Five “Arabanian” white horses–foreign potentate Prince Amil’s (Robert Barron) gifts to five prominent residents of a rural Hollywood suburb–suddenly become the targets of a gang of crooks led by a mystery man called X-1. Unfortunately for the modern-day horse thieves, the owner of one of the Arabanian steeds is B-western star Greg Saunders (Ralph Byrd), who doubles as the masked crimefighter, The Vigilante. With the assistance of his sidekick Stuff (George Offerman Jr.), Saunders sets out to discover the reason for the crooks’ interest in the equines and is helped by three of the four other horse-owners–rodeo queen Betty Winslow (Ramsay Ames), Police Captain Reilly (Hugh Prosser), and rancher Tex Collier (Ted Mapes). The remaining horse-owner, nightclub proprietor George Pierce (Lyle Talbot), pretends to aid the investigation as well, but is secretly hand-in-glove with X-1’s gang–and just might be its leader.
The Vigilante, based on a minor Action Comics feature, is the best Columbia serial from the studio’s 1945-1947 period–the dark age during which Sam Katzman held the production reins but had yet to retain director Spencer Bennet, whose low-budget expertise polished up several subsequent Katzman outings. Vigilante, like most of Katzman’s Columbia outings, is overlong and under-plotted, but is never as dull or uninteresting as close contemporaries like Who’s Guilty, Son of the Guardsman, or Jack Armstrong.
Arthur Hoerl, George Plympton, and Lewis Clay’s script for The Vigilante is less tediously dialogue-heavy than the Columbia norm, but is extremely repetitious; a full two-thirds of the serial centers on the heavies’ attempted thefts of the Arabanian horses and Saunders’ blocking of said thefts, with the narrative only shifting its focus slightly when the characters begin pursuing one steed’s discarded horseshoes in the last five chapters. Though repetitive, this constant duel over the horses furnishes plenty of action–and also serves to keep the hero at center stage throughout; Saunders is never relegated to the background by rival heavy factions, unlike the nominal protagonists of Jack Armstrong, Gunfighters of the Northwest, and many other Columbia outings.
Hoerl, Plympton, and Clay mishandle the mystery-villain angle of their script, despite introducing an interesting cast of potential suspects; from the first chapter onwards, they show one “suspect” to be so deeply involved in the serial’s villainy that the mystifications surrounding X-1’s identity seem quite pointless (Plympton and company also commit a blatant Mascot-style cheat by having this guilty suspect and X-1 share the screen in one scene). The writers do take care to provide a logical motive for Prince Amil’s occasionally suspicious behavior, however–and come up with a satisfyingly simple explanation of just how the horses became so priceless in the first place. One minor absurdity in the script, incidentally, is not the writers’ fault: the unlikely references to the Vigilante as a secret G-man (in the first and last chapters) were dictated by Columbia’s wish to mollify censors who might have been offended by a hero operating outside the law.
Although The Vigilante is definitely padded in spots–especially when X-1 bawls out his henchmen or the heroes sit down to ponder the mystery of the white horses–it’s faster-moving than most Katzman Columbias, with few of Katzman’s beloved “walk from place to place” scenes and numerous action sequences. Said action is executed with greater flair than usual in Columbia’s post-war outings, thanks to the work of stuntmen Eddie Parker, Ted Mapes, and George DeNormand (who, as in Republic’s Dick Tracy outings from the preceding decade, doubles star Ralph Byrd). The frequent fight sequences, though unspectacular, are solid and convincingly energetic; the Chapter Three garage combat, the lengthy stable-yard fight in Chapter Four, and the Chapter Thirteen livery-stable brawl are particularly good.
