January 15th, 1927 —
Phyllis Coates was Republic Pictures’ final “serial queen,” an unofficial successor to Frances Gifford, Kay Aldridge, and Linda Stirling. Although Coates was very attractive, and a good actress, she always seemed a little out of place in the serial milieu. While serial queens from Pearl White to Linda Stirling had maintained a friendly, smiling “girl next door” image even when shooting it out with the villains, Coates’ authoritative screen personality was more reminiscent of a schoolteacher or a coolly efficient businesswoman. Her heroines didn’t seem as vulnerable as those of earlier actresses, making it harder for audiences to feel concerned about them; she was so calmly and almost bossily self-sufficient that her occasional screams of terror seemed almost out of character. The cliffhanger serial is essentially an archetypal form, and Coates, despite her beauty and talent, wasn’t quite able to fit the established archetype of the serial heroine.
Phyllis Coates was born Gypsie Ann Stell in Wichita Falls, Texas. In 1942, her family moved to Hollywood, where she began her show business career after finishing high school. She started as a chorus girl in the shows of vaudeville comedian Ken Murray, worked for producer Earl Carroll, and made a USO tour. She broke into films in 1948, playing the wife of the bumbling Everyman “Joe McDoakes” (George O’Hanlon) in the long-running “So, You Want To…” series of Warner Brothers comedy shorts. Though she would continue making McDoakes shorts until 1954, in 1950 she began to branch out into bigger roles in other movies. Throughout the early 1950s, she worked in multiple films for Monogram Pictures, including B-westerns like Outlaws of Texas and Man from Sonora, A-westerns like The Longhorn, and Bowery Boys comedies like Blues Busters; she also appeared frequently on early TV shows like The Cisco Kid and Range Rider. In 1951, she played Lois Lane in the pilot film and the eventual first season of the Adventures of Superman TV show; these episodes weren’t sold immediately and didn’t appear on television until the 1952-1953 season. Deciding not to commit to the Superman show, she continued to work in features, shorts, and television, adding serials to the mix in late 1952.
Her first cliffhanger was Republic’s Jungle Drums of Africa. She was cast as Carol Bryant, the daughter of a deceased medical missionary, who was carrying on her father’s work among the jungle tribes–and annoying the local witch doctor (Roy Glenn), whose voodoo was eclipsed by her modern medicine. She aided the attempts of two American engineers (Clayton Moore and Johnny Spencer) to develop a valuable uranium mine deep in the jungle; their efforts were opposed by a foreign spy (Henry Rowland) and his men. The spies found the witch doctor a willing ally, and used him and his native followers in their various schemes to harass the mining project. While no match for the serials of Republic’s Golden Age, Jungle Drums of Africa was entertaining and something of a “last hurrah” for the studio, being the final chapterplay in which they tried to build the action around new footage, rather than stock footage. The script also took unusual care to equally divide the chapter-ending perils between Coates and hero Clayton Moore, apparently as part of Republic’s attempt to showcase Coates as a new serial queen. She was quite convincing as a dedicated jungle physician, calmly striding through the jungle with her medicine kit and matter-of-factly explaining wildlife habits and tribal customs to the less jungle-savvy engineers.
Coates continued working in movies and television after finishing Jungle Drums; she also turned down an offer to return to the Lois Lane role for a second season of the now-successful series. After appearing in several Westerns and another batch of Joe McDoakes shorts, she re-teamed with Clayton Moore for her second serial, Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953). This cliffhanger, which boasted good location shooting and a strong cast, starred Jock Mahoney as a Mountie battling a band of outlaws called the “White Horse Rebels,” who were plotting to take over the government of Canada. Moore was Mahoney’s reliable aide-de-camp, and Coates was Rita Carville, an assay-office proprietress who was apparently a member of the Rebels’ group but was secretly trying to unmask them to avenge the death of her brother. Coates’ rather aloof screen persona was actually something of an asset in this outing, since her character’s motives were enigmatic to both the other characters and the audience throughout much of the serial.
In 1954, Coates co-starred with Paul Gilbert and Allen Jenkins in a short-lived Sheldon Leonard sitcom called The Duke, and then returned to Republic Pictures in 1955 to star in her final serial. This release, Panther Girl of the Kongo, assigned Phyllis top billing and the role of a jungle wildlife photographer named Jean Evans, nicknamed “Panther Girl” by the natives. Jean discovered several monstrous crawfish terrorizing the jungle, the creation of a crooked scientist (Arthur Space) who was determined to drive the locals away from his diamond-mining enterprise. With the help of guide and hunter Larry Saunders (Myron Healey), the “Panther Girl” tracked down the man behind the monsters and brought peace to the jungle. Though it drew heavily on stock footage from Republic’s earlier and better serial Jungle Girl, Panther Girl did, like Jungle Drums of Africa, attempt to do a few new things with the studio’s standard serial formula–mainly through the incorporation of the monster crawfish, an echo of the then-popular giant-bug films. Coates’ dead-serious reaction to the menace of these creatures helped to make them seem credible threats, while–as in Jungle Drums–her no-nonsense demeanor was well-suited to the part of a heroine who was supposed to be used to fending for herself in the jungle.
Phyllis continued to act after the close of her brief serial career, co-starring in a few more movies (Joel McCrea’s Cattle Empire and Scott Brady’s Blood Arrow among them) in the late 1950s before focusing mainly on television work. She played noticeable roles on Perry Mason, Rawhide, The Untouchables, and other series throughout the 1960s, but retired in 1970. She began to venture out of retirement occasionally beginning in 1988, playing several parts in made-for-TV movies. Her last film work to date was in 1996, but the fame deriving from her association with Superman has kept her in the public eye, and she remains a popular guest at film and television conventions. She currently resides in California.
Phyllis Coates’ impact on the cliffhanger world was small; she entered it during the final years of its decline, while her acting style made her hard to accept as a traditional serial ingénue. However, she was a lovely and very professional actress, and, although she never seemed as congenial as her predecessors, she delivered fine performances in each of her serials.
Acknowledgements: Bobby Copeland’s interview with Phyllis Coates, published in Cliffhanger magazine #10 (1989), provided me with the biographical information in this article.