September 10, 1898 — March 12, 1977
Both authoritative and genteel in manner, with a deep but cultured-sounding voice, George Eldredge conveyed dignity and suavity in equal measure; he used these two qualities to portray irreproachably respectable characters and slyly untrustworthy ones with equal effectiveness during an active screen career. Eldredge’s acting assignments included over a dozen serial parts; although he was an ideal type for a chapterplay “brains heavy,” he was usually relegated to character roles, both villainous and sympathetic. However, his smoothly dignified screen presence made him noticeable in each of these smaller parts–and made him quite memorable in the four serials that did give him prominent roles.
George Edwin Eldredge was born in San Francisco, the son of a Presbyterian minister and the grandson (on his mother’s side) of California legislator, businessman, photographer, and “49er” George Dornin. The 1920 federal census has Eldredge living in Berkely, California with his widowed mother, and working as a salesman for an “electric company;” at some point during the 1920s, he also worked as a photographer for the Berekeley police department. The 1930 federal census has him still living in Berkeley, but lists his occupation as “singer, [employed in] concert and radio.” Eldredge continued to pursue a singing career during the early 1930s; from 1932 through 1933 he was a member of the San Francisco Opera Company, singing bass-baritone and playing supporting roles in Californian productions of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Verdi’s La Traviata, and other operas. Eldredge didn’t branch out into non-musical performing until 1936, when he played an uncredited bit as a British intelligence officer in the big-budgeted Paramount drama Till We Meet Again and a credited supporting role as a prosecuting attorney in the independently-produced B-film Special Agent K-7. He stayed firmly in supporting-player mode during the remaining years of the 1930s, save for a 1938 leading-man turn in another independent B-feature, Paroled from the Big House; his screen appearances were also decidedly sporadic during this period, which suggests that he was probably still doing singing work on the side.
Also in 1938, Eldredge made his first serial, Republic’s Hawk of the Wilderness. This excellent and unusual chapterplay centered around a shipwrecked infant who grew into a Tarzan-like hero known as “Kioga” (Herman Brix), on an uncharted Arctic island inhabited by wild Indians. When an expedition from the outside world–led by an old friend of Kioga’s father, Dr. Munro (Tom Chatterton)–arrived on the island, Kioga had to protect them against the hostile natives, and also had to defend them from the mutinous and murderous crew of the expedition ship. Eldredge was cast as wealthy yachtsman Allan Kendall, a member of the Munro party; his character carried himself quite stalwartly for much of the serial, bravely participating in battles with Indians and mutineers. However, it soon became clear that Kendall’s bravery had definite limits; while he was willing to risk his neck to help himself or Munro’s pretty daughter Beth (Jill Martin), he selfishly abandoned Kioga to seemingly certain death more than once. In Chapter Eleven, with the expedition’s situation becoming really desperate, Kendall became even more ruthlessly self-centered–trying to kill Kioga’s Indian friend Kias (Ray Mala), in order to reduce the potential load of a small airplane that had become the good guys’ only hope of escape. After a hostile confrontation with Kioga, Kendall fled, and was soon picked off by Indian medicine-man Yellow Weasel (Monte Blue). Eldredge did an excellent job in this unusually complex part, using his deep voice and self-assured bearing to give Kendall an appropriate combination of confidence, arrogance, and selfishness; his dignified but aggressive rebukes of the mutinous sailors and his loudly angry dismissal of Kioga as an “imitation white man” seemed equally in character.
Eldredge’s acting career picked up speed during the first half of the 1940s; throughout the decade, he played both minor character parts and prominent supporting roles in many B-films–chiefly Universal and Monogram titles–while also taking a few bits in A-features for other studios. He was almost always cast as lawyers, businessmen, doctors, military men, reporters, lawmen, and other officials–some genuinely upright, others secretly crooked; he was featured to particularly good advantage as a suavely hypocritical brains heavy in multiple 1943-1944 Universal B-westerns. Universal also used him regularly–but much less effectively–in numerous serials from 1940 through 1946; his first chapterplay for the studio was Junior G-Men (1940), in which he made a brief appearance as a draftsman named Lynch, a member of a villainous revolutionary group known as the Order of the Flaming Torch. He popped up just long enough to peer intently at some bomber-plane blueprints, get in a fight with the good guys, gloat smugly over the escape of one of his cohorts, and urgently warn a G-man (Phillip Terry) of an imminent explosion (in which Eldredge’s character perished).
