Fates Worse Than Death: The Vigilantes Are Coming

California, 1844, “The Last Days of the Dons”: A young Don Loring says farewell to his father and brother as he prepares to join the expedition of Captain Fremont exploring the Pacific Northwest. While he is gone, Don Loring Sr. confronts General Jason Burr for trespassing on Loring’s property, not realizing that Burr has secretly discovered gold on the land and is already mining it, using conscripts Burr has abducted from nearby villages. After the tense meeting, Burr has Loring and his other son killed. As it happens, Burr’s plans go beyond secretly enriching himself: he is in contact with the Russian emissary Count Raspinoff, and he has proposed turning California over to the Russian empire with himself installed as dictator over the territory.

Raspinoff (Robert Warwick) and Burr (Fred Kohler)

Later, after young Don Loring’s return to the Sonoma Valley and his discovery that his family has been murdered, he declares vengeance. His crusade will require secrecy: he vows to adopt the persona of the Eagle until justice is achieved! In a short montage, the Eagle strikes down a series of henchmen, working his way up to the boss, each time leaving an eagle feather as a calling card. It’s not long before General Burr notices this hindrance to his plans, so he invites the Eagle for a parley–actually a trap, of course, but one that the Eagle cleverly evades. Face to face with Burr, the Eagle gives him a whipping, literally, before making a narrow escape. It’s going to take more than one man to bring down the would-be dictator, especially now that Count Raspinoff has provided him with a battalion of Cossacks from the Tzar’s army, so the Eagle sets about organizing a Vigilance Committee made up of the ranchers in the Valley. All is set for a confrontation of historic proportions in The Vigilantes Are Coming!

It should be obvious that the Eagle is a dead ringer for Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, right down to the friendly village padre who provides a hiding spot in his church, and if this were billed as a name-brand Zorro adventure no one would bat an eye. Star Robert Livingston, who plays the Eagle, would actually play Zorro by name in The Bold Caballero for Republic the very same year; Republic would make several Zorro serials, beginning with Zorro Rides Again in 1937, and there would be more feature films and televison series as well, but in 1936 all of those other adaptations lay in the future, with the major exception of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent take on the character in The Mark of Zorro. (With its scheme to separate California from American rule and its hidden gold mine dug by slave labor, The Vigilantes Are Coming has some resemblance to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas.)

Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and Raymond Hattan played Don Loring’s comrades.

But it’s the mash-up of California colonialism with Western tropes (mostly in the person of Salvation and Whipsaw, a pair of mountain-man scouts who split off from Fremont to accompany Don Loring home) and the Russian (or “Roosian,” as characters repeatedly say) bad guys that really makes this serial distinctive. It’s not quite as strange as it was made out to be, at least not while The Phantom Empire is right there, but for a serial rooted in a historical time and place it has an unusual premise. How plausible is it?

While the Russian plot to take California is an obvious alternate history conceit, it makes sense as a story hook, considering that Alaska was still Russian territory until 1867. Moreover, Burr’s attempt to set himself up as dictator mirrors those of real-life adventurers who hoped to carve their own fiefdoms out of the still-open frontier, including Aaron Burr’s much-debated attempt to conquer former Mexican territory and William Walker’s campaigns in Sonora and Nicaragua. More notable is the avoidance of the Mexican-American War: in the serial, Raspinoff demands secrecy because Russia has no desire to go to war with Mexico or the United States, but by the time it’s all over the Russian flag over Burr’s fort has been replaced with the stars and stripes, the Americanization of the territory a fait accompli.

Captain Fremont’s role as commander of the military troops who ride in to save the day also glosses over the real Frémont’s more controversial role in wresting California away from Mexico in the years leading up to that war. Like Frémont’s real-life associate Kit Carson, who also took part in the territorial conflict, the heroism and genuine accomplishments of his career tended to overshadow his grislier reputation as an “Indian-killer,” especially in popular entertainment like this. The sleight-of-hand by which it’s the Russians who stand in the way of Manifest Destiny, and not the clashing ambitions of neighbors Mexico and the United States, is a variation on the popular Western trope in which a malevolent white man (like Burr in this case) turns whites and Indians against each other for his own gain, preventing the peaceful settlement of the territory that benefits everyone. The whiteness of “Don Loring” and his family, while the peasants are presented as more stereotypical Mexicans, is another sign of their preemptive Americanization. It is a truism that Western movies say more about the time in which they are made than the era in which they are ostensibly set, and The Vigilantes Are Coming is no different.

Leaving such issues aside and taken on its own terms, this is an entertaining and fast-moving serial. Robert Livingston makes for a fine hero, convincingly brash when he needs to be; when he poses as a mere organ student to hide his identity, he appears meek, but reveals the calculation that goes into his deception to the audience. (He’s not the only one with a penchant for disguises: Salvation disguises himself as a Mexican peddler, and Whipsaw takes a captured Cossack’s uniform–and beard!–to infiltrate Burr’s fort in a humorous sequence.)

