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The Tiger Woman
by Gary Johnson

Frances Gifford in Jungle Girl made a more convincing action hero and Kay Aldridge starred in quite possibly the best serial with a woman lead character, Perils of Nyoka, but no serial actress is remembered more fondly that Linda Sterling.

  Linda Sterling stars in The Tiger Woman.

Whereas Frances Gifford only starred in one serial and Kay Aldridge was merely adequate as an actress and looked awkward in her safari-shorts outfit, Linda Sterling brought a touch of elegance to her tomboy roles, making her stick in the memory of thousands of boys in the Saturday matinee audiences.

Linda was a model before he turned to acting and it shows. She carried herself with a refined air that frequently conflicted with her characters. But that didn't matter to her legion of fans. All that mattered were her stunning good looks and her dedication to her roles. Few other actresses could have captured the same sense of adventure with nary a condescending arch of the eyebrow as Linda did. She was never a particularly talented actress. Her characters never really fit in completely. They existed to be ogled, to be watched in awe as she swung through the trees in The Tiger Woman or cracked a whip in Zorro's Black Whip. In fact, the superficiality of her performances was largely responsible for endearing her to her audience. She was sort of like a Barbie doll who might get done up in various ethnic dresses (jungle girl, cow girl, etc.) but only to show that regardless of the exterior she's still primarily a gorgeous babe underneath it all.

The Tiger Woman is by far her best serial. The plot itself involves the nefarious members of an oil company who stumble upon the Tiger Woman. They soon believe she is the long-lost daughter of a multi-millionaire sportsman killed in an airplane wreck over a decade before. Therefore, the evil oil company men want to prove that the Tiger Woman is Rita Arnold, the millionaire's daughter (by finding the wreck, papers, jewelry, etc.), dispose of her, and hire a clever actress to pose as her and claim the entire estate. But because of problems with native tribes led by the Tiger Woman ("the gods sent her to us from the sky," the natives intone), the Inter Ocean Oil Company executives dispatch Allen Saunders (Allan "Rocky" Lane) to the scene. "Saunders is dynamite," says the evil leader Daggett. He is a chief engineer, a troubleshooter: "wherever there is trouble they send Allen Saunders and at once the trouble is all gone." Saunders immediately finds out that the Tiger Woman is to be trusted and attempts to discover who is causing the havoc and bloodshed.

Allen Lane and Linda Sterling
The Tiger Woman.

The Tiger Woman contains a plethora of classic serial situations, such as the lost city in the jungle where the Tiger Woman rules as goddess, with hundreds of Indians as subjects. The setting seems to be South America; however, the continent or country is never mentioned by name. Some critics (including the usually insightful serials historian Raymond William Stedman) have taken jabs at this serial for giving us a "Tiger" Woman who is clearly wearing a "leopard" skin outfit. But a better answer lies in a South American location for the story, which means the "tiger" is actually a jaguar. "Tigre" is the word used in Latin America for the jaguar. And her outfit looks as much like jaguar as it does leopard. So quite simply what some critics label as part of the hokey atmosphere of this movie can easily be explained. But, yes, that doesn't explain all the hokiness that you'll find in The Tiger Woman.

This movie is brimming with kitschy additions that Stedman quite rightly points out you won't find in the serials of William Witney and John English. For example, during the execution ceremonies conducted by the Tiger Woman's cult, we get a hoochy-coochy dancer (or belly dancer, take your pick) writhing about the Tiger Woman's secret lair while the other Indians wait for her to stop, signaling the high priest to cut the rope that suspends the poor soul (who wandered into their territory) and drops him into a pit of bubbling lava. Yeah, it's silly stuff but it's also loads of fun! Unlike so many of the other serials which remain chaste to the point of idiocy, The Tiger Woman gives us an exotic dancer with see-through garments. And we get the beautiful naked limbs of Linda Sterling. Never in the course of the serial do we find out that the Tiger Woman and Allen Saunders are romantically involved, but at the very end of the serial, Allen's friend, Jose, suggests that Tiger Woman will leave the jungle to follow Allen to the United States. And the Tiger Woman also casts an enticing smile toward Allen before the final fadeout.

By the time The Tiger Woman appeared, serials were already in decline. The deadly repetitive formulas were well ingrained by 1944 when Linda Sterling donned the goofy jaguar-eared outfit. Within just another three years, Universal would give up serials altogether. Columbia and Republic would struggle forward into the mid-'50s. The Tiger Woman was a hint of what was to come. Under Spencer Gordon Bennett's direction, fist fights were elevated in importance. Stunt men would demolish the sets, bouncing off the walls, crushing tables and chairs, pulling over bookshelves, hurling bottles, and in general leveling entire rooms (except for a virtually indestructible desk that the actors/stunt men volleyed over and rolled across). Fist fight scenes break out every few minutes in this serial, while the camera usually remains stationary as the actors/stunt men bounce off the walls.

