Wednesday, 10 June 2020


NOTE: There are a couple of small spoilers included here, but frankly, it doesn't matter.

There must be something about the lockdown; it's not as if my life, which is primarily working from home, has changed immensely—yes, shopping takes longer and there's nowhere to go except for walking the dog—but sometimes I think I have bugged out to a fantasy world set in my parents' youth. I've always loved the Thirties and Forties, so it isn't that strange—but it may seem weird that for each of the last 15 days I have set aside 15 minutes or so to watch one chapter each day of The Perils Of Nyoka, a Republic Pictures serial from 1942. Serials were run for kids on Saturday afternoons in cinemas all over America; I suppose lockdown evenings are the next best thing, and I doidn't have to wait a week for the next episode.

I know how I got to Nyoka. I had been watching a lot of series B pictures in the vein of The Saint. So I spotted Lorna Gray playing a bit part in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939), distracting Warren William away from persistent girlfriend Ida Lupino and femme fatale Rita Hayworth (trust me, she could do it), then a week later caught a similar eye-catching cameo from Kay Aldridge modelling a V for Victory gown in The Falcon's Brother (1942). Checking their credits, I realised they had both appeared in the Nyoka serial, so I found it on You Tube and took a look. Of course I was hooked.

Nyoka was later re-issued as Nyoka and the Tiger Men, which is odd as there aren't really many tiger-men in it, and no tigers. It was also re-edited into a feature in 1966, under the title Nyoka and the Lost Secrets of Hippocrates, which is closer to the truth, but not very catchy. I wouldn't be surprised if they were trying to cash in on the campy Batman TV show craze.

Aldridge plays Nyoka, a character who had starred (played by Frances Gifford) in the serial Jungle Girl, based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, but bearing no relationship to the book at all. And Aldridge's Nyoka bears even less. She's not a jungle girl at all, but living in what appears to be Abyssinia, in a sub-desert setting which is the California of countless B movie westerns. She is part of a team searching for the Golden Tablets of Hippocrates, which contain a cure for cancer—but also contain directions to a treasure, which means they are coveted by Vultura, Queen of the Arabs. She is also searching for her father, who was lost and presumed dead on a similar previous expedition.

Nyoka's team includes Dr Larry Grayson, a medical doctor who's pretty handy with gun and fists, and played by Clayton Moore, who later achieved fame as the Lone Ranger. Moore actually packs a pretty good left hook; he brawls with great energy which is essential to any serial. Billy Benedict plays his pal Red, accompanied by a monkey called Jitters, played by a monkey called Professor. There are some veteran actors in the professorial parts, all of whom are getting by, and oddly, when Nyoka does discover her father, Professor Gordon, who is now high priest of the Tuareg tribe, she doesn't recognise him, but recognises his signet ring!

The villainess is Vultura, a priestess played by Gray. She's aided by Cassib, whose tribe of Arabs follows her. Cassib is played by Charles Middleton, who you will remember as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon series: he delivers his few lines with real panache, and despite seeming visibly too old for the rough stuff, takes part in any number of brawls.

They also add Signor Torrini, played by Tristam Coffin, whom I remembered from a western TV series called 26 Men, also starring the immortal Kelo Handerson. He also played Jeff King in a 1952 Republic serial King Of The Rocketmen, which was then followed by Radar Men From The Moon, also in 1952, in which King had been re-named Commando Cody (played by George Wallace, no not the Georgia governor, but arguably the most wooden actor in history) and in which Clayton Moore also has a role, as a villain in the service of the Moon Men. Small world! Coffin actually may be the best actor in this crowd, but his role is severely limited, despite Torrini's representing the Italians who are in charge of Abyssinia, and being in a fact a spy for Vultura.

The problem with trying to judge acting in a serial is that there is not much of it written into the scripts, and what is written in is not written well. Remember the audience was mostly young boys on Saturday afternoons, so lines are simple, and exist to explicate elements of the plot an over popcorn'd, candied and soda'd 12 year might follow. In other words, what TV today assumes is the level of its basic adult audience. As I said Coffin stands out, trying to look evil while ingratiating himself with the party. Aldridge tries too,but she really has very little to work with, and she hesitates over her few good lines. Gray is fine as a villain; her femme fatale potential is clear.In 1945 she changed her screen name to Adrian Booth, but her career never advanced beyond B pictures; I can think of a handful of more major act

But the best actor in the serial is actually Ace, the dog who plays Nyoka's dog Fang. Oddly, he just disappears in the last couple of episodes; maybe he got a better offer from another adventure film. I should also mention Emil Van Horn, who plays Satan the gorilla. Satan's death scene is actually the most moving bit of drama in all 15 chapters, and I felt sorry for the big guy.

Also in the cast are Yakima Canutt, whose stunts you can see, and Clayton Moore's future Tonto, Jay Silverheels. I didn't check the cast until after I'd finished the series, so I can't say as I spotted either of them, but you don't get much chance, because the use of close ups is extremely limited. I don't know if you've seen a serial, but you probably know that each chapter ends with a cliffhanger (the word comes from the original serials) in which one of the leads appears to headed for sure death. It never turns out that way. There's only one or two in Nyoka that are real cheats, like when she falls off a cliff and then next week when she falls she has a rope in her hands. Which is a literal cliffhanger.

I'd seen Flash Gordon, but in the edits done for Saturday morning syndicated TV in the Fifties. I also saw the Commando Cody TV series, with Judd Holdren as Cody, and probably also Lost Planet Airmen, which was the Tris Coffin serial re-edited into TV episodes. They're somewhat harder going than this one. But my favourite things in them were the trash-can helmet Cody wore, his leather jacket which was his flying gear, and the control panel for his rocket pack, which boasted an on/off switch and two controls: up/down and fast/slow. NASA took years to catch up to this.

The production values and cast of Nyoka are pretty good, in fact often considered the best of the serial era. The story is pretty basic, with the possibilities of greater intrigue with Torrini, greater dramatic tension with Nyoka's long-lost father, and any femme-fatality at all (since 12 year old boys weren't interested in that mushy stuff) lost. Any episode moves between Vultura's temple, Cassib's village, Nyoka's bedouin village, and the Tuareg temple. Directions to the Golden Tablets and given by those tablets all seem to involve places within a ten minute ride of each other, and reach episode features at least three scenes where groups of tribesmen are galloping off from one to another. Then they get ambushed and a gun fight ensues. Occasionally there is a chase, and in every episode at least one brawl. These can be funny: fighters fall unconscious, then spring up as if on signal fully awake and fit. Aldridge is particularly bad at trying to look natural when she's knocked cold into a precarious position. And in one episode, the bedouin who is shot and falls off a balcony, misses the lamp that's supposed to start the fire that traps Larry and Red, so he rolls an extra, unconscious, step, to knock the lamp over!

I was oddly disappointed with the final episode. Yes, cancer was now going to be cured forever, but what about Nyoka and Larry? And where was Fang? Maybe if we weren't locked down I would not have minded, but I certainly can't blame the lockdown for enjoying this trip back to a different childhood. And had I seen it as a child, I probably would not have appreciated either Kay Aldrdige or Lorna Gray half as much.

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