Of course, a leading man needs a leading lady: Kay Hughes plays Doris Colton, whose mining engineer father is held captive by Burr to run his gold mine. She is mostly held prisoner herself (communicating with the Eagle through carrier pigeons), but when she gets the opportunity she does her part, helping the Eagle set the fort on fire and leading the Vigilantes to the gold mine.

A brief misunderstanding

Preceding Republic’s adaptation of The Lone Ranger by two years, The Vigilantes Are Coming cast the mold for a whole slew of masked Western heroes to come: allowing for the similarities to Zorro already pointed out, the Eagle settles disputes with his six-shooter and bullwhip much more than with a blade (there is only one swordfight sequence in the whole thing), and despite the Southwestern setting much of the action and characters are clearly indebted to the traditional Western. Set pieces include a siege of the fort, with guns blazing; a fire that nearly burns down the Mission; a stand-off in which the vigilantes hold the gold mine against Cossack artillery; and a rousing “here comes the cavalry” ending. What more could you ask for?

What I Watched: The Vigilantes Are Coming (Republic, 1936)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video

No. of Chapters: “Foreign Fiendishness in 12 Saber-Rattling Episodes”

Best Chapter Title: There are a number of stock chapter titles that reappear frequently in different serials (Chapter Seven’s title, “Wings of Doom,” seems like one I’ve seen before), but I can’t imagine any other serials have a chapter called “Condemned by Cossacks” (Chapter Three).

Best Cliffhanger: A number of strands come together for maximum suspense at the end of Chapter Ten (“Prison of Flame”): after Don Loring and Doris Colton are both captured, Burr having finally figured out who the Eagle is, Doris offers to reveal where Count Raspinoff is being held in exchange for the Eagle’s life. Taken to the Mission, she demands that the Eagle be locked somewhere safe, and the key given to her, in order to guarantee his safety. Still bound, the Eagle is locked in the sexton’s room at the base of the bell tower. While Doris stalls, the Eagle manages to pull the rope to ring the Mission’s bell, the prearranged signal for the gathered Vigilantes to come to the Mission. While pulling the rope, he knocks over a lamp and starts a fire. Cutting between the approaching Vigilantes and their confrontation with the Cossacks, Doris’ increasingly desperate attempts to stall Burr’s men, and worst of all the sexton’s room filling with smoke, the chapter ends with burning rafters falling from the ceiling into the room in which the Eagle is trapped as the bell tower threatens to collapse on him!

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: As I have frequently noticed in Mascot and early Republic serials, there are a few clear-cut classic cheats in The Vigilantes Are Coming, the kind that seem to rewrite history rather than simply providing a new context or having the hero wriggle out of danger at the last second. The most obvious is at the end of Chapter Four, “Unholy Gold,” set in Burr’s gold mine the first time the Vigilantes attempt to take it. When the Vigilantes enter, they find the main chamber empty except for Doris’ injured father and a waterwheel-driven pile driver used for crushing rocks. Once the inevitable fight breaks out between Burr’s men and the Vigilantes, the Eagle is punched out and falls into the shaft supporting the pile driver; before he can recover, the weight descends on his chest, crushing him! At the beginning of the next chapter, however, when the same punch sends the Eagle beneath the pile driver, Salvation quickly pulls him out of danger before the weight descends. It doesn’t get much more revisionist than that!

Sample Dialogue: “I see you have all the qualities of a dictator.” –Count Raspinoff to Burr, after Burr has ordered the killing of Don Loring Sr. and his son, Chapter One (“The Eagle Strikes”)

What Others Have Said:The Vigilantes Are Coming was a reworking of The Eagle, Rudolph Valentino’s silent film. It served as a showcase for Robert Livingston, one of Republic’s popular leading men. . . . He is best remembered for his role as Stony Brooke, the lead cowboy in the well-liked Three Mesquiteer films. Livingston played in twenty-nine of them between 1936 and 1941, except for a stretch in 1938-39, when he was promoted to romantic melodramas and replaced by John Wayne.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Another VHS classic from the big ol’ box of videotapes–let’s go with something a little spooky and watch Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps!

Fates Worse Than Death: Zorro’s Black Whip

AKA "Zorro minus Zorro"

AKA “Zorro minus Zorro”

Although movie studios adapted many popular characters from the comics, radio, and literature for serials, they eventually grew tired of paying license fees and squabbling over creative control and came up with thinly-disguised copies of licensed characters, changing (for example) the Phantom to “Captain Africa” or Zorro to “Don Daredevil.” This allowed filmmakers to reuse footage from earlier productions without paying to license the characters again. Studios also created a few original characters, such as Rocket Man/Commando Cody.

