Deep in the wilds of an unspecified Latin American nation, two oil companies are battling over valuable petroleum lands in the heart of the territory ruled by The Tiger Woman (Linda Stirling), the white goddess of an Indian tribe. Inter-Ocean, the company that holds drilling rights on the land, is desperately trying to bring in a well before their government franchise expires, while their ruthless (and unnamed) rival company is pulling out all stops to make sure Inter-Ocean fails, in hopes of grabbing the revoked drilling rights. Unscrupulous lawyer Fletcher Walton (LeRoy Mason) is sent to expedite the villainous oil company’s plans, but he also has a scheme of his own in mind: he hopes to prove that the Tiger Woman is actually Rita Arnold, the long-lost daughter of millionaire Harrison Arnold, whose plane (carrying himself and the youthful Rita) crashed in the jungle fifteen years ago. Once he has obtained proofs of the Tiger Woman’s identity, Walton plans to kill her, furnish an impostor with the proofs, and use said impostor to claim the Arnold fortune. Unfortunately for Walton, Inter-Ocean’s troubleshooter Allen Saunders (Allan Lane), not only manages to defend the oil well project against Walton’s hirelings, but also protects the Tiger Woman from the lawyer’s greedy machinations.
The Tiger Woman, which introduced Republic Pictures’ third and most prolific serial queen to chapterplay audiences, largely lacks the exotic atmosphere and colorfully imaginative cliffhangers of Jungle Girl and Perils of Nyoka, Republic’s inaugural outings for earlier serial queens Frances Gifford and Kay Aldridge. Tiger Woman has much more in common with fellow war-era Republic serials like Secret Service in Darkest Africa, Haunted Harbor, and The Masked Marvel; like them, it’s long on energetic and spectacular action sequences, but is noticeably less atmospheric and a bit more cut-and-dried than Republic’s pre-war Golden Age serials.
Tiger Woman’s writing team (Royal Cole, Ronald Davidson, Jesse Duffy, Basil Dickey, Joseph Poland, and Grant Nelson) do manage to stave off some of the excessive repetition that besets other Republics of the period. The villains’ continual attempts to obtain proof of the Tiger Woman’s identity and their various acts of sabotage against Inter-Ocean’s oil well could easily get tiresome were either the only plot thread, but in combination they balance each other nicely and keep the narrative from ever seeming too repetitive.
However, the script also has its weaknesses. The Tiger Woman’s temple/palace never seems as remote and exotic as it should, being too easily accessible to the nearby civilized town of “Belleville.” Additionally, its queen seems so well-adjusted to outside society (despite her habit of dropping malefactors into a fire pit), that it seems strange no one has ever tried to discover the Tiger Woman’s identity before the serial begins. Surely a representative of the Arnold estate might have been at least interested in the stories of an apparently well-known White Goddess living in the area where Arnold’s plane went down. Universal’s chapterplay Jungle Jim took a much better approach with a similar plot device, making its white goddess the ruler of a remote and inaccessible native tribe.
Although it often seems too much like a back-country hotel instead of the forgotten temple of an ancient race, the Tiger Woman’s citadel is represented by some very impressive matte work and by a mammoth interior set. The fire pits beneath the temple are depicted via some excellent miniature work, while the tomb of the Tiger Woman’s father–a cavern full of stalactites and volcanic vapors, the same location used for the heroes’ hideout in Republic’s 1938 serial The Lone Ranger–gives Tiger Woman a strong but brief dose of the fantastic atmosphere sadly lacking throughout most of the chapterplay. Republic’s Western town street, Iverson’s Movie Ranch, and the Lake Elsinore area provide the backdrop for most other scenes.
Ultimately, Tiger Woman, like most wartime Republics, stands or falls on the strength of its action scenes and its cast. The cast (more on them below) is much stronger than that of Masked Marvel or Secret Service in Darkest Africa, while the fights, shootouts, and cliffhanger sequences, well-directed by Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell, are all on a level with similar scenes in their contemporaries–except for the handful of ludicrous sequences in which we’re supposed to believe that Linda Stirling can repeatedly judo-flip huskies like Fred Graham or Cliff Lyons or spin George J. Lewis around on her shoulders. All serial action scenes stretch the suspension of disbelief, but these moments shatter it altogether; fortunately, they’re relatively few in number.
Most of Stirling’s stunts are handled by Babe DeFreest, while Tom Steele stands in for Allan Lane and Duke Green doubles George J. Lewis. Stirling presumably had a male double as well for the shoulder-spin and judo-flip bits, but there’s no way of identifying him. Ken Terrell doubles Duncan Renaldo throughout the serial, as well as Stanley Price and LeRoy Mason in single sequences (my thanks to Ben Gordon for pointing this out in the comments). Fred Graham, Lyons, Dale Van Sickel, Eddie Parker, Bud Wolfe, Bud Geary, and Johnny Daheim also contribute plenty of action work while playing various henchmen. Some of the chapterplays’ action highlights include the Chapter Two fistfight between Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel and the shootout that follows it, the shootout in the Tiger Woman’s temple in Chapter Three, and the brawl in the cantina between Steele and Fred Graham in Chapter Six, which is partly shot from the point of view of a killer trying to draw a bead on the battling hero from a balcony above the fray.
The fight between Steele and Terrell in the back of the truck in Chapter Seven is well shot too, with some good process-screen work; it’s also effectively intercut with shots of henchman Duke Green at the wheel, racing the truck around mountain curves and plugging the Indians that try to stop him until chief warrior Rico De Montez finally nails him with a well-placed arrow and sends the truck–apparently with Lane and Lewis’ characters inside–plunging off a cliff. The fight in Crane Whitley’s store in Chapter Eleven, which ranges over two rooms and has Duke Green (doubling Kenne Duncan) hurling innumerable breakable objects at Steele is yet another highlight, as is the climactic fight in the temple, in which Steele, Van Sickel (doubling LeRoy Mason), and Eddie Parker (doubling Crane Whitley) make good use of the wide temple stairs.
The chapter endings are generally impressive as well; the first-chapter cliffhanger, with Lane facing execution over the fire pit as Linda Stirling gallops to reprieve him, is suspensefully handled but somewhat damaged by the silly ritual dance accompanying the sacrificial ceremony. The Chapter Six ending that has Stirling and Duncan Renaldo trapped at the end of a mine tunnel by blazing oil is very good, as is the one that has Lane chasing George J. Lewis down another tunnel in a motorized mine car, only to get knocked out and go flying off the side of a cliff. The plane crash that immolates a cabin at the end of Chapter Ten serves as yet another striking cliffhanger, thanks to the Lydecker miniature involved; the oil-rig explosion at the end of Chapter Eleven is another good piece of Lydecker work, one that would be frequently reused in later serials.
The cast, as already mentioned, is very good, with nary a weak link in sight. Allan Lane is stern and authoritative but never wooden as the hero; he conveys convincing concern for his friends and manages to sound genuinely shook up after various narrow escapes; he also gives an unusually hard edge to some of his confrontations with the villains, especially in the scene where he threatens to blast Fred Graham with a machine gun.
Linda Stirling, in her first major role, brings appealing warmth and energy–as well as beauty–to her part; her one-scene switch from haughty suspicion of Allan Lane to sympathetic trustfulness is particularly well-portrayed. However, despite the deliberately archaic wording of some of her lines, she comes off as far too thoughtful and sophisticated to be really believeable as someone who’s grown up among wild Indians in the jungle; a less assured actress (like Kay Aldridge, who was originally slated for the role) would actually have been a better choice here.
Duncan Renaldo, as sidekick Jose Delgado (local representative of Inter-Ocean Oil), is as likable as ever but displays little of his characteristic effervescence (except in the closing scene). Instead, he continually registers worry over the fate of the oil franchise, and accentuates the narrative’s sense of urgency while managing not to sound like a wet blanket.
LeRoy Mason makes a strong showing in the early chapters as the conniving Fletcher Walton, coolly duping the good guys and getting Lane’s character to accept him as his attorney; during the middle chapters, he has does little but bark orders once an episode, only to return to prominence in the last two chapters. Crane Whitley has less to do as trading-post owner Daggett, Walton’s partner in crime, but his snarling, bad-tempered, and slightly thuggish characterization provides a nice contrast to Mason’s slick performance.
George J. Lewis handles most of the active villainy as Walton and Daggett’s henchman Morgan, and does an excellent job, coming off as crafty, arrogant, and cold-bloodedly violent. He not only acts vindictively nasty when dealing with the good guys, but also interacts with his bosses in a snappish and disrespectful manner very unusual in a serial henchman.
Rico De Montez, a frequent bit player usually cast as Japanese spies or Pacific natives in serials and features of the period, has the biggest role of his career as the Tiger Woman’s loyal follower Tegula; despite his diminutive stature, he brings an appropriate toughness and self-confidence to the role. Robert Frazer, as the slightly fanatical High Priest of the Tiger Woman’s tribe, is given several good opportunities to indulge in his customary enjoyable hamminess, particularly when refusing to surrender the sacred urn containing the effects of the “Sky God” to Allan Lane.
The supporting cast of thugs, Indians, and government troopers largely consists of stuntmen, although Kenne Duncan, Al Ferguson, and Rex Lease have henchman bits, while Stanley Price plays Crane Whitley’s shifty clerk throughout the serial. George Renavent is the local military commandant, Tom London and Nolan Leary pop up as two different riverboat captains, and Catherine McLeod–later a star in Republic’s A-films–plays the dancing girl in the already-mentioned sacrificial ritual, who incongruously trots back and forth to grisly executions looking like a showgirl going from the stage to her dressing-room.
The Tiger Woman could easily have been a much more interesting serial had it made better use of its “jungle” setting, and played up the wildness and mystery of the Tiger Woman’s realm. However, mundane though the serial’s narrative is, its action is so good and its cast so personable that it easily earns a prominent place among its contemporaries of the war years, even though it falls decidedly short of Republic’s Golden Age releases.
A geographical note: Much ink has been spilled (and many jokes cracked) over the question of the serial’s setting, but the presence of a background sign in the street scenes advertising the “Pan-American Rubber Company” seems to place the chapterplay in Central or South America beyond a shadow of a doubt, if the character name Jose Delgado, the very Indian-looking followers of the Tiger Woman and their obviously Meso-American temple weren’t enough to establish the location. Pegging the serial’s location as Latin America also provides an answer to those who have always criticized the heroine’s spotted costume for lacking tiger stripes: in Latin America, the spotted jaguar is known as the tigre, or tiger. I find it harder to explain the principal town’s name of Belleville (given as the more appropriate-sounding Alta Mesa in Republic’s pressbooks for the serial). However, Belleville has a decidedly Gallic sound to it, and, together with the casting of French actor George Renavent as the local commandant and the presence of a riverboat captain named Dumont could point to the setting as French Guiana–which might also explain why Belleville seems chiefly inhabited by thugs that look like Duke Green, Eddie Parker, Fred Graham, and Tom Steele; obviously this is a result of penal colony overflow, although I hadn’t realized so many Americans were sent to the Devil’s Island area (I’d better stop now, before these speculations get even sillier).