Perils of Nyoka (William Witney, 1942)

Eclipse LogoPerils of Nyoka is an action-packed cliffhanger classic that chronicles the efforts of an African expedition to locate the fabled lost Tablets of Hippocrates, golden artifacts that contain a cure for cancer.  Former Powers model Kay Aldridge stars as Nyoka in this sequel to Republic Pictures’ 1941 serial Jungle Girl.  Nyoka joins the expedition while attempting to find her lost father, but the beautiful Arab ruler Vultura and her cutthroat servants seek the tablets and the riches that accompany them for herself and will do anything to beat Nyoka to the treasure.  Hailed as the best of the Jungle serials, Perils of Nyoka is a fast and furious treasure hunt boasting an enthralling cast of characters, spectacular sets, and an array of fearsome deathtraps.

Sorry, no embed.  Watch Perils of Nyoka here, under its re-released title, Nyoka and the Tigermen.

Unlike Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher which were adapted from Fawcett Comics, Perils of Nyoka traces its existence back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Jungle Girl (1932).  Republic’s serial version of Jungle Girl (William Witney and John English, 1941) bore little resemblance to Burroughs’ story and was a such success that Republic elected to make a sequel – Perils of Nyoka.  Unwilling to pay an upset and resistant Burroughs again for the character rights, Republic elected to strike any reference to Jungle Girl and instead relied only on those elements developed by the studio.  As the name Nyoka was a creation of Republic, it stayed but their lead actress Frances Gifford, already on loan from MGM, was replaced with Kay Aldridge to avoid any legal risk.  Aldridge grew up an impoverished child in Virginia who became a John Powers model in New York and then an actress in Hollywood.  She had a decent career in feature acting until her contact with 20th Century Fox expired in 1941.  When approached by Republic about acting its serials, Aldridge initially viewed it as a step down from her feature player days, but Aldridge discovered the benefits of making good money and holding lead roles in the chapter plays.  Perils of Nyoka was Aldridge’s first serial and despite some bumps and bruises (and nearly smashing her face into a sound truck when thrown from a horse), the serial’s lead spoke fondly of the production, impressed at the unbelievable talent and bravery of stuntman “Davey Sharpe” who “doubled almost everyone,” the acting of her foil Lorna Gray (“a much better actress than myself”), the smarts and down-to-earth nature of co-lead Clayton Moore (“He had classical good looks, and he wasn’t conceited”), and the kindness of “action man” William Witney (“he and his wife (former actress Maxine Doyle) used to have me over for dinner”).

While Adventures of Captain Marvel is essentially an investigative serial wrapped in tights and a cape and Spy Smasher is a collection of secret agent missions, Perils of Nyoka follows the form of a lengthy quest, expertly written to connect all 15 episodes into a single progressing treasure hunt.  In the North African city of Wade Bartha, Professor Douglas Campbell (Forbes Murray) and Dr. Larry Grayson (a pre-Lone Ranger Clayton Moore) seek a translator for an ancient papyrus that describes the location of the ancient tablets of Hippocrates, foretold to reveal the cure to cancer and secret treasure.  They enlist Nyoka Gordon, the only person able to translate the document, and she joins their expedition when they agree to assist her in locating her missing father, Professor Henry Gordon (Robert Strange).  Unbeknownst to them, Italian official Count Torrini (Tris Coffin) feeds information to the evil Vultura (Lorna Gray) who works with her loyal followers to wrest the papyrus, the tablets of Hippocrates, and its treasure from them.  Perils of Nyoka races through tombs and tunnels, tribesmen and treachery, and becomes arguably the greatest of the Jungle serials, where exotic adventure and ancient legends wait at every turn.

Even fans of Perils of Nyoka are guarded in their assessment of Aldridge, often finding her performance wooden or expressionless.  Such criticisms may be fair, but Aldridge often doesn’t get enough credit for how game she was as a performer, willing to be placed in all manners of predicaments.  (It is Nyoka’s perils, after all.)  In Chapter 6, “Human Sacrifice,” Nyoka is suspended over a blazing abyss.  Aldridge recounts that she got freezer burn from the dry ice’s smoke and even lost “some meat off of one leg.”  As thoughtful as the filmmakers were, Kay Aldridge admitted she took a beating on Perils of Nyoka and that “serial sort of drove me into matrimony.”  Thankfully, the serial boasts an extensive cast of Republic players to relieve Aldridge of her acting burden and save her from razor-sharp pendulums, closing walls, and tornado filled tunnels.  Perils of Nyoka enjoys a demonstrated increase in production value from the preceding Jungle Girl, relying on extensive location shooting at Iverson’s Movie Ranch and Corriganville and on elaborate indoor sets including Vultura’s massive palace and elaborate tunnels at the Tuareg valley.  Overall, this tale of archaeological adventure is clearly revealed as an inspiration for the Indiana Jones franchise and similar films.  Its emphasis on exoticism and its jaw-dropping collection of cliffhangers makes Perils of Nyoka a classic of the form, a deserving conclusion to the proposed Eclipse set, and a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection’s survey of film history.

Credits:  The cover summary is adapted from Republic Pictures 2-VHS cassette set of Perils of Nyoka.  Quotes of Kay Aldridge are taken from Boyd Magers and Bobby Copeland’s interview “The Perils of Kay Aldridge” at Serial Report.  It’s interesting to consider that these 3 superior movie serials, collected together, form a DC Comics-esque trinity with a flying, superhuman powerhouse, a masked vigilante who relies solely on his wits and daring, and a brave female figure in a world of myth and antiquity.  I only wish we could say it was intended.

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