Eldredge had even less screen time in his next Universal serial, Gang Busters (1942), although he was given a little more dialogue than in Junior G-Men; he popped up in a single scene as a police officer who reported on a bank robbery to heroes Kent Taylor and Robert Armstrong, and gave them useful information about the crime car and about a suspicious watchman. He was a policeman again–a Hong Kong plainclothesman assigned to guard a Chinese dignitary–in one chapter of the serial Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (Universal, 1942); along with another policeman, he was overpowered and impersonated by Axis agents, and subsequently rescued by hero Tom Brown–only receiving a couple of lines in the process.
Raiders of Ghost City (1944) was the first Universal serial to give Eldredge more than a single-chapter role; as Hank, a secret member of a gang of Prussian agents and the bartender in the agents’ saloon headquarters, he served as a regular aide-de-camp to chief villains Virginia Christine and Lionel Atwill, until biting the dust in a saloon gunfight in Chapter Eleven. He spent much of his screen time in the background, cagily observing the good guys or quietly carrying messages to his villainous superiors; however, he got to participate in those superiors’ plotting sessions from time to time, and also received an enjoyable scene in which he coolly deciphered a coded message and one-upped action heavy Jack Ingram–who’d abruptly snatched it from Eldredge’s hand, but then failed to make sense of it.
Eldredge played another German spy–a Nazi agent named Muller–in the serial Jungle Queen (Universal, 1945); as in Raiders of Ghost City, his character was a headquarters-bound aide-de-camp to the principal villains (Tala Birell and Douglas Dumbrille), and spent most of the serial either discussing schemes with them or standing in the background; he was briefly spotlighted when he grimly and gloatingly supervised an attempt to blow up snooping heroes Edward Norris and Eddie Quillan, and again when he coldly gunned down a rebellious henchman (who lived long enough to slay him in return) in the final chapter.
Secret Agent X-9 (Universal, 1945) gave Eldredge a small but important two-chapter role as Bill Browder, an expatriate American crook who, along with several others of his kind, was recruited by Japanese spies for a mission that involved the impersonation of an American scientist and the theft of the scientist’s fuel formula. However, Browder’s prospective employers decided that he didn’t resemble the scientist enough to make an effective double–and thus tried to liquidate him before he could tell anyone else about the formula-theft plan. The villains succeeded in eliminating Browder, but not before he gave American agent X-9 (Lloyd Bridges) and his Chinese colleague Ah Fong (Keye Luke) some vital clues to the Japanese scheme. Eldredge made the most of this short-lived part–parrying Bridges’ questions in sardonically amused fashion, then convincingly switching to tense nervousness when he realized his former associates were out to kill him.
The Royal Mounted Rides Again (1945) gave Eldredge his biggest Universal serial role; as a resourceful henchman named Grail, a member of a band of gold thieves, he regularly participated in skirmishes with Mountie hero Bill Kennedy (even managing to ambush him and steal his uniform on one occasion), and frequently issued orders to lower-ranking thugs George Lloyd and William Haade, whenever higher-ranking villains Joe Haworth, Milburn Stone, and Robert Armstrong weren’t around. He also moved up the villainous depth chart as the serial progressed: a series of deaths and double-crosses in Royal Mounted’s later episodes ultimately thrust Eldredge into the chief action-heavy spot during the last three chapters. Over the course of these chapters, he personally eliminated most of the other surviving henchmen, and even came close to outsmarting and defeating brains heavy Armstrong in the climactic episode. Eldredge played this memorably tough, treacherous, and cunning character with authority and energy–whether he was confidently threatening the good guys, slickly setting his colleagues up for a betrayal, or plotting with Armstrong in a smugly self-possessed manner that made it seem as if Grail regarded himself as the full equal of his ostensible boss.
