Monday, December 19, 2011

Linda Stirling, Serial Queen

A graduate of Ben Bard’s acting school (Bard was the widower of silent serial queen Ruth Roland), Linda Stirling (1921-1997) graced the covers of fashion magazines before auditioning for The Tiger Woman. The success of this debut made Linda Republic’s serial queen-bee and she went on to headline Zorro’s Black Whip (1944), Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945), The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and Jesse James Rides Again (1947). Under contract to Republic 4-11-1944 to 3-19-1947, Stirling later did some television. In retirement from performing, she earned herself a master’s degree in literature and taught English and drama at Glendale College. As Linda told the author Buck Rainey, her serial debut was quite an ordeal:

“I remember once [director] Spencer Bennet asked me if I could do a running insert. I said sure, although I had no idea what it was. To my dismay, I found out. My horse took it as a personal challenge to outrun the camera truck, and I went along for the ride, taking in the scenery from every possible angle as I was bounced around from side to side and end to end on that galloping beast. Horses and I never got on first-name basis or shared social lives."

The Tiger Woman (Republic Pictures, 1944)
Inter-Ocean Oil Company troubleshooter Allen Saunders (Allan Lane) travels to a South American jungle where an unscrupulous business rival (LeRoy Mason) is stirring up trouble for Jungle Woman (Linda Stirling), a tribal leader who may actually be Rita Arnold, a missing heiress to a fortune.

The Tiger Woman, even more than most Republic serials, is stunt driven and action oriented – to the point where the majority of the supporting roles are played by the finest stunt men in the business. Yet the serial remains something of a disappointment. Ostensibly harking back to the silent days of Pearl White and Ruth Roland, this western camouflaged as a jungle adventure actually comes with the standard heroine, Miss Linda Stirling, slightly more active than most, perhaps, but clearly deferential in action capability to hero Allan Lane. This is something of a comedown from the heady days of Kay Aldridge and Perils of Nyoka. Mostly thanks to the pioneering efforts of chapter play enthusiasts like Alan K. Barbour, author of such fondly remembered publications as "The Serials of Republic" (1965) and, especially, "Cliffhanger: Days of Thrills and Adventures" (1972) Stirling has come to epitomize serial heroine pluck, but although she – or rather a stuntman dressed as her – engages in a spectacular fight with George J. Lewis in chapter 5 and a bruising skirmish with Eddie Parker and the henchmen in chapters 10 and 12, Linda is surprisingly passive for the greater part of the serial. That said, however, Tiger Woman still has all the advantages of Golden Age Republic: a workmanlike plot, impressive sets, top-notch fights and stunts, good villainous performances by Lewis, LeRoy Mason and the often overlooked Crane Whitley, memorable alliterative titling of chapters, and classic cliffhangers. It also has more casualties among henchmen per chapter than perhaps any other serial, an unusually gory tally, in fact, for a genre presumably catering to the younger set.

About the production:
Tiger Woman is ostensibly set in a jungle but considering that the Iverson Movie Ranch and the Republic backlot hardly resemble the rainforest, the only clue to the locale of the serial must be found in a 1942-1943 advertisement listing "The Tiger Woman of the Amazon" as one of Republic's forthcoming attractions. This leads us to the most obvious question regarding The Tiger Woman:

What's in a name?
Why, pray tell, is a heroine known by all and sundry as The Tiger Woman garbed in a jaguar-like outfit and hat? Not even the otherwise so meticulous Jack Mathis of “Valley of the Cliffhangers” can offer a logical explanation, suggesting instead that the jaguar (or leopard, or whatever animal it was meant to be) was chosen because the tiger is an anachronism in South America. An explanation, of course, that completely fails to address the matter of a title that could easily have been changed to "The Jaguar (or Leopard) Woman." Some sources propose that Republic simply had the costume in stock, and who would care? And then there was RKO which had just released The Leopard Man (1943), one of those memorable Val Lewton thrillers. In any case, when re-released by Republic in 1951, The Tiger Woman had become Perils of the Darkest Jungle, which, considering the arid locations in Chatsworth, California, is just as misleading. To add to the confusion, Republic released a nightclub melodrama entitled The Tiger Woman in 1945, and whith the same associate producer listed on the credits, William J. O'Sullivan. Someone in power at Republic may simply have liked the title.

The Fungi of Fear
Chapter six culminates with the Tiger Woman and Jose (sidekick Duncan Renaldo) trapped by a river of burning oil on Republic's famous cave set, a feature used in countless serials and B-westerns. Linda Stirling's contemporary, Peggy Stewart, well remembers the Republic cave:

"The inside was moist, it was wettish," she told her biographers Bob Carman and Don Scapperotti. It smelled kind of musty all the time but everyone loved the cave. It wasn't that big but the camera angles made it look big and they had the little track for the coal car. It was actually on the Western set. There was a big red barn and you open those barn doors and it was the shell for the caves. When you went through the barn doors, you were in the cave. They had phony rocks and you could push those phony rocks aside and put hay there and it looked like you were coming out of the barn.”

One of Republic's most utilized standing sets, the cave figured prominently in all of the studio’s serials of the 1940s.

No comments:

Post a Comment