Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Zorro Rides Again"; Republic, 1937

Happy Holidays True Believers (As Stan “The Man” Lee would say)! I thought for this month I would spotlight a hard riding, whip cracking, shoot’em up that many contend started the Golden Age of serials, Republic’s “Zorro Rides Again” (1937).

Phillip (Reed Howes) and his sister Joyce Andrews (Helen Christian) have partnered with Manuel Vega (Nigel de Brulier) to form the California-Yucatan Railroad that will build a freight line between the U.S.A. and Mexico. Unscrupulous businessman Marsden (Noah Beery, Sr.) sets his sights on the company. When attempts to buy it are turned down, Marsden hires the infamous outlaw El Lobo (Richard Alexander) to begin a wave a sabotage that will drive the company bankrupt and allow Marsden to pick it up for peanuts.

After several raids Manuel decides to send for his nephew James, who is the great grandson of the legendary Zorro, in the hopes that he can help stop the attacks. That night El Lobo and his men force their way into Manuel’s hacienda and demand that they sign over all shares in the railroad to his undisclosed employer (whom they all suspect to be Marsden). Just then a masked, whip wielding, gun totting man in black enters and chases the miscreants away. When asked who he is, the stranger looks up at the life size portrait of Zorro and says just call him Zorro. He then rides off into the night singing a song about Zorro riding again.

The next morning James Vega (John Carroll) arrives and proves himself to be a lazy, ineffective wussy. When his uncle tries to get him to ride El Rey, the horse descended from the original Zorro’s own El Rey, James falls off and the horse gets away.

Word reaches the house that El Lobo is attacking the construction camp. Everyone but James rushes to the camp to help defend it. El Lobo’s men are getting the best of the construction workers, when Zorro arrives on El Rey and attacks El Lobo. The two men roll down a hill and into the camp. Zorro whips out his reverse slung six guns and forces El Lobo to call off the attack. After the marauders have high tailed it away, Zorro lets El Lobo go.

During the gun fight Manuel was mortally wounded. Telling Zorro he is dying he asks to see who Zorro is. After Phillip and Joyce have dutifully turned away so as not to see, Zorro pulls aside his mask and reveals himself to be James Vega. Manuel dies with a strange smile on his face. Soon after that Zorro starts cracking down on the members of El Lobo’s gang, driving Marsden into a mouth frothing frenzy.

Meanwhile back at the Vega hacienda Phillip and Joyce are appalled that James apparently has no interest in continuing his uncle’s work and, even worse, has suggested selling the company to Marsden. The brother and sister leave in a disgusted huff to ride along on the train carrying the company payroll to make sure nothing happens to it.

Smiling, James pushes aside the portrait of his famous ancestor and enters a tunnel that leads to a cave under the house where El Rey is kept along with his Zorro costume. While he changes, faithful family retainer Renaldo (Duncan Renaldo) tells Zorro that his niece Carmelita (Mona Rico) works as a singer at a cantina where El Lobo’s men like to hang out at.

Going to the cantina, Zorro makes contact with Carmelita, who has him hide backstage. When El Lobo’s men arrive she points them out to the masked avenger and he follows them to a back room where listens in through the door. He overhears nasty second in command Trelliger (Robert Kortman) tell the men that El Lobo is planning to attack the payroll train. Before he can learn how the attack will take place Zorro is spotted and everybody ends up holding their guns on each other. The stand off is ended when Carmelita turns off the lights and Zorro escapes in the darkness.

Rushing out into the sunlight, Zorro jumps on El Rey and burns leather to the train. Swinging aboard the caboose, he tells Phillip and Joyce of El Lobo’s impending attack. Just then El Lobo in a plane swoops down out of the sky and begins peppering the train with bombs.

All looks lost until Zorro grabs Phillip’s rifle and fires off a once in a lifetime shot that disables the plane overhead. El Lobo has to break off the attack and just manages to limp the plane back to the hideout. Seeing his work is finished for the moment, Zorro bids fare well and rides off into the brush. Seeing Renaldo driving a car he swings aboard and changes back to James. Renaldo says he is taken the ledger that Phillip forgot and left behind to Ocilla Junction. James says he will take the ledger and wants Renaldo to wait with El Rey outside of town in case he needs him, as James suspects El Lobo will try something at the junction since his last attack failed.

James doesn’t know how right he is. Once back at the hideout El Lobo radio’s Marsden who cryptically tells the brutish outlaw leader to destroy the building supplies at Ocilla Junction. Renaldo spots the approaching gang and rushes into town to warn everybody. While Phillip is handing out guns to the workers, Renaldo takes James aside and tells him his costume and horse are out back. While James is changing, El Lobo attacks. But this is really just a diversion. While everyone is occupied on one end of town, El Lobo has Larkin (Edmond Cobb) plant a time bomb in the supply warehouse.

The outlaw gang is “easily driven off”. Zorro spots Larkin sneaking out of the warehouse and chase the man down. Larkin admits there is a bomb in the warehouse but won’t say where. Zorro forces him into the warehouse at gunpoint. Larkin is nervous but won’t talk as he doesn’t believe Zorro will really let them both die. Zorro secretly moves the hands of a clock forward and then puts it in front of Larkin reminding the man that he is only one who knows when the bomb will go off.

Larkin sees the time and quickly snaps. He says the bomb is in the stove and will go off any second. While Zorro is getting the bomb out of the stove Larkin hits him on the head runs out the door. Zorro manages to come to his senses in enough time to get safely in the cellar before the bomb goes off.

The railroad is now in serious trouble. Without the supplies they may have to stop building indefinitely. James goes to the city to apparently sell his shares of the railroad to Marsden, much to the continued disgust of his partners. Once in Marsden’s office James tells the tycoon that he can’t sell his shares without the permission of his partners, but if Marsden were to write a letter of intent, that might convince Phillip and Joyce to agree. Marsden joyfully does so and hands the letter to James. As he is leaving James sees into Marsden’s radio room and notes the frequency on the radio.

James goes to his apartment where he immediately erases everything on the letter except Marsden’s signature and then types a new letter on the paper having Marsden’s own company resupply the material that was destroyed. After also sending a note to Phillip and Joyce as Zorro telling them that new supplies are on the way, James buys a radio like Marsden’s and heads back to the hacienda.

When Marsden learns that he has somehow been tricked into ordering new supplies for the railroad he radios El Lobo to destroy the train carrying the material at the switchback. James overhears this in his cave and rushes out to stop El Lobo as Zorro.

El Lobo switches the tracks so that the train will head down an uncompleted line and derail. Zorro arrives and switches it back. He and El Lobo engage in a ferocious fist fight over and around the tracks, switching the tracks back and forth. Finally El Lobo gets the line switched to derail the train, which also catches Zorro’s foot in the rail and the train is fast approaching to run him down.

Unable to reach the switch with his hands, the ever resourceful, Zorro slings his whip at the switch and is able to pull it that way, freeing himself and saving the train. Returning to headquarters in defeat again, El Lobo is unknowingly told to take a page out of Zorro’s book by Marsden, who wants El Lobo to tap Phillip’s phone line and listen in. So now both parties are eves dropping on each other without the other knowing it.

This is the serial that really got the ball rolling at Republic. After two years of putting out really good serials, they suddenly started putting out really great serials. The main reason for this sudden jump in quality was the teaming of directors William Witney and John English, two men who’s talents meshed so well you can’t tell when one stopped directing and the other took over. Their main contributions to the serial were always finding interesting camera angles to film from, carefully choreographing fight scenes, and streamlining storylines so that the action flowed seamlessly from one scene to the next without stopping off for extra subplots to stretch the running time. And it all started with this serial.

What really makes this serial stand out even from other Republic efforts is in the handling of the masked hero. For some reason Republic never really seemed to grasp the concept of the dual identity. Often the hero would act the exact same way whether he was in costume or not, making the whole reason of wearing a disguise pointless. Only with this serial, and it’s follow up “Zorro’s Fighting Legion” (1939), did they do it right. Here the hero pretends to be totally ineffectual and not wanting to get involved so that he can actually do his disguised heroics with more freedom. There are even moments when he seems to more inclined to be on the villain’s side, which allows him access to learning his schemes. This adds a lot of tension to the story as the other good guys aren’t sure they can trust him and even try to prevent him from helping at times, making his job that much harder.

The action is fast and furious. The usual Republic incongruity of modern vehicles and luxuries appearing with cowboys on horses is handled well by setting most of the story along a fairly deserted stretch of desert along the Mexico/U.S.A. border where it appears as if the modern world is slowly encroaching on this less civilized region (you could almost say the coming railroad is a symbol for this but serials weren’t too big on symbolism in film, preferring to leave that to people like John Ford and Orson Welles). This allows for some exciting and odd scenes with airplanes chasing men on horseback and cowboys with six guns having shoot outs in office sky scrapers. Just par for the course at the Thrill Factory.

The acting is really good, with top honors going to John Carroll, Noah Berry, Sr., Richard Alexander, and Duncan Renaldo. Carroll, a handsome and virile man with a deep voice perfect for singing; and he sings a few tunes that are skillfully integrated into the story so that the film doesn’t grind to a halt when he does it, is excellent in portraying the listless James Vega and the none doubled scenes of Zorro. From watching this film it is obvious he could have been a big star, but apparently (according to Witney’s recollections) to make up for his blessings he was also cursed with a snobbish and condescending attitude towards those around him. Noah Berry provides a perfect counterpoint to Carroll as he himself plays a man with a dual identity. While dealing with the heroes he is an ingratiating, though gruff, charmer. Once alone on the radio with his men he is an abusive and vindictive tyrant who looks almost gleeful when berating them over their latest failure.

Richard Alexander is a great choice for the physical heavy. His large physique allows him to loom over not only the good guys but also his own men, and he uses this to be as intimidating as possible. Though his voice is high pitched he easily overcomes this slight handicap by relying more on physical action than on dialogue. Instead of voicing a threat he simply glowers at the person and they quickly get the message. His size also makes his fights with the hero more exciting as he has a good fifty pounds and three inches on Carroll. Duncan Renaldo is giving an odd role in the serial. Made up with a grey wig and walking slightly stooped he is supposed to be the elderly family servant. It is to his credit that he takes such a role, full of comedy relief over the top antics like tripping over James’s golf clubs while unloading a car, and makes the character a smart and necessary ally for the hero. His decrepit appearance is as much a sham as the hero’s apparent clumsiness when it comes to action.

The serial is not without it’s minor problems and slips that got pass the editors. One of the funniest slips involves actress Helen Christian. She is in a scene where she says one line and then walks across the room and out of the shot. While passing the camera she rolls her eyes as if to say “This is so stupid!” and accidentally got it caught on film. But funnier than that is the actual plot of Chapter Four. The railroad is in the midst of making a deal with a local businessman for some property to build the railroad through. Richard Alexander disguises himself as Zorro, complete with fake Spanish accent, in an attempt to steal it. The sight of the hulking Alexander successfully pulling off this ruse must have set off a series of giggles in even the most believing of children in the audience.

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