Lost City of the Jungle (Universal, 1946) gave Eldredge a minor but recurring role as Mr. Bowen, one of the members of San Francisco’s “United Peace Foundation.” Along with the other Foundation members, he sent hero Russell Hayden to track down international “warmonger” Sir Eric Hazarias (Lionel Atwill), and then made brief appearances in each episode to discuss the progress of Hayden’s investigations and pontificate about the dire need for a full-fledged world peacekeeping organization; Eldredge’s appealingly resonant voice helped him to keep this ongoing recapitulation and speechifying from seeming entirely tiresome. Jungle, incidentally, was the only serial in which Eldredge and his younger brother John (a former Broadway actor who’d entered the movies two years before George) both appeared–although John’s role (as the heroine’s archeologist father) didn’t allow him to share any scenes with his brother.
Universal’s final serial release, 1946’s The Mysterious Mr. M, featured Eldredge in a good one-chapter character role as Thomas Elliott, the honest owner/manager of a die-casting company who helped heroes Dennis Moore and Richard Martin set a trap for the villains. Unfortunately, said villains became suspicious, and drugged Eldredge with a chemical called Hypnotrene, which caused him to attack Moore after being triggered by a striking clock; his character died in an explosion shortly afterwards. Though this role didn’t keep Eldredge on screen for long, it did give him good opportunities to be calmly courageous (when talking Martin into letting him act as bait for the heavies), dignifiedly angry (when confronting villain Danny Morton), and quietly sinister (when threatening Moore after being drugged).
Post-1946, Eldredge stopped doing B-western and serial work for Universal; the studio deep-sixed both its cowboy pictures and its chapterplays in that year, hoping to establish itself as an A-list studio. However, this loss of Universal employment did no harm to Eldredge’s career; he still found steady feature-film work during the late 1940s and the early 1950s–appearing in many B-films for Columbia, Monogram, Lippert, and Hopalong Cassidy Productions, and occasionally venturing into the A-films of studios like Paramount and MGM. However, though he worked regularly in features during this period, Eldredge did take an extended break from serial-making; after his 1946 turn in Mr. M, he didn’t appear in a chapterplay again until 1951.
This 1951 chapterplay was Roar of the Iron Horse, produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures; an excellent Western outing, it gave Eldredge his meatiest role since Hawk of the Wilderness–the part of an aristocratic but lawless frontier landowner named Karl Ulrich. Known as “the Baron” to his followers and his enemies, Ulrich ruled a wide swathe of frontier rangeland with an iron first, using a gang of badmen to keep the local Indians–the real owners of his land–under his thumb, and using both badmen and Indians to fight a railroad crew that was trying to lay track through his realm. Ruthless though the Baron was, he prided himself on keeping his word, and never once resorted to lies or other deceptions in his fight against the rail crew. This sense of honor eventually led him to assist hero Jim Grant (Jock Mahoney) in unmasking the serial’s other villain–railroad contractor Homer Lathrop (Jack Ingram), who, for his own selfish reasons, had precipitated the war between the railroad and the Baron’s gang by forging a right-of-way deed to the Baron’s territory. In the last chapter, Lathrop and the Baron met in a fight that claimed the lives of both; before dying, the Baron asked Grant to make sure that the dispossessed Indians got their land back–cementing the favorable view that the audience had gradually formed of his character. Eldredge played this unusual and gentlemanly villain to perfection, striking just the right balance of sleekness and steeliness during his interactions with his henchmen and his enemies; he was polite, casual, and contemptuous by turns, but always retained a touch of stern and haughty determination befitting a self-made ruler.
Above: George Eldredge warns Jock Mahoney to stay out of his way in Roar of the Iron Horse (Columbia, 1951).
