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.|
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."|
|Bladensfield, 1932 -- a fixer-upper. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and burned down in 1996.|
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.|
|Sorority, 1932. A rather austere-looking group. Kay is standing 2nd from left.|
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.
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.|
"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."
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).|
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."
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.|
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!|
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)|
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'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.)|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
|Nyoka makes Annie Oakley seem like Mr Magoo. (A still from the 1952 re-release, NYOKA AND THE TIGERMEN.)|
|Poster for the 1952 re-release.|
|Fawcett's comic book adaptation, JUNGLE GIRL #1 (1942); Nyoka had this and 76 more adventures you may not have known about.|
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.|
|Don't quit your day job.|
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."