Having been "thoroughly schooled" by her father, there's a chance Nyoka may be able to translate the inscription, and she is sent for.  Torrini surreptitiously sends a message to Vultura by hawk.

Vultura invents an instant translating device.

Queen Vultura and her Tuareg followers reside in a temple built into surrounding rock and caves, though the pillars, furniture and exotic interior decoration of her throne room almost belie the fact.  The leggy beauty also wears a cape, and rides around in a chariot with her bodyguard, a gorilla named Satan, who "can crush a dozen men!"

Of course, Vultura is also seeking the treasure, and attacks Nyoka and her Bedouin allies.  Nyoka gallops into camp, accompanied by her German Shepherd, Fang, but decides not to join the skirmish just yet, as she notices Vultura sneaking into her personal dwelling, a cave.  Nyoka rushes in and tackles Vultura, while Fang and Satan fight tooth and nail.  Fang defeated, Satan rescues Vultura, who has her men confine Nyoka.  With the exception of one Major Reynolds, none of the Campbell expedition has ever actually met Nyoka.  Vultura rides into Wadi Bartha posing as Nyoka, and kills Reynolds with a poisoned needle hidden in her ring.  She absconds with the valued papyrus, leaving Torrini to continue his undercover work.

In the meantime, Nyoka escapes her captors, thanks to Fang untying her bonds. She meets up with sword-wielding hero Larry Grayson, and the two infiltrate Vultura's compound, only to be apparently crushed under tons of stone when Satan tears down some pillars.  To be continued next week in "Death's Chariot"!

The gang's all here: Forbes Murray, George Pembroke, Robert Strange, Kay Aldridge, Clayton Moore, Billy Benedict.

The rest of the episodes have Nyoka and Vultura attempting to kill each other in their desperate race to locate the tablets.  Nyoka finds her amnesiac father, who had somehow become the chieftain of a sun-worshipping cult of cave-dwelling Tuaregs.  Henry Gordon's memory is restored, and he reveals that the tablets are hidden in the Tomb of the Moon God.  When they get there, they discover that the tablets have been moved to the Cave of Winds.

Every episode is action-packed, and fraught with danger, deadly traps and torture devices, all enhanced by an exciting musical score composed by Mort Glickman.  Cliffhanger endings have Nyoka falling into a flaming pit of molten lava (on two separate occasions); going over a cliff in a chariot; trapped on a platform rising up towards a ceiling of spikes; jumping from a cliff to avoid the clutches of Satan; buried in an avalanche of rocks; burning at the stake; veering off a cliff in a speeding car; unconscious atop an altar that rises towards the enormous crescent-shaped blade at the end of a swinging pendulum; blown out of a cave by tornado-like winds and sent hurtling from a cliff (yet again); trampled by horses; and plummeting into a raging inferno.  Kay had only one regret: "I was never tied up on a railroad track."

The posters were all the same, except for the scenes shown in the top left corner.

The story concludes with Chapter 15, "Satan's Fury".  By this time Vultura possesses the tablets, which read, in part, "In the Shrine of the Evil Birds, where sacrifice was made to the ancient gods, there repose great riches, and let him who possesses the Tablets of Hippocrates use them wisely."  One of Vultura's henchmen informs her that the altar in the throne room had long ago been replaced by her father, who had conquered the desert before she was born, and that the original altar was known in antiquity as the Shrine of Evil Birds.  The treasure, alas, was beneath Vultura's feet!

Nyoka and her mob attack Vultura's compound.  She steals into the throne room, in time to stop Vultura from making off with the treasure.  In the climax, the two clash once more, wrestling over a dagger, with Nyoka ultimately pinning her adversary to the floor.  Satan snaps free from his chain and fetches a spear, with the intention of killing Nyoka.  Fortunately, Nyoka notices and rolls over, using Vultura as a shield, and the murderous gorilla catastrophically drives the weapon into his mistress's back!  Poor Satan meant well.  Larry arrives in time to put six bullets into the maddened creature, who continues moving towards his punisher.  Similar to a scene in Robert E. Howard's 1934 pulp story, "Rogues in the House", in which Conan battles the gorilla, Thak, Nyoka leaps upon Satan's back and plunges her dagger into the monster, ending his reign of brutality once and for all.

The tablets recovered, the treasure secured, the team plans "to found the greatest chain of cancer clinics that anyone ever dreamed of!"