Before 1951 was out, Eldredge followed his Roar of the Iron Horse characterization with another appearance in a Columbia/Katzman serial, Captain Video. Based on a popular early TV show, this science-fiction adventure was much weaker than Iron Horse, hampered as it was by the combined effects of a low budget and a severe overreliance on unconvincing gadgetry; one of its few good points was Eldredge’s turn as secondary villain Dr. Tobor–a distinguished scientist who secretly joined outer-space tyrant Vultura (Gene Roth) in an attempt to conquer the universe, while pretending to assist Captain Video (Judd Holdren) in his fight against Vultura. As Tobor, Eldredge conveyed strong and convincing intellectual arrogance, creating the impression that his character had joined forces with Vultura mainly because he believed that his great scientific knowledge entitled him to great power, and that it set him above ordinary notions of loyalty. He also did a good job of urbanely but dismissively parrying Video’s suspicious questions, and of giving a degree of credence to technobabble-laden dialogue; in fact, he delivered by far the best performance in the serial, easily outclassing both the miscast Roth and the bland Holdren.
As the 1950s continued, Eldredge started working frequently in television, while simultaneously appearing in A and B features at studios ranging from Allied Artists (the former Monogram) and Columbia to Twentieth-Century Fox; he also returned to his old Universal stomping grounds several times, playing character bits in many of their A-westerns. Captain Video would be the last serial to give him a major role, but he did appear in two more chapterplays during the 1950s; the first of these was Sam Katzman’s The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia, 1953), in which he made two extremely brief appearances (and received two or three lines) as a grim British sea-captain.
Eldredge’s final serial was, like his first one, a Republic release–the 1954 Western serial Man with the Steel Whip. As a stalwart frontiersman named Stokes, he first appeared in Chapter Nine to lay claim to a section of gold-rich land coveted by the villains, and played a minor but noticeable part in the serial’s ensuing episodes–refusing to sell his property to the heavies, combating an outlaw attack on his small wagon train, and discussing the causes of the attack with the masked hero El Latigo (Richard Simmons). In this character role, Eldredge shed much of his usual solemnity and suavity to deliver a likably easygoing and almost folksy performance–but still retained an appropriate air of solid, pioneering dignity.
From 1954 through the early 1960s, Eldredge worked prolifically and almost exclusively in television, playing upright types–physicians, judges, sheriffs, ministers, etc.–with even more regularity than he had during the 1940s, on series ranging from The Loretta Young Show to Laramie; he also held a regular role as a slightly grouchy but kindly country doctor on the Disney television serial Spin and Marty, a component of The Mickey Mouse Club series, from 1955 through 1957. He retired from acting circa 1963, but continued to live in Los Angeles; he passed away there early in 1977.
George Eldredge’s commanding urbanity was on a par with that of great serial villains such as Kenneth MacDonald and Tristram Coffin; however, he didn’t receive nearly as many chances to dominate the chapterplay screen as those actors did. Good as he was in his many minor serial parts, he was even better in his rare major serial roles–making one wish that he’d been given the chance to play a few more cliffhanger characters as prominent and as interesting as Allan Kendall, Dr. Tobor, or the Baron.
Acknowledgements: Normally, I pay no attention at all to the perennially unreliable Wikipedia, but for once that site was of great use to me–since its entry on George Eldredge features a brief but informative biography written by his own grandson (as revealed on the Revision History page). That Wikipedia entry informed me of Eldredge’s police-photography work and his opera years, and gave me a starting point from which to track down a list of Eldredge’s operatic credits at the San Francisco Opera’s website; it also provided me with useful information on Eldredge’s family background (his grandfather is covered in further depth at this site). The federal censuses, my other principal sources, have already been referenced above; though I didn’t make any direct use of it, I also turned up an interesting society-page mention of Eldredge singing at the marriage of his wife’s cousin, in the June 11, 1930 edition of the Berkeley Evening Gazette.