Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)

The movie serials of the 1930s through 1950s are very interesting. The plots tend to be formulaic, the acting is usually terrible, and the characters and situations reek of cliché. Yet they can be very entertaining, as long as you do not expect a terrible lot of originality. They are also interesting because of their role in shaping modern popular culture.

Among the clichés are heavily cemented gender roles. The earlier serials of the silent era, as well as some from the early 1930s, often contain strong female characters. Sometimes, the entire plot centered around a female heroine, such as in The Hazards of Helen, several episodes of which are available at the Internet Archive. (I may come back to that serial in the future.)

Linda Stirling in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

But by 1944, Zorro’s Black Whip, starring Linda Stirling as a female “Zorro” (though that name is never used in dialogue; she is known by the alias The Black Whip), was something truly unique. By that time, female roles in serials had been trivialized to love interests and kidnapping victims. Just what caused the degradation of women is unkown to me, though I understand that with the coming of sound film and a more commercialized movie business, all of Hollywood became more of a men’s playground. Perhaps World War II paved the way for at least this one return to a strong leading woman, but the world was not yet ready for more.

Of course, The Black Whip could not be made too strong and independent. To begin with, she could not create the secret identity herself. She inherited it from her dead brother, and throughout the serial has to pretend to be a man in order to continue her brother’s fight for freedom in 19th century Idaho. And while she turns out to be an expert with the whip and revolver, she naturally cannot fight with her fists, so she needs a strong and able sidekick, government agent Vic Gordon, to act as her proxy in this respect. Oh, and of course he is also her love interest. There can be no 1940s serial without romance. (Vic Gordon was played by George J. Lewis, who was to play Zorro’s father in the Disney TV series over a decade later.)

This serial is best enjoyed for its unusual gender roles. It is a nice and somewhat original take on the Zorro theme, though I would personally hold that the previous serial Zorro Rides Again is better. Especially the ending, which is the weakest part of Zorro’s Black Whip. All things considered, though, this is good watching, and if you like serials it is highly recommended.

Linda Stirling and George J. Lewis in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

Zorro’s Black Whip
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 2 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Linda Stirling, George J. Lewis
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (636×476)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Zorro Rides Again (1937)

There is a strong link between the characters of Zorro and Batman, a link that I have a feeling has not yet been thoroughly explored. I will come back to that link later on.

Zorro Rides Again was the first (and best) of three serials based on the Zorro character. All three are available from the Internet Archive, and I may quite possibly return to the other two in the future.

Duncan Renaldo and John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again (1937)

This version does not try to be very creative with the Zorro character. It is not a reboot per se, yet largely builds its own background and characters; still everything pretty much remains from earlier versions. The main character is the original Zorro’s great grandson James Vega, and when he arrives to help protect a railroad construction plagued by a villainous terrorist called El Lobo, great hopes are placed on him. But like his forefather, he pretends to be a foppish dillettante by day, only to change into Zorro’s costume by night. All the old attributes are here. The only thing missing is the black cape.

Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman’s creators, drew inspiration from many sources and characters when creating Batman. One of them, The Bat, has already been covered in this blog. Other sources have been reported to include Sherlock Holmes and The Phantom. Kane has reportedly said that one of his sources was the film The Mark of Zorro (1920). There is no reason to doubt the truth of the statement, of course. Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro film has been tremendously influential on a number of levels, not least for the Zorro character himself.

Yet I think we should not dismiss Zorro Rides Again. Admittedly, it may not be as elegant or ground-breaking as The Mark of Zorro, but there are two reasons to believe that it may have left an impact on Batman. To begin with, it was released only two years prior to the first published Batman story, so the timing is much better than for the considerably older Fairbanks film. But even more to the point, Zorro Rides Again may have been the first use of Zorro’s underground cavern hideout, and thus not only provided inspiration for many Zorro incarnations to come, but potentially served as a model for the Batcave.

So my bottom line is that while The Mark of Zorro may have been the main inspiration going from Zorro to Batman, Zorro Rides Again may well have stimulated Kane’s interest in the Zorro character, and it probably also contributed some small pieces of inspiration itself.

This serial is best enjoyed if you enjoy serials in general or if you want an introduction to the genre. It is a good representative with a lot of nice action and fancy stuntwork. The plot may be stupid at times, but it is never dull. The actors … well, you never watch serials for the actors, anyhow.

John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again (1937)

Zorro Rides Again
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1937
Running time: 3 h 34 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: John Carroll
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The term “cliffhanger” comes from the old movie serials, especially those of the 1930s through 1950s. Each episode always ended with one of the heroes stuck in an apparently impossible position, quite often seeming to die with no possibility of rescue. Then the next episode starts with a resolution where, lo and behold, the hero survives after all and can go on chasing the baddies.

I have seen a number of serials, maybe fifteen or so, and the first and only time I ever saw a cliffhanger where the heroes are actually hanging (and falling) off a cliff is in The Phantom Empire. It is much more common that the hero crashes a plane or a car, “cliffhanger” variations which are also used in that same serial.