The serial also features many well-done car, horse, and motorcycle chase scenes; the nighttime pursuits in Chapters Six and Seven and the heroine’s horseback escape from the villains in Chapter Thirteen are among the standouts. French Ranch and Corriganville (two locations rarely utilized by serial-makers) provide the roads and hills for these and other scenes, as well as furnishing numerous cabins and ranch buildings; the stable-yards and rodeo arena at Corriganville are also used to good effect, as is an apparently functioning carnival (the generous number of patrons strolling through the carnival grounds helps to dispel the impression of an uninhabited world created by the low budgets of so many post-war serials, both at Columbia and Republic).
Most of the serial’s chapter endings suffer from Columbia’s typical lack of foreshadowing (especially the Chapter Eight cabin explosion, the plunge down a spillway at the end of Chapter Nine, and the explosion at the end of Chapter Fourteen), but several of them are memorable despite weak buildups, most notably the runaway horse-trailer sequence that closes Chapter Two, the Chapter Seven car crash, and the heroine’s encounter with an escaped gorilla (played by Emil Van Horn) at the end of Chapter Five.
The Vigilante benefits immeasurably from Ralph Byrd’s sincere, energetic, and good-humored performance in the title role. Few serial stars were as good as Byrd was when it came to delivering bland dialogue with convincing earnestness, and he uses this talent to enliven the heroes’ many discussions of the horse-stealing mystery. In his scenes as the masked Vigilante, he confronts heavies with much of his old Dick Tracy vigor, but is a bit more relaxed–even suave–when unmasked as “drugstore cowboy” Greg Sanders, delivering amusingly self-deprecating lines with flair (like his quip about writing his own fan mail), and cagily keeping up a pose as a jovial but rather flippant movie star. Byrd even gets to warble a cheery cowboy song in the first chapter, using his Broadway-tenor singing voice for the only time in his serial career.
The cast that supports Byrd is an exceptionally strong one. The sultrily beautiful and New-York-accented Ramsay Ames is somewhat oddly cast as a rodeo performer, but is athletic enough to pull the part off; she also handles her lines with warmth and humor, particularly in her cheerful interchanges with Byrd. George Offerman Jr. underplays effectively as Byrd’s sidekick; his gruffly deadpan manner makes his occasional wisecracks (such as the “cherchez la femme” bit) much funnier than a more boisterous approach would have.
Lyle Talbot is very good as the urbane, double-dealing Pierce, convincingly affable around the good guys and smugly superior when giving orders to his criminal associates. Robert Barron delivers an enjoyably sly and enigmatic performance as Prince Amil, while Jack Ingram–usually a grumbling roughneck–is uncharacteristically slick and self-possessed as Pierce’s nightclub manager, who relays orders to the henchmen but participates in little active villainy.
Stuntman Eddie Parker functions as the serial’s principal action heavy and is quite good in the part, conveying both crafty confidence and imposing physical menace. Tough-sounding Terry Frost serves as his chief partner-in-crime, while George Chesebro and Pierce Lyden play other prominent henchmen; Frank Ellis, Edmund Cobb, Bill Brauer, and Bud Osborne take smaller heavy roles. Lane Bradford and Al Ferguson pop up as members of the hot-car ring smashed by the Vigilante at the beginning of the serial.
Hugh Prosser is good as the concerned and intelligent police captain, while Ted Mapes is likable in his periodical appearances as easygoing rancher Tex Collier. The lovably disreputable Emmett Lynn is very funny as a scraggly and garrulous carnival barker, Ted Adams gets to be colorfully shifty in a small but pivotal role as Prince Amil’s treacherous vizier, and Frank Merlo is stoically sinister as one of Amil’s faithful servants. Rusty Wescoatt gets to play a good guy for once (a tough blacksmith), while Kermit Maynard appears as a policeman. Finally, Wallace Fox–The Vigilante’s director–does an energetic character turn as the irritable director of the movie-within-a-movie that Greg Saunders is shooting throughout the serial.
The Vigilante’s action scenes, fresh locations, fortunate lack of villainous factionalism, and terrific cast help it to overcome the production weaknesses endemic to all Katzman serials (the padded script, the indifferently edited cliffhangers). While no classic, it’s a pleasant and very watchable chapterplay.