Lawyer Jeff Stewart (George Turner) returns to his Southwestern hometown in Box County after serving in the Civil War, only to discover that crooked politicians have taken control of the county during the absence of the area’s able-bodied men. The grafters have placed an exorbitant toll on the region’s principal road and are using it to bleed the local miners and ranchers dry; additionally, they are allowing a gang of outlaws led by one Boyd (Roy Barcroft) to use the county as a safe base of operations for raiding the surrounding counties. Stewart at first tries to unseat the politicos through purely legal methods, laying plans to build an alternate road that will provide a tax-free shipping route artery for the citizenry. However, in order to protect the road project, he’s soon forced to resort to extra-legal means, taking on the identity of a distinguished ancestor of his–the masked avenger Zorro. With the help of spunky local postmistress Kate Wells (Peggy Stewart) and family retainer Pancho (Stanley Price), this new Zorro sets out to clean up Box County, tangling repeatedly with Boyd’s gang and its principal backers, Judge Hyde (Ernie Adams), and Sheriff Moody (Ed Cassidy)–who are in turn backed by a mysterious secret boss.
Son of Zorro is an underrated serial from an underrated period in Republic’s serial-producing history: the “Indian Summer” of 1946-1948, when decreased post-war budgets had forced the studio to cut down on the elaborate fight scenes that had been the Republic chapterplay trademark since about 1942–but had not yet forced Republic’s production team to build their serials entirely around recycled footage and ideas, or to reduce each entry’s cast of characters to a bare minimum. Several of these early post-war serials are frequently more enjoyable than some of the more elaborately-mounted serials of the war years; thanks to the cutback on mammoth fight scenes, the actors in these outings have more time to actually characterize their parts, while the writers are allowed to contribute dialogue that goes beyond “We must beat the Nazi agents to that warehouse.” Several of the chapterplays from this period (especially Daughter of Don Q and The Black Widow) also feature noticeable doses of humor, common to Republic’s B-westerns of the period but very unusual in their 1940s serials. To return to specifics, Son of Zorro is one of the best of the chapterplays from this often unheralded group, a solid Western enlivened by the masked-avenger gimmick, some clever bits of plotting, a good (and good-sized) cast, memorable opening-credits music, and a few unexpectedly humorous touches.
Franklin Adreon, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, and Sol Shor avoid excessive repetition in their script, focusing on the struggle over the new road for the first five chapters, then switching over to new plotlines involving a set of incriminating country records and then an application to the governor to create a body of state rangers, before finally setting the heroes directly on the trail of the mystery boss in the last three chapters. When combined with the villains’ recurring attempts to learn Zorro’s identity, these subplots furnish enough material to satisfactorily fill the serial’s thirteen chapters and keep it from falling into the rigidly cyclic plotting patterns common to many Republics that both preceded and succeeded it. The weakest part of the screenplay is probably the (unnecessary) mystery villain angle; while there’s no logic breaks involved, the guilty party is almost comically obvious right from the start–although there is an interesting twist involving another of the suspects.
The writers also give the hero a sensible reason for assuming the Zorro identity; Republic’s earlier Zorro Rides Again and later Ghost of Zorro gave their protagonists much flimsier motivations for adopting a double life. Even though Son of Zorro’s Jeff Stewart causes almost as much trouble for the villains unmasked as masked, he still needs to physically battle the heavies as a mystery man, so as not to give the crooked politicians (obliged by their positions to maintain at least a façade of legality) a reason for arresting him. Incidentally, the recurring courtroom battles between hero and politicians are very entertaining, with the sneaky judge and the thuggish sheriff engaging in outrageous law-bending chicanery only to be outfoxed by the hero’s own legal trickery; the sequence with the reward money in Chapter Five is particularly excellent. The dialogue in these interchanges is also quite sharp and frequently amusing (George Turner, discounting Ed Cassidy’s testimony: “The sheriff needs to have his eyes examined.” Ernie Adams: “This is a court of law, not an optical clinic.”)
The serial’s action scenes are directed by Spencer Bennet and Fred C. Brannon and executed by stuntmen Tom Steele (who doubles George Turner), Fred Graham, Dale Van Sickel (both of whom double Roy Barcroft at different times), Bud Wolfe, Gil Perkins, Johnny Daheim, Duke Taylor, Eddie Parker, Ted Mapes, Ken Terrell, and other members of the Republic stunt team. As mentioned above, the fights aren’t as frequent or as elaborately destructive as the brawls from wartime Republics, but they’re still very well-handled; the big fight at the mine in Chapter Two and Steele’s clifftop fight with Fred Graham in Chapter Four are among the standouts.
