August 7, 1918 — May 21, 2014
Beautiful in a very distinctive and individualized way, with an expressive face that could be humorous, sensitive, alarmed, indignant, sorrowful, or determined as the situation required, Jane Adams ranked high among serial heroines in terms of both acting talent and attractiveness, but never received a chapterplay vehicle that allowed her to make a real mark on the genre. One of her serials was so crammed with plot and characters that her screen time was limited, while her other serial saddled her with a poorly-written role. As a result, she remains chiefly remembered by film buffs for her work in features, particularly Universal’s House of Dracula, and not for her serials–although she acquitted herself well in each of them, despite less than ideal circumstances.
Jane Adams was born Betty Jane Bierce in San Antonio, Texas; by 1930, she and her parents had relocated to California. Something of a child prodigy, Jane began her acting career in grade-school plays, and also attracted notice as a budding violinist. She was offered a full scholarship to study music at the prestigious Julliard School in New York, but decided to pursue the theatrical profession instead, and enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse’s College of Theater Arts, where she spent four years earning a Theater Arts degree and gaining practical experience in stage acting. The date of her graduation from the Playhouse is sometimes given as 1938, but the 1940 census, which has her living with her parents in Pasadena, indicates that she was still at school in that year–although it also lists her as having completed four years of college. She also made at least one trip to Europe during the late 1930s, as indicated by a Bremen-to-New-York passenger ship record. In July, 1940, she was married (to a Navy ensign) in Norfolk, Virginia, although the marriage certificate gives her home address as Pasadena. Jane’s husband was called to active service when World War 2 broke out, and by 1942, she was working as a radio actress in New York City, under the name of Betty Bierce. While in New York, she also began working for the Harry Conover Modeling Agency, where she was given the new moniker of “Poni Adams,” and appeared not only in magazine ads but in television commercials, an advertising medium then in its infancy. Her husband was killed in action in 1943, and in 1944 she returned to the West Coast, after producer Walter Wanger asked her to audition for the lead role in his big-budgeted Universal feature Salome, Where She Danced. She lost out to Yvonne DeCarlo and was relegated to a bit in Salome, but subsequently became a contract player at Universal.
Adams stayed with Universal throughout 1945 and 1946, playing heroines in the studio’s B-westerns, taking small roles in its A-features, and winning a few memorable supporting roles in Universal’s trademark horror films. She used her “Poni Adams” name for her first few Universal features, but switched to “Jane Adams” beginning with her single best-remembered film, House of Dracula, in which she played a sympathetic and tragic hunchbacked nurse. She also made the first of her two serials at Universal–the 1946 outing Lost City of the Jungle. One of Universal’s last chapterplays, Jungle suffered from an overcrowded and over-plotted storyline, as well as from rewrites necessitated by the ultimately fatal illness of its chief villain Lionel Atwill, but was also marked by well-written dialogue and well-rounded characters. The plot had notorious international arms broker Eric Hazarias (Atwill) trying to uncover an ancient atomic element in a remote Himalayan realm, and using an unsuspecting archeologist (John Eldredge) as his pawn in the search for the deadly mineral. Jane played Marjorie Elmore, the archeologist’s daughter, who worked with two “United Peace Foundation” agents (Russell Hayden and Keye Luke) to rescue her father and defeat Hazarias’ plans. There were so many good guys and bad guys in Jungle, each requiring a certain amount of footage per chapter, that Adams, despite being second-billed, was limited in her screen time. However, her role still allowed her to display a wide range of emotions, and she she made the most of each of her scenes–conveying cheerful courageousness when planning strategy with the heroes, affection and good-humored bemusement when dealing with her rather naïve and absent-minded father, quick-witted alertness when covertly maneuvering against the villains, and determined defiance when confronting the villains openly.
Above: “My father has nothing to say to you.” Despite being threatened with a timed-gun death-trap, Jane Adams refuses to allow the off-camera John Eldredge to divulge important secrets to the villains in Lost City of the Jungle.
