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May 19: A 2nd Tarzan-Related Birthday

Posted in Birthday,Serials on May 19, 2015 @ 7:29 pm
Natalie Kingston publicity photo, circa 1927.

Natalie Kingston publicity photo, circa 1927.

Earlier today I posted a birthday tribute to Herman Brix, a former screen Tarzan. But he wasn’t the only person with a connection to the Ape Man born on May 19th. The screen’s fifth and last silent-era Jane, Natalie Kingston, shared the same birthday and is likewise deserving of recognition here.

Born in 1905 as Natalie Ringstrom, this Golden State native showed traces of her mixed lineage, having both Spanish and Hungarian ancestors. Dark-eyed, dark-haired, and olive-skinned, Natalie grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. While still a teenager she began performing professionally as a dancer, briefly hoofing on Broadway. Natalie was just 18 when, having returned to California, she became one of Mack Sennett’s fabled Bathing Beauties and secured roles in his comedies starring Harry Langdon, among others.

In 1926, now billed as Natalie Kingston, she supported top comics Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots and Raymond Griffith in Wet Paint. Frequently cast as a fiery Latina, she occasionally played dramatic roles and was said to be particularly effective in a 1927 Ronald Colman vehicle, The Night of Love. Kingston also drew supporting roles in such popular late silent films as Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port and Frank Borzage’s Street Angel.

A scene from TARZAN THE MIGHTY (1928).

A scene from TARZAN THE MIGHTY (1928).

In some of her early screen appearances Natalie looked a tad plump, but by 1928 she had slimmed down considerably. Lithe and leggy, the erstwhile chorus girl had never looked better when she was cast to play “Mary Trevor” in that year’s Tarzan the Mighty, a Universal chapter play scheduled for release in the fall.

The serial, supposedly based on the sixth book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ long-running series, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, was actually filmed from an original screenplay. Kingston’s character had no counterpart in ERB’s collection of short stories, but she looked quite fetching in her abbreviated animal-skin garb. Champion gymnast and body-building enthusiast Frank Merrill, who had doubled Elmo Lincoln in The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), made a convincing Ape Man and bore at least a glancing resemblance to the Tarzan depicted in some of J. Allen St. John’s cover paintings.

A scene from TARZAN THE TIGER (1929).

A scene from TARZAN THE TIGER (1929).

The early episodes of Tarzan the Mighty were released while the serial was in the latter days of principal photography. Enthusiastic exhibitor reaction and the accompanying increase in bookings persuaded Universal to extend the film from 12 to 15 installments, thereby guaranteeing additional revenue inasmuch as serials were rented by the chapter. It was Universal’s highest-grossing production of the year.

The principal players—Merrill, Kingston, and villain Al Ferguson—were reunited the following year for the absurdly titled Tarzan the Tiger, a reasonably faithful adaptation of ERB’s Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. This time around Natalie played Jane, who during the course of the story was menaced by Arab slave traders and Opar’s Queen La (played by the exotically beautiful Mademoiselle Kithnou). She screened to good advantage in a tasteful nude swimming scene. While successful, Tarzan the Tiger was not the box-office sensation that its predecessor had been, and the Ape Man’s screen career lay dormant for several years before being revived with M-G-M’s first Tarzan opus starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

TARZAN THE TIGER: Ferguson, Merrill, Kingston.

TARZAN THE TIGER: Ferguson, Merrill, Kingston.

Kingston had the female lead in one other Universal serial, The Pirate of Panama (also 1929), an adaptation of William MacLeod Raine’s adventure novel about modern-day treasure hunters. In a shameless bid to capitalize on her physical assets the script kept Natalie’s character clad in shredded garments for much of the footage, if production stills are to be believed. The chapter play itself is lost, as is Tarzan the Mighty.

Although Kingston had a perfectly acceptable voice and delivered dialogue convincingly, she failed to gain much of a foothold in talking pictures and worked in a handful of minor films before retiring from the screen in 1933, still in her twenties. Natalie fared better than many of her peers, however. She invested her money in real estate and attended law school to obtain the legal expertise required to successfully manage her holdings. She also enjoyed a long and stable marriage to one George Andersch, whom she wed shortly before beginning work on Tarzan the Mighty; their union ended with his death in 1960.

Kingston and Ferguson in PIRATE OF PANAMA.

Kingston and Ferguson in PIRATE OF PANAMA.

Natalie Kingston died in 1991 at her home in Los Angeles, just a couple months shy of her 86th birthday. Her brief tenure as the silver screen’s Jane would likely be totally forgotten had not a resourceful film pirate gained access to the only surviving 35mm print of Tarzan the Tiger in the mid 1980s. This gent made a good-quality video transfer from the deteriorating material and circulated VHS copies to selected collectors before selling sub-masters to grey-market video distributors a few years later. Thanks to him, Tarzan fans have developed an appreciation for the silent era’s sexiest Jane.

PIRATE OF PANAMA: Kingston and Jay Wilsey.

PIRATE OF PANAMA: Kingston and Jay Wilsey.

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