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Zorro’s Black Whip, however, is an unusual case, a seemingly superfluous license: aside from the title, the lead character, the “Black Whip,” is never referred to as Zorro at all, and only superficially resembles Johnston McCulley’s masked avenger. Zorro’s Black Whip doesn’t even take place in Mexico or the Southwest: the story is set in the Idaho Territory in 1889, just before elections to determine Idaho’s statehood. However, the use of Zorro’s name in the title undoubtedly sold tickets, and the film’s reputation for being “the female Zorro” has given it a sort of immortality.

So Zorro’s Black Whip, despite its title, is a fairly straightforward Western with a masked hero. It begins with a title card describing rampant lawlessness on the eve of statehood elections:

Law-abiding citizens called for a vote to bring their territory into the Union. But sinister forces, opposed to the coming of law and order, instigated a reign of terror against the lives and property of all who favored statehood.

After a montage of masked horsemen attacking wagon trains, burning settlements, and robbing a bank, the scene changes to a meeting of the “citizens’ committee,” including pro-statehood newspaper editor Randolph Meredith, at the offices of stagecoach operator Dan Hammond. A federal commissioner is arriving in the territory in response to the bank robbery, driven by Meredith’s sister Barbara; he’ll take charge of law and order in the area until the elections.

After the meeting, Hammond confers with his henchmen, Baxter and Harris: it is Hammond who is behind the outlaws’ depredations, and he’ll stop at nothing to prevent statehood from wrecking his plans to control the territory. (Yes, this is the same motive as Kraft’s in Fighting with Kit Carson.) Hammond sends his goons to eliminate the commissioner and capture Barbara in order to force her brother to stop pushing for statehood in his newspaper.

ZBWHammond2

A chance meeting with Vic Gordon, a railroad surveyor, gives Barbara and the commissioner a fighting chance, and when the Black Whip rides in to assist, Baxter and Harris are outmatched and retreat. It’s too late for the commissioner, however, and before he dies of his wounds he reveals that Gordon is an undercover agent working for him, deputizing Barbara to help Gordon “stamp out these evils [and] bring Idaho into the Union.”

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The Black Whip, also injured, returns to his lair behind a waterfall; as he unmasks before dying, we see that it is Randolph Meredith, and the secret entrance connects to his and Barbara’s ranch house. When she returns home, looking for him, she finds his body and learns the truth. From then on, she wears the costume and takes on the responsibilities of the Black Whip, as well as the newspaper, with the aid of Vic Gordon.

ZBW.Barbara.Gordon

There are quite a few complications before Hammond is eventually brought to justice: Gordon is briefly framed for stealing reward money he had collected, and is almost lynched by an angry mob; Barbara is captured with the intention of forcing her to reveal the Black Whip’s identity; Gordon learns the truth and puts on the Black Whip costume to avert suspicion that Barbara is the masked vigilante.

Throughout, Barbara uses the newspaper to pass information along and provide handy visual summaries for the audience: HERALD EDITOR MURDERED; $10,000 REWARD; BIG GOLD STRIKE AT HARPER’S CREEK, etc. At the same time, Hammond secretly uses his position as a businessman and member of the citizens’ committee to shape public opinion and stymie attempts to curb the outlaws. It’s a surprisingly urban approach to the Western, with gangsters using six-shooters instead of tommy guns and getting away on horseback instead of in black sedans.

ZBWHeraldEditorMurdered

Also contributing to the contemporary feel, I was struck by the fact that everyone has a telephone. At first this seemed anachronistic to me, but reliable sources inform me that the first commercial telephone service in Idaho was established in 1883, so I can now claim the entire four hours of Zorro’s Black Whip as “educational viewing.” In other ways it is a typical Hollywood production: there are no Native Americans or people of color at all, sparing us the usual problematic racial depictions but also whitewashing away any real history. (I know, expecting “real history” was probably too much, but the telephone thing got my hopes up.) In fact, probably the most jarring element from a modern perspective is typesetter “Ten Point” Jackson’s addiction to patent medicines (like a “jitters tonic” helpfully labeled “90% alcohol”), played as comic relief.

(note telephone in background)

(note telephone in background)

The performances are uniformly excellent and, in combination with the writing (credited to four people: Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Grant Nelson, and Joseph Poland), give the characters a lived-in quality. As Vic Gordon, George J. Lewis is the first billed, but Linda Stirling as Barbara/the Black Whip should really be considered the star. (As in most serials, no one person is responsible for moving the entire plot forward, but come on, she’s the title character and was the focus in promotional materials.) Lewis comes off as somewhat glib, flashing a movie-star smile at the end of most of his scenes, whether appropriate to the moment or not.