Adams married Army officer Thomas Turnage in 1945 and temporarily suspended her screen career for family life after 1946, when her Universal contract expired. When Turnage was transferred to Korea, she returned to acting from 1948 through 1952, chiefly as the leading lady in numerous B-westerns for Monogram and in one of Duncan Renaldo’s Cisco Kid B-westerns at United Artists. She also played small roles in a few other features during this phase of her career, guest-starred on a few early TV shows including Adventures of Superman, and appeared in her second and final serial, Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949). One of tight-fisted producer Sam Katzman’s typically uneven Columbia chapterplays, Batman and Robin cast Jane as the first screen version of a new Batman comic-book character, newspaper photographer Vicki Vale, whose reckless investigations into the villains’ activities hindered Bruce Wayne/Batman (Robert Lowery) more than they helped him. Vicki was clearly supposed to be Batman’s own version of Clark Kent/Superman’s Lois Lane, but the attempts at witty banter between her and Bruce were nowhere near as well-written or amusing as the similar banter between Lois and Clark in Katzman’s earlier Superman serial. Furthermore, the Bruce/Vicki relationship lacked the co-worker dynamic that gave Kent and Miss Lane a reason to spend a lot of time together; as a result, Vicki spent a lot of her time on the periphery of the action, and most of her interactions with Bruce were limited to her visiting Wayne’s house to make condescending comments about his supposed laziness. This perpetual and gratuitous putting-down of the hero, along with Vicki’s habit of foolishly endangering herself and her obsession with discovering Batman’s secret identity, made the character seem more irritating than anything else. However, Adams nevertheless managed to deliver her substandard lines with appropriately wry humor, convey a measure of thoughtfulness even when Vicki was engaged in truly stupid behavior, and use her natural warmth and sincerity to prevent the character from coming off as completely obnoxious. A subplot concerning Vicki’s wayward brother, who was working for the villains, gave Adams a few opportunities to drop her character’s usual sarcasm and carelessness and display appealing concern and affection, but this plot thread was sadly underdeveloped, and Jane was robbed of the opportunity to emotionally react on-screen to the eventual redemptive death of her wayward sibling (instead, Batman merely described her reaction to Robin after the fact). Overall, the role gave her far less to work with than Lost City of the Jungle had, despite a less cluttered storyline than that earlier serial. As she herself put it later, “[Jungle] was filled with a lot of problems but at least I did more in that than in ‘Batman and Robin’ three years later!”
Above: “Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?” An impudent Jane Adams has just asked Robert Lowery’s Batman a question that not only strikes close to Batman’s secret identity, but also inadvertently indicts the cheapness of Batman and Robin’s producer Sam Katzman. John Duncan as Robin is between Lowery and Adams.
Adams’ last screen appearance was in an episode of the TV show Dangerous Assignment, broadcast in 1952 (her Superman TV appearance aired later, but had been filmed back in 1951). She then abandoned acting for good to become a full-time military wife and mother. Her husband would eventually become Major-General Thomas Turnage, military advisor to President Ronald Reagan and head of the Veteran’s Administration; despite this impressive level of family prestige, Jane was always ready to correspond with fans of her film work and grant interviews to horror-film, B-western, and serial historians. She and her husband retired to California, where the General passed away in 2000. Jane continued to keep in touch with her fans, and even appeared at the horror-film convention Monster Bash, during the remaining years of her life; she passed away in Washington State in 2014.
In the course of her short screen career, Jane Adams made a lasting impression upon horror-movie buffs and also endeared herself to devotees of B-westerns; mentions of her serial work are generally little more than footnotes to accounts of her work in these other genres. This is understandable, but her chapterplay appearances still warrant a full retrospective of their own. In her first serial, she handled a multitude of emotions with subtlety, conviction and self-assurance far above the serial-heroine norm, and in her second, she handled a thankless role as well as anyone could have. Limited though Jane Adams’ serial work was, it was more than enough to demonstrate that, given a serial which truly showcased her to best advantage, her charm and talent could have made her just as popular among cliffhanger fans as she became among other subsets of movie buffs.
Acknowledgements: My sources for this article include an interview with Jane Adams reproduced on the Western Clippings website, a memorial thread on the Classic Horror Film Board, a video tribute by her fan and friend, Robert Aragon, a blog article by Ron Schuler, the 1930 and 1940 federal censuses, marriage and death records from Virginia, California, and Washington, the Radio Gold Index site, and a 1937 passenger-ship listing.