Nyoka and Fang.  He really, really doesn't like that gorilla.

PERILS OF NYOKA is one of the greatest serials ever made, and Kay Aldridge will always be remembered for it.  (PERILS OF NYOKA was the first time she was credited as "Kay" Aldridge; until then she had been credited as "Katharine".)  Several decades later she was surprised by the amount of fans that came to see her at festivals and conventions.  "And they are reading sociological significance into my performances," said Kay, referring to invitations to speak at colleges about feminism in film.  ''Of course, I was blithely unaware that I was a social statement.  I was just a hungry actress.''  Kay wrote in her introduction to Bill Feret's LURE OF THE TROPIX (1984), "Yes, it is very delightful and gratifying to be rediscovered, and you can image how proud it makes Grandma Nyoka to hear from her grandchildren...'You sure did fight good.'"

Nyoka makes Annie Oakley seem like Mr Magoo.  (A still from the 1952 re-release, NYOKA AND THE TIGERMEN.)

Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper predicted that PERILS OF NYOKA, yet to be released, would herald a wave of serials featuring tough heroines: "Kay is a 'suthen gal', Virginia born and bred; but much more important than her undeniable beauty is her ability to take it on the chin and elsewhere!  These flowers of the Old South may look as if a breath would blow them away, but underneath their fragile exteriors they're as tough as whipcord, and will tackle their weight in wildcats once their dander's up, as many a man has discovered to his sorrow, after being taken in by that "you-all" stuff!  Kay neither drinks nor smokes (nor chews!) but don't let that deceive you.  She's as deadly as a rattlesnake... it's my guess we're going to see the dawn of a new era for those legendary ladies of yesterday.  So look to your laurels, glamour gals, you may be exchanging your sex appeal for socks appeal, come this time next year!"

Poster for the 1952 re-release.

Kay did two more serials for Republic: DAREDEVILS OF THE WEST (1943), and HAUNTED HARBOR (1944).  PERILS OF NYOKA was re-released in 1952 as NYOKA AND THE TIGERMEN, and it's just as well known by that name.

Fawcett's comic book adaptation, JUNGLE GIRL #1 (1942); Nyoka had this and 76 more adventures you may not have known about.

In 1942 Fawcett Publications released a comic book called JUNGLE GIRL, with a small photo of Kay on the cover.  Despite the title, it was actually an adaptation of PERILS OF NYOKA.  Originally intended as a one-shot, the series resumed with NYOKA, THE JUNGLE GIRL #2 (Winter 1945) and continued publication until issue #77 (June 1953).  Aldridge and Moore appeared on the cover of #25.

Kay made an uncredited appearance in the MGM musical, DU BARRY WAS A LADY (1943), significant only because of the connection to a Vargas calendar that featured her as Miss April, and which was also published in ESQUIRE.

Pinup artist Vargas paints Kay; he thought she possessed the perfect profile.

It was during this time, 1942-'43, that Kay supplemented her income by assisting author and philosopher Lewis Browne "in the preparation of a book on the psychology of war."  Her duties must have been either transcribing her own shorthand notes, or typing up Browne's longhand.  (Possibly for his 1943 novel, SEE WHAT I MEAN?)  She also landed a role on stage in producer Vinton Freedley's musical, DANCING IN THE STREETS, which opened in Boston and received "so-so notices".  It didn't make it to Broadway.

Don't quit your day job.

Kay made two more movies, THE MAN WHO WALKED ALONE (1945) and THE PHANTOM OF 42ND STREET (1945), both for the poverty row studio, Producers Releasing Corporation; afterwards, she retired from film.

In February 1945 Kay married oil tycoon Arthur Cameron and the couple had four children.  They divorced in 1954.  She was married to artist Richard Derby Tucker from 1956 until his death in 1979, and to Harry Nasland, who died in 1988.

Kay Aldridge died January 12, 1995 at the age of 77.  "Kay was a sweet, pretty and thoughtful person. She never met a stranger in her life and the crew loved her," William Witney commented.  "She was one hell of a gal. I’m sure there is a place in heaven for a beautiful, gutsy, fun loving, caring person like Kay."

Her friend Elsie DuVal had last seen her the previous October: "She was still beautiful, spontaneous, and as full of vinegar as when I met her at 9 in Newport News.  I remember clearly the childish tricks she played then, and at 77 she was still playing them."