ZBWBarbara1

Who knows—maybe he really had the hots for Stirling, and who could blame him? Beautiful and self-possessed, Stirling is considered one of the “serial queens” of the era, having previously appeared in The Tiger Woman, a jungle adventure; she here shows both an ability to act and carry a stunt-heavy action picture, riding, shooting, and dispatching bad guys with the long whip from which her alter ego takes its name. (Unlike Pearl White, however, she didn’t do all her own stunts.) On the villains’ side, Francis McDonald gives a wiry intensity to Hammond, and Hal Taliaferro is physically imposing and laconic in the manner of John Wayne as Hammond’s chief henchman Baxter.

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From a technical standpoint, this is one of the most tightly assembled serials I’ve watched so far. Directors Spencer Gordon Bennet and Wallace A. Grissell frame the action clearly and keep the pace up, aided by the cast’s game performances. Famed Western stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt serves as second unit director, contributing his expertise to the numerous horseback gunfights, chases and careening wagons that fill the running time. Also present are Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel, who would typically play a few henchmen or other bit parts while coordinating fistfights and other stunts behind the scenes. Finally, Theodore Lydecker is in charge of special effects, and his miniature work is recognizable in several shots, such as a cabin being flattened by a rockslide (according to imdb, Theodore’s brother Howard did uncredited work as well, which would make sense: they usually worked as a team). Zorro’s Black Whip is a showcase for some of Republic’s production talent at a high point of quality.

ZBWavalanche

The fight scenes are especially prominent and well executed, and Republic must have spent half its budget for this picture on breakaway furniture. Several locations are demolished by fights (including the newspaper office, the stagecoach office, an abandoned mine tunnel, and several barns and shacks), the fighters throwing each other over and through objects, and the furniture and any loose items being turned into impromptu clubs or missiles. When a fight breaks out in Barbara’s sitting room, with its flimsy knick-knack shelves and parlor furniture, it’s as thoroughly trashed as in any juvenile delinquent movie of the 1950s. In another fight scene, everything in the room, up to and including a cast-iron stove, comes crashing down during the brawl. It’s a credit to the choreography that these fights never become dull or repetitive.

ZBWbrawl

In The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut highlight the contradictions inherent in the serial heroine: do audiences want to see an avenging she-devil whipping her male oppressors, or a bound victim awaiting rescue? It’s the same question posed by The Perils of Pauline in an updated package.

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Harmon and Glut even go so far as to draw a connection between Stirling’s tight costume and “man-abusing actions” and “certain forms of underground erotica” (the book was written in 1972). I wonder, however, if through hindsight they were overstating the film’s effect on their younger selves. It’s possible to read the Black Whip as a predecessor of Russ Meyer’s “supervixens”—there’s definitely a lot of whipping in this film, and one can imagine it charging the imagination of some young Russ Meyers in the audience—but Linda Stirling is no Tura Satana, and Zorro’s Black Whip, while entertaining in its own right, will never be mistaken for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

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In the interest of equal time, Vic Gordon is also captured and tied up.

In the interest of equal time, Vic Gordon is also captured and tied up.

What I Watched: Zorro’s Black Whip (Republic, 1944)
Where I Watched It: A Roan Group Archival Entertainment DVD; it’s also available to watch on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Take Off That Mask!” (Chapter Five)
ZBWmasked
Best Cliffhanger: Fittingly for a serial that places such a premium on action, there are many excellent cliffhangers in Zorro’s Black Whip. There are several falls off of cliffs, of course, in and out of speeding wagons; there are explosions, including a burning barrel of coal oil in a dead-end mine tunnel. There’s quite a bit of violence which is grisly in its implication, if not very graphic in its depiction (and lest you think that whip is just for show, the Black Whip totally whips a guy backwards off the edge of a cliff at one point). I think my favorite cliffhanger is in Chapter Ten, “Fangs of Doom,” the title of which leads me to expect a rattlesnake (or maybe . . . a vampire?). As it happens, during a fight in a barn, in which a variety of riding tack and farm implements are thrown around, the Black Whip is knocked out, and Baxter attempts to finish her off with a pitchfork(!), thrusting it downward with a sickening crunch.
Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: But wait! At the last minute, Gordon throws a saddle over the Black Whip’s torso, so the sickening crunch is the sound of the pitchfork driving into the hard leather. Okay, it’s not a cheat, but come on . . . a saddle?
ZBW.saddle
Sample Dialogue: “The Black Whip’s got to be a man! He’s out-shot us, out-rode us, and out-fought us, stopped us at every turn!” –Baxter to Hammond, Chapter Nine (“Avalanche”)
What Others Have Said: “What still remains a mystery to viewers of Zorro’s Black Whip is that those crooks could wrestle around the barn so many times with the avenger without somehow discovering the true sex of the ‘masked man.’” –Harmon and Glut, The Great Movie Serials
What’s Next: Next week I plan to publish a special serial-related article, and then in two weeks I’ll be back with my impression of Gang Busters, the final installment of Fates Worse Than Death until next summer. See you then!