Other good sequences include the store fight in Chapter Three, the courthouse fights in Chapters Six and Seven (the latter of which features a whole collection of chairs getting splintered), and the big barn/loft fight in Chapter Ten, with Steele and Parker battling Graham (doubling Barcroft this time) and Van Sickel. The non-fistfight action scenes are also very good, particularly the elaborately staged canyon shootout that closes Chapter One, with Zorro blazing at the villains from behind a trapped powder wagon and Roy Barcroft’s Boyd rolling flaming coal oil barrels toward the hero’s cover. This sequence, like most of the serial’s other outdoor action scenes, is well-staged against the scenery of Iverson’s Ranch. The lengthy nighttime chase and shootout in Chapter Eleven is also a highlight, as is the siege of the jail in Chapter Twelve.
Son of Zorro was one of the last Republic serials to feature largely original chapter endings; except for one borrowed sequence (the stagecoach explosion from Daredevils of the West) and some shots in the flooded-mine chapter ending, the serial’s cliffhangers consist of new footage–and are almost uniformly excellent, with the Chapter One powder-wagon explosion, the millstone cliffhanger that closes Chapter Two, Peggy Stewart’s near-drowning in a well in Chapter Eight, George Turner’s apparent stomping by a crazed horse in Chapter Ten, and Chapter Eleven’s flaming hay-wagon sequence standing out . The avalanche at the end of Chapter Four is good too, but marred by a slight cheat in the resolution; unusually for a 1940s Republic, there’s a much more blatant cheat involved in the resolution to the Chapter Six firing-squad cliffhanger.
The drawling and likable George Turner, a former boxer who generally played henchmen in other post-war B-westerns and serials, does a good job in the serial’s leading role. He’s frequently been lumped with Bruce Edwards, Larry Thompson, and other unenergetic cliffhanger leads from the same era, but this comparison is completely off the mark. Turner’s size, athleticism, and rugged face make him much more physically imposing than the majority of his peers; his appearance, coupled with his ability to switch from a genially easygoing manner to a menacing glare, helps him to convey far more heroic toughness than Edwards and the rest. He handles his dialogue very capably too (and displays an unexpectedly funny side during the hero’s brief masquerade as a gabby Mexican peasant); it’s easy to imagine him succeeding as a B-western star if he had he begun his acting career earlier.
The perkily beautiful Peggy Stewart has easily her best serial role in Son of Zorro, showing off her riding skills on several occasions and getting almost as much screen time as Turner himself (the cliffhanger endings seem deliberately structured to alternately showcase her and her leading man). She’s a joy to watch in every one of her scenes–whether she’s being alarmed, feistily angry, or charmingly gracious.
Roy Barcroft, Ernie Adams, and Ed Cassidy serve as a very entertaining and somewhat offbeat villainous triumvirate. Barcroft is as excellent as always as Boyd, sneering and snarling his way through the role with all his accustomed zest and managing to come off as both a seasoned roughneck and a crafty schemer. Adams has one of his meatiest later parts as the cocky and shifty Judge Hyde–and is absolutely delightful as he gleefully pulls legal dirty tricks out of his hat, reacts with comical annoyance to George Turner’s counter-moves, and descends into jumpy garrulity when confronted by Zorro. Perennial B-western lawman Cassidy, in one of his few villainous roles, is also very good as the nasty, blustering, and somewhat thick-witted Sheriff.
Stanley Price gets to play a rare sympathetic role as Pancho, the hero’s faithful ranch hand; he’s likably eager and cheerful, but his slightly crazed grin and the breathlessly intense way he delivers his lines still gives the character some of the deranged air typical of Price’s various serial villains. Edmund Cobb and Tom London have good character parts as two of the three principal mystery-villain suspects–Cobb continually choleric and grouchy, and London always jovial and grandfatherly. Stuntman Ken Terrell, as London’s shifty clerk, is the third suspect, but has almost no dialogue.
The serial’s other stuntmen make multiple appearances as one-shot outlaws (that is, they appear in one scene and get shot)–except for Eddie Parker, who plays a sympathetic rancher. Wheaton Chambers is a beleaguered mine owner in the early chapters, Si Jenks pops up as a colorful old timer, Al Ferguson, Ted Adams, and Charles King have nice bits as badmen, and George Chesebro also pops up briefly as a characteristically big-mouthed townsman. Stuntman Rocky Shahan– later a cast regular on Rawhide as cowboy “Joe Scarlet”– has an extremely brief scene as a stage driver in Chapter Seven, Jack Kirk is the foreman of the road crew, and Jack O’Shea pops up as a thug who’s outsmarted by the hero in an out-and-out slapstick sequence. Pierce Lyden is a henchman, Howard Mitchell plays Peggy Stewart’s uncle, and Mike Frankovich–at the time an associate producer at Republic–appears briefly as a crooked auctioneer.
Son of Zorro is far too frequently written off as dully derivative or (at best) a stock-filled retread of earlier Republic serials. Neither of these casual dismissals do it justice; its engaging cast, good action, skillful scripting, and strong chapter endings make it one of the very best efforts from Republic’s aforementioned Indian Summer period.