In Mexican California, in the year 1844, renegade American general Jason Burr (Fred Kohler) discovers gold in the Sonoma Valley and plans to use it to make himself dictator of California under the aegis of the Russian Empire. Burr successfully enslaves the Valley’s peons to help him mine his gold and quickly murders the Valley’s leading ranchero and his younger son when they oppose him; however, the would-be dictator soon finds himself bedeviled by a masked avenger called the Eagle, who continually sabotages Burr’s schemes and organizes the local settlers into a vigilante group to fight against Burr’s following of outlaws and ex-Russian soldiers. The Eagle poses as a feeble-minded mission organist when unmasked, but is actually Don Loring (Robert Livingston), the son of the murdered ranchero–determined to avenge the slaying of his family and save California by bringing down Burr and his Russian backers.
The Vigilantes Are Coming is one of the best of Republic’s generally uneven early serials, a colorful Zorro pastiche with an interesting assortment of heroes and villains, a strong cast, and a simple but involving and well-structured storyline. However, it has some notable flaws as well; its action scenes are not nearly as strong as those of its producer Nat Levine’s earlier Mascot serials, let alone those in Republic’s later Golden Age releases; it also boasts perhaps the biggest collection of cheating cliffhanger resolutions in chapterplay history.
Vigilantes’ script manages to use a high-stakes political and military struggle as plot machinery without having it undermined by the serial genre’s modest budgets. The Russian government’s limited aid to Burr (though necessitated by the producers’ budgetary limitations) makes perfect political sense in the context of the serial; the Russians are shown as realistically unwilling to risk war with America or Mexico by launching a full-scale invasion of California, and try to keep their dealings with Burr on a cash-and-carry basis, hoping that he can pull off his conquest with minimal outside help. Thus, Burr’s use of gold to purchase men and weaponry from the Russians is made a believable power-building method–in turn allowing the hero and his vigilantes to believably threaten the villains’ plans by targeting Burr’s mine and his supply of arms.
Writers Maurice Geraghty, John Rathmell, and Winston Miller (Leslie Swabacker is credited with “story”) also do an excellent job of spinning out their interesting plotline, using it to comfortably fill twelve episodes. The serial’s first seven chapters neatly alternate the Eagle’s several attacks on Burr’s mine and his ammunition deposits with Burr’s various efforts to capture and destroy the Eagle and his vigilantes; when Burr finally convinces Raspinoff to sign an official treaty in Chapter Eight, the remaining episodes then revolve around the Eagle’s race to alert an American military detachment to Burr’s schemes, bring the soldiers to Sonoma Valley, and keep Raspinoff from summoning Russian troops. Thanks to this strategic plot development mid-serial, and to other plot twists like the Eagle’s temporary destruction of the gold mine in Chapter Four or his unexpected unmasking by Burr’s men in Chapter Ten, the narrative easily avoids bogging down in the repetitive plotting that plagues so many chapterplays.
Vigilantes Are Coming is one of the few Republic serials in which the plotting is actually stronger than the action; the Eagle’s avenging crusade against Burr and the fight for control of California call for action scenes more dramatic and memorable than the ones Vigilantes gives us. The first-chapter montage depicting the “birth” of the Eagle–during which the hero’s exploits are intercut with the hovering shadow of a bird of prey–is very rousing, while the Eagle’s first confrontation with Burr later in the same episode is suitably intense; unfortunately, the action sequences in most of the subsequent chapters lack the spark of the Chapter One scenes. The numerous large-scale shootouts between the vigilantes and Burr’s forces–like the assault on the fort in Chapter Four or the siege in the canyon in Chapters Six and Seven–are particularly disappointing; although they’re very well-staged, their participants spend most of their time firing round after round of bullets at each other without actually hitting anyone.
The siege of the vigilantes at the mine in Chapter Twelve is similarly bloodless, but is made a bit more suspenseful by being intercut with the cavalry’s dangerous dismounted scramble to the rescue over a mountainous goat trail; the ensuing climactic assault on the fort could have been much stronger, but does feature a memorable comeuppance for the villain. Although Ray Taylor and Mack V. Wright do a competent job of directing Vigilantes, the chapterplay cries out for the more inspired touch of B. Reeves Eason–who, in Mascot serials like The Last of the Mohicans and The Fighting Marines, displayed great talent for making “epic” battle sequences look suitably violent, vivid, and exciting.
Despite the presence of Yakima Canutt as star Robert Livingston’s stunt double, Vigilantes has almost no fistfight sequences; the rather sloppy brawl at the mine in Chapter Four, the fight aboard the runaway powder-wagon in Chapter Six, the Chapter Eight fights on and in the coach, and the Eagle’s brief tussle with Burr’s men outside his cave hideout in Chapter Ten are the only protracted hand-to-hand combats in the entire serial. Canutt, with help from other riding specialists like Ted Mapes and Ken Cooper, does turn in excellent work in the serial’s innumerable horseback chase sequences; the Chapter Four escape from pursuing Cossacks, the Eagle’s pursuit of Raspinoff’s coach in Chapter Eight (as the Cossacks chase him in turn) and the cross-country dash to warn the cavalry of an ambush in Chapter Eleven are particularly good. Director Ray Taylor deserves some credit here, too; the first-rate camera work in the riding scenes is very reminiscent of that of similarly strong sequences in Taylor’s many western chapterplays for Universal.
It’s Canutt, however, who gives the serial its most distinctive action highlights–through his expertise with a bullwhip. In episode after episode, his Eagle uses the weapon as a combined grappling hook and climbing rope–scaling walls, swinging across chasms, whisking weapons away from soldiers, climbing to the tops of towers, or swooping down on villains from rooftops; these dashing feats are invariably the first thing serial buffs recall when Vigilantes is mentioned. The saber duel between the Eagle and multiple Cossack henchmen in Chapter Seven is also memorably “different”–but is not as successful as the many bullwhip bits, due to its static staging; the combatants clash their swords together noisily, but perform no fencing footwork.
The hills, rocks, and rivers of Kernville–where Ray Taylor shot many of his Universal westerns–provide strong outdoor locations for Vigilantes, while Republic’s Spanish fort appears as two different villainous fortresses. The impressive San Luis Rey Mission is heavily and effectively utilized as well; its main structure provides the Eagle’s headquarters, its ruined portion serves as the entrance to his underground hideout, and its outbuildings furnish the pueblo’s main street. Its bell tower is also memorably spotlighted in the well-shot chase sequence in the first chapter, which has the Eagle pursued up the tower stairs by Burr’s men and apparently shot off the top of the tower to end the chapter.
Although the hero escapes the above-mentioned bell-tower peril in very improbable fashion, the resolution is vastly preferable to those that follow it; every cliffhanger from Chapter Three through Chapter Nine is “resolved” by a scene at the beginning of the next episode which noticeably alters the previous week’s action. The resolution to the Chapter Four ore-crusher ending is the serial’s most infamous cheat, but several of the other endings and escapes (particularly the Eagle’s plunge from a cliff) are almost equally remarkable for their blatant dishonesty. The most frustrating thing about these scenes is their needlessness; the ideas behind them were good, and the sequences could have been very effective cliffhangers had they been edited and staged a little more carefully. The ore-crusher could have been shown dropping towards the off-camera Eagle just before the fadeout instead of actually landing on his chest; the Eagle could have been shown rolling over the cliff edge in close-up (and snagging his whip on a rock next week) instead of plunging down a precipice (while screaming, yet) in long-shot.
Like most of Republic’s 1930s outings, Vigilantes features fairly distinctive characters and uniformly lively performances. Bob Livingston is very good in the leading role, displaying none of the flippancy and cockiness that marked his turns in Republic’s 1930s Three Mesquiteers B-westerns; as Don Loring, he’s both soberly authoritative (when outlining strategies for his vigilantes) and feverishly energetic (particularly when reacting to the deaths of his father and brother). Though much more grave than the typical masked cavalier, he’s properly confident and cheerful when defying death, in classic swashbuckler style; he also gets a chance to lighten up in his moments as the amiably half-witted organ player, and in scenes with his two colorful sidekicks (the trio’s encounter with some hidden heavies in Chapter Six is a good example).
Above: Robert Livingston repeats the Loring family motto (“Faithfulness, with courage”) as he says goodbye to his father (Henry Hall, left) and brother (John O’Brien) for what proves to be the last time.
Those sidekicks are two roguish mountain men named Salvation and Whipsaw, played (respectively) by Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and Raymond Hatton. One of the chief joys of Vigilantes lies in watching this pair of great character actors at work; their greatly contrasting sizes make them visually funny to begin with, and they provide further laughs through their quirky interactions with each other and their irreverent attitude towards the villains (“I bet the Tsar is gonna be pretty mad at me,” Whipsaw quips while frisking Count Raspinoff). Williams is easygoing, crafty, befuddled, boisterously cheerful, and stubbornly tough by turns, