Not long ago I had the distinct privilege of escorting actress Phyllis Coates, TV’s first Lois Lane, to New York City for an autograph convention where she thrilled hundreds of her adoring fans in a very rare personal appearance. This was a great treat for me, not only because I am an abashedly big fan of the ‘50s series “The Adventures of Superman” as well as her ground-breaking interpretation of the intrepid gal reporter, but because I am also an unabashedly big fan of Phyllis in almost any role. On the plane we chatted about a lot of things, some of it naturally having to do with her extensive film and TV career, and at one point I brought up the serials she had made in the early ‘50s when cliffhangers were pretty much on their way out.
The mere mention of ‘55’s “Panther Girl of the Congo” instantly brought about a response, not as one might have thought, about the director (Franklin Adreon) or her co-star (Myron Healey) or the script (Ronald Davidson), but rather about a certain body of water that had figured in the storyline.
“Oh God, that Republic swamp!”
She then regaled me with horror stories about the stagnant body of water on the Republic back lot that was utilized by the studio for many of their adventure and western products as well as assorted cliffhangers. “Myron [Healey] told me the minute we finished our scene in that awful muck we were going to go and get a penicillin shot. I didn’t see the point in it but he insisted and we thankfully did.”
She also explained to me it was during “Panther Girl” that an incident occurred which caused a partial loss of hearing in one of her ears. A monkey she was holding decided to urinate on her while one of the bad guys was pointing a blank-filled gun to her head. When Phyllis saw what the monkey was up to she involuntarily jumped causing the startled actor to accidentally pull the trigger causing the loud firing, the results of which have plagued the actress ever since.
Her on-screen problems in the cliffhanger might not have been so permanent but they were no picnic either. As wildlife photographer Jean Evans (known to the local tribes as the“Panther Girl”, thanks to an occasion when she bravely took on and killed a large panther that had been terrorizing the jungle community) she not only has her hands full with a trio of bad guys (Arthur Space, John Day and Mike Ragan) out to drive off the neighborhood natives so their illegal activities in plundering a valuable mine will go unnoticed, but by a giant crawfish that the chief baddie and mad scientist Dr. Morgan (Space in a rare villainous part) has created with a miraculous growth serum.
For 12 fairly dull chapters Phyllis and Healey spend their time pouring Winchester slugs into the chunky crustacean with little or no effect, tangling with Space’s two lackeys and ducking a lot of poorly aimed explosives. They also turn up in that swamp a lot, in fact, several cliffhanging scenes are simply repeated, a real cheat beyond the usual budget saving recapitulation installment used by most studios that brought viewers up to speed on what had been going on for most of the serial. Phyllis and Myron take turns saving each other’s lives, but it’s the Panther Girl (decked out in Frances Gifford’s old outfit from Republic’s earlier “Jungle Girl” serial) who really flexes her muscles and takes command of the situation when things get really rough. Even though she is neither a super heroine or even a born and bred jungle goddess who along the way might have picked up some life preserving skills, Phyllis has no second thoughts about swinging through the vines Tarzan style (more old shots from “Jungle Girl”), riding her elephant (“It’s name was Emma,” she told me. “I loved her.”), tangling with an attacking crocodile or lion when the necessity arises (although she does offer the classic Coates scream when tied to a tree and facing a curious gorilla) yet can’t seem to muster much of a defense when the bad guys repeatedly knock her cold. The aforementioned crawfish also has its claws on her on more than one occasion but thanks to Myron she always manages to escape.
This crawfish, by the way, was created by the Lydecker Brothers via the familiar use of rear projection work, very common in the cheap science-fiction and fantasy films of the ‘50s. It’s neither better nor worse than similar work done in films like “Killers from Space”, “The Spider”or “Begining of the End”. The same exact shots of the thing moving sluggishly through the potted plants doubling as jungle become pretty tiresome and are never in anyway frightening. One never feels Phyllis or Myron is in any danger from the creatures because, aside from one or two process shots, they never seem to be in the same scene.
As was always the case in these later Republic efforts, the cast is small, the budget miniscule, with little if any care or thought given the situations or the closing cliffhangers which are repetitive in the extreme. Despite the involvement of old pros like Tom Steele, the fights aren’t very well choreographed either and the action sluggish. Much of it looks like a cheap TV series of the period, an impression exaggerated by the use of many extras doubling as natives who would also show up on the small tube in things like“Jungle Jim”and “Ramar of the Jungle”.
As far as the cast goes, the aforementioned Arthur Space was always a sincere and believable actor and lends some class to the goings-on while Day and Ragan just go through the motions. Myron Healy, always likable, was a good choice for the Panther Girl’s buddy. They seem to like each other and have a good chemistry, relaxed and more realistic than usually found in cliffhangers.
The best thing about the serial, however, is Phyllis Coates who not only looks fantastic in her jungle duds, but who, unlike so many familiar female fixtures in B-films, westerns and serials, can really act. It’s a testament to her talent and professionalism that even in the most ridiculous situations she manages to respond and react with sincerity and authenticity, no easy task when you’re being hugged by a giant plastic crawfish claw or facing a guy in a bad gorilla suit.
Phyllis, a pro all the way, has a great attitude about some of the projects she had to take on. “I had to work,” she explained to me. ”I needed the money.”
She certainly earned it here.
Q: For Jane Adams. In “Lost City of the Jungle”, was Lionel Atwill very ill on the set? How was he to work with? —Hal Polk, Kearny, NJ
Jane Adams: “Many of my scenes were without Lionel in them. He was a very nice person to work with. Not at all arrogant as he often was on screen. He didn’t appear to be ill on the set, but I know they had to switch it all around because of his illness. I don’t recall any indication of illness while he was working.” (Atwill suffered a heart attack, entered the hospital and died of pneumonia 4/22/46. He was 61. A stand-in, with his back to the camera and voice dubbed in, finished the serial. Jane does not recall who the substitute was.)
Q: For Frank Coghlan. Who was the actor behind the robes of the Scorpion in “Capt. Marvel”? —Ron Stephenson, San Fran., CA
Frank Coghlan Jr.: “To keep the audience confused, directors Bill Witney and John English would use several different actors under the Scorpion’s robes in different scenes. Strangely, the voice of the Scorpion was an actor who wasn’t even used in any scenes in the serial, Gerald Mohr. We never met as all his voiceovers were made after we actors had left for other assignments.”
Q: I’ve always enjoyed Billy Benedict’s “sidekick” work in “Capt. Marvel”, “Tim Tyler’s Luck”, “Perils of Nyoka”. Any special memories of him?
Frank Coghlan Jr.: “Billy Benedict and I have been best friends ever since 1941 when we worked together in ‘Capt. Marvel’. When we attend film festivals he always wears a hat, even inside, and he’s constantly going around taking pictures of people. Other than that, he’s kind of a homebody. He’s more of a recluse now than he used to be. He was born in Oklahoma and started as a dancer—more of a ballet dancer. I don’t know how, but he ended up with a contract at the old Fox Studios and worked with Will Rogers in a couple of movies. (“Doubting Thomas” and “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend”—both ‘35) He will not drive on our freeways. (Laughs) Whenever we go somewhere together he goes the longest route.” (Benedict died November 25, 1999.)
While promoting The Roaring West” with Buck Jones in June of 1935, Walter Miller, by then a veteran of over 30 serials, told an L.A. newspaper reporter, “I’ve made so many serials in recent years, my memory of them is an endless vista of coaches being held up by masked bandits, cattle being rustled in the night, cowboys whooping it up in small-town saloons, swarthy Mexicans trying to knife countless heroes and etc., ad nauseum. I’m not wild about doing many moe serials. Recently, I got a taste of doing a straight, impressive characterization in a feature production entitled ‘Night Cargo’ and I loved it.”
“These exaggerated types of melodramas we do in serials make you forget the power of a consistent character portrayal. Yet there is much to be said for serials. Kids love ‘em. Grownups sometimes prefer them also, very often, to more sophisticated films. They do not teach decadent sex theories. They do not instruct in the handling of firearms and knife, as do the underworld films. On the contrary, in serials I have made, the hero is always, above all else, strait-laced, clean-minded, decent; the heroine always sweet and virginal—an inspiration to a man. Heroes always fight for justice and the right, and villainy is always downed in the end. Which is as it should be, don’t you think?”
Walter Miller said more and more serials were appearing in first-run theaters—and this by popular demand! At the time of this interview, “The Roaring West” was showing at the Capital Theater in New York, where it was one of the popular items on the bill.
Miller, who started with D. W. Griffith, had seen numerous cycles come and go in the movie realm. “The perfect combination of action, sound and color will create films in the future of such magnificence as people do not at present dream of,” Miller asserted in 1935. “Action is the spirit of motion pictures; sound its soul and color will lend radiance to the whole. Prehaps someday there will be one universal language spoken throughout the world—or at least studied and learned by all people. If and when this occurs, it will bring about a uniform excellence in cinema product, because nothing is more disillusioning than a badly-dubbed or imperfectly made foreign picture,” the actor stated.
At that time, Miller lived in a big, graystone ranch house at Sunland in the San Fernando Valley and was married to Eileen Schofield, the former vaudeville headliner, musical comedy star and dancer.
After appearing in serials since 1923, Miller did indeed taper off from making them, he only worked in three more after ‘35.