Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

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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 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)