In several of the episode cliffhangers, the solutions are relatively mundane, such as the end of Chapter 2, where the Tiger Woman and Allen Saunders are clearly trapped inside of a cliff shack while it explodes. But next week, noooooo! They weren't trapped at all. They run out of the shack and then it explodes. Routine and predictable endings like this one would get recycled endlessly by serials. But occasionally The Tiger Woman pulls some real stunners, such as the ending of Chapter 1: after Allen arrives in the jungle, the natives promptly capture him and string him up over the lava pit. We watch as the Tiger Woman runs and swings through the jungle to get back to the temple and wave off the execution. She breaks in on the ceremony just as the strand of rope is cut and Allen falls. But he's already falling toward the lava, what can she do? Well, I won't reveal how Allen is saved, but needless to say it's a good thing he was unconscious or he would've filled his pants.

See the hoochy-coochy dancer and the pit,
an excerpt from The Tiger Woman.
(Animated GIF, 25 frames, 180 KB)

Allan Lane fights an oil fire
The Tiger Woman.

In another good cliffhanger, the Tiger Woman and Allen's right-hand man Jose are trapped in a subterranean tunnel. The floor of the tunnel is covered with several inches of water and the henchmen have poured gasoline into the water. Now the shallow creek is ablaze and pushing the Tiger Woman and Jose farther down a dead end passage. What can they do? Well, a regular cliffhanger would cheat by giving them a secret exit or by letting the fire die of its own accord. But director Spencer Gordon Bennett has something else in store: (SPOILERS ahead) Rocky Lane rides to the rescue, grabs an extinguisher, and heads down the tunnel. He snuffs out the fire and reaches the Tiger Woman and Jose in the nick of time.

But you'll also find several supremely annoying cop out endings. One of the most maddening comes at the end of Chapter 9: Tiger Woman is unconscious, trapped on a motor boat that's headed for a collision with a steamboat--that itself is filled with explosives and ready to blow! Tiger Woman wakes up, sees the steamboat, screams (yes, screams!), and ducks! Kerr-Poww! The steamboat explodes. But in Chapter 10 we find out, nooooo, that's not what happened at all. (SPOILERS ahead) Tiger Woman didn't scream! Get out of here! Tiger Woman scream? No way. And she didn't duck. She remained cool and in control of the situation, waiting until Allen pulls up his boat so she can jump to safety.

Much of the pleasure of The Tiger Woman comes from kitschy settings and costumes. During the execution ceremonies, the Tiger Woman sits on her throne, big plumes on her head, a robe draped around her shoulders, maidens at her side. Meanwhile the exotic dancer leaps around the dangling victim, who hangs above an ominous pit. Sulfurous gas and steam rise while bats creep across the stalactites and lava bubbles below.

Linda Sterling rarely emotes much of anything. She is ushered around the sets with the same blank expression--occasionally opening her eyes wide in surprise. But she's scrappy. When pursued, she jumps from her horse into the trees and waits for the pursuer to follow, at which point she leaps down and knocks him out. She can even keep pace with a man on horseback by swinging on vines through the trees. She rides horses, shoots guns (even shoots backward as she rides a horse), jumps from rocks, swings from tree branches, and punches out men: she's one of the toughest female serial heroines of all time. At one point, she even picks up a guy, holds him over her head, and does an airplane spin before hurling him into the dirt--and knocks him out cold! Nonetheless, she would fit right in behind the perfume counter at a fancy department store. Despite her rearing in the jungle, she has perfect manners and always smiles graciously.

And that's probably the biggest key: she isn't earthy in any sense. She's a sophisticated and elegant jungle goddess. That's as improbable as any plot development ever dealt out by the serials, but it's so hokey that it's endearing--if you can forgive the arguably sexist tone of the entire endeavor. She's like a Playboy model dressed up as an Indian princess or a little Dutch girl: we're not really supposed to believe in the cultural characteristics suggested by her wardrobe. We're supposed to get a bit of a thrill out of seeing Sterling take on the pose of jungle goddess. All that's missing are pouty lips and a few shots of naked breasts. Unlike Xena, Warrior Princess, for example, who manages to be an earthy, sexy, and elegant warrior, the Tiger Woman is only sexy and elegant. But this is still a fun serial, even though it's a notch below the best.

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



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