Frankie Darro, Gene Autry and Betsy King Ross in a cliffhanger in The Phantom Empire (1935)

But The Phantom Empire’s fame does not rest in its possibly naming the cliffhanger gimmick (there were probably others before it anyway). The reason why it is exciting and to some extent unique is the peculiar blend between western adventure and science fiction.

In the serial, Gene Autry, who plays himself, owns the Radio Ranch. He makes daily radio broadcasts with music and live theatre, and he needs to continue making them, or he will lose his contract and cannot afford to keep the ranch. So far, nothing spectacular about the setup.

But then there is the team of scientists, who are secretly trying to locate the underground kingdom of Murania to rob its treasure of radium. Not to mention the Muranians themselves, a lost race of scientifically advanced cave dwellers who sometimes come to the surface just near Radio Ranch. And to top that off, Gene Autry is suspected of murdering a man and has to make his broadcasts in secret, or the sheriff will capture him.

As you can probably guess, the plot is not always logical or coherent. But compared with many other serials, it is fairly intricate, and even though it may seem inane at times, it moves along at a breakneck pace. This serial has much fewer choreographed fist fights than, for example, the Captain America serial, and the reason is that there is enough plot without those fights to fill up the episodes.

I think the reason why I find that sci-fi and western genre-crossing has such strong potential is that both (westerns, in particular) are genres that are very much stuck in their respective sets of clichés. When those clichés clash, the filmmakers are forced to be creative. This does not always lead to good film, but it often leads to thought-provoking and entertaining solutions.

I have searched at IMDb and other sites, and as far as I can figure, The Phantom Empire was the first ever cross between western and science fiction, at least on film. It was soon followed by some others, but over the past eighty years, there have been relatively few such films. Two other examples from the 30s are available at the Internet Archive: Ghost Patrol and Sky Racket.

Underground civilizations were not exactly a new idea when this serial was released. A hollow earth was suggested by Edmond Halley (for whom Halley’s comet is named) as early as 1692. Others expanded upon his theory, adding large polar openings from the outer surface, and an internal sun to warm and light the inner world.

The idea was used in fiction by several writers; among the immediate predecessors in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s were stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ralph Milne Farley. Technically speaking, The Phantom Empire is not a hollow earth story, since the setting is not a hollow earth but a gigantic cavern 22,000 ft. below the surface. It is clear, however, that it comes from the same tradition, and judging from the similarities of titles, the direct inspiration was perhaps the non-fictional work The Phantom of the Poles published in 1906 by William Reed.

If you find that watching an entire serial is a bit stiff, but are still interested in the story and production, this serial, like many others, was also released as a shorter feature version, which is also downloadable.

This serial is best enjoyed if not taken too seriously. It is fun, camp and wonderfully silly. To boot, The Phantom Empire, like many other western serials, contains some really nice horseback stunts.

Gene Autry, Dorothy Christy (as Queen Tika) and a robot in The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1935
Running time: 3 h 57 min
Directors: Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason
Stars: Gene Autry
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Depending on what sources you care to trust, the masked hero Zorro turns 95 either tomorrow or nine days ago. And while he would seem to be as vital as ever, he would probably not have become famous at all, if not for the film The Mark of Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Robert McKim as Capitán Ramón in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro was the brain child of one Johnston McCulley, who invented the character and wrote a series of stories about him. But McCulley’s first story, quite frankly, was not very good, nor very interesting. His Zorro was just another masked Western hero, interesting only because of the catchy name (which was not originally in the title of the first story) and the secret dilettante identity (which, frankly, was not very well handled). The trademark Z, carved in the opponent’s flesh, was only added as a throwaway gimmick towards the end. Today, the story feels stale, not only becuase the writing was awkward even by pulp standards, but moreso because it reeks with sexism, racism and lack of historical accuracy.

No, Zorro would have been quickly forgotten, if it was not for Douglas Fairbanks. He was already a popular star in comedies (see my review of The Nut for more information), but wanted more. He was looking for a good franchise to turn into an adventure movie, and found what he was looking for in Zorro.

In adapting the story, Fairbanks changed the title to put focus on the hero and his signature. He also introduced many other dramatic improvements, such as: the black hat and cape; Don Diego’s horseback and fencing skills can be kept secret since he just returned from a long visit to Spain; the underground secret hideout (which was later to become the inspiration for Batman’s cave); the faithful servant who knows the secret; just to mention some of the changes that have come to stay with the character. And, to top it all off, he added his own set of acrobatic stunts and coreographed fights, something which has become characteristic of the entire adventure film genre.

Adventure movies had already existed for some years, especially within the Western subgenre. But the action in those movies was fairly simple, usually taking the shape of gunfights, fistfights or chases with relatively simple stunts and choreography.

In the comedies, on the other hand, geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had started to experiment with more advanced stunts, using complex choreography and trick filming, among other things.

Douglas Fairbanks merged the two genres, and threw in his own magnetic screen personality as a bonus. This proved to be enormously successful, and has basically shaped the entire motion picture industry into what it is today.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. The Mark of Zorro has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood filmmaking. It has more or less by itself defined the entire romantic adventure subgenre, a genre which has not significantly altered during the past 94 years since its origins.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita Pulido in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.3 G)

The American West of John Ford (1971)

Last week, I wrote about the John Wayne film Angel and the Badman, and about John Wayne’s status as a Hollywood legend.

Wayne made his big breakthrough in the classic western Stagecoach (1939). The director was John Ford, and if John Wayne is the leading western actor of all time, then Ford is the leading western director. Ford’s career and legacy are described in the documentary The American West of John Ford.

John Wayne in The American West of John Ford (1971)

Clips from many of Ford’s films are shown in the documentary, and some more are mentioned in passing. Of all those films, the only ones that I know to be at the Internet Archive are two wartime propaganda films, namely The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943).

As a documentary, this is a fairly unique film, because some of Ford’s most respected leading actors, John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, appear as cicerones, talking about Ford and also with him (Ford was still alive when the documentary was made, but died two years after its premiere). Thus, the film revolves around first-hand accounts of the legandary director, and also those of legandary actors, now gone.

The documentary is nice because it tells the story in a very personal way. John Ford’s own participation is not in the traditional interview situation, but in locations where he shot some of his best-known pictures. He seems relaxed, and this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, because we feel like we get close to him.

This film is best enjoyed by western fans who want to see some of the actors and the director that were perhaps most responsible for shaping and popularising the genre in the decades following the 1930s.

James Stewart and John Ford in The American West of John Ford (1971)

The American West of John Ford
Download link
Year: 1971
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Denis Sanders
Stars: John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×406)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Angel and the Badman (1947)

John Wayne. The name alone sings of legend. Few, if any, actors have become so famous, neither during their lives nor after. John Wayne started making movies in the 1920s, and he had some lead roles in the 1930s, but it was in the 1940s that he made his big break-through. He then remained among the top Hollywood names until he stopped filming a few years before his death in 1979. According to IMDb, he acted in no less than 181 films.

There are quite a few Wayne films available at the Internet Archive, but unfortunately most are from his early career, before he was big enough to be given only the best in terms of scripts, directors and production values. One of the few that are really good (I would not hesitate to call it an underrated pearl of Wayne’s production) is Angel and the Badman.

John Wayne in Angel and the Badman (1947)

The film is about Quirt Evans, a tough guy with a bad reputation, who does not hesitate to use violence to achieve his ends. When he becomes wounded he is taken in by a family of quakers. The daughter, Penelope, nurses him to health and at the same time falls in love with him. But their lives are completely different. Is there any way they can find common ground?

Angel and the Badman has its share of clichés. It would not be a western otherwise. But in many ways it is also original and thought-provoking. Not your standard western, by any means. The ending in particular is not your typical “rode into the sunset” variety, even though it is true it has been done a few times before and since.

This film is best enjoyed for its dramatic and romantic values. As an action, it falls somewhat short, in spite of a couple of nice stunts. Oh, and of course, without John Wayne it would have been completely forgotten today.

John Wayne and Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman (1947)

Angel and the Badman
Download link
Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: James Edward Grant
Stars: John Wayne
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.2 G)

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It is really the most absurd sensation to watch an old film with Ronald Reagan and ponder that a few decades later, this was to become the president of the United States. But there it is, and when the film in question deals with important events in American history, that absurdity increases.

In Santa Fe Trail, he plays a young George Custer (yes, the George Custer of Little Big Horn) alongside the film’s leading male Errol Flynn as “Jeb” Stuart (another famous American general). And between them, in that eternal Hollywood love triangle, stands Olivia de Havilland, the only leading actor to play a fictional character in this film.

Ronald Reagan as George Custer, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn as J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

There are more than just a few parallels between this film and The Birth of a Nation from 25 years earlier. In terms of chronology, Santa Fe Trail describes the events leading up to those depicted in the older film. Both films also feature many historical persons, casting them in a sympathetic light or lack thereof depending on what fits the film’s message. And even that message is partly the same: that the African Americans and their supporters were the ones responsible for the American Civil War, even though Santa Fe Trail is not quite so open and outspoken about it, trying to hide its racism behind double meanings and generalisations.

So this film should not be seen as a history lesson. In terms of historical accuracy, it is standard Hollywood nationalistic nonsense, or worse, and when that nationalistic nonsense is delivered with an Australian accent, it tends to become a bit silly at times. Indeed, Flynn is not making his best role here, though his natural charm shines through as always.

But of course, this movie has a number of good sides, or there would be no reason to report it here. There are many things to recommend it. Lighting and camerawork show excellent craftsmanship, and the actors are good overall. And better than all the rest put together is an absolutely brilliant Raymond Massey as John Brown. Massey delivers every line with just the perfect touch of madness.

This film is best enjoyed if you can see past its shortcomings and enjoy it as a typical period piece with some very interesting actors at the height of their careers.

Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Santa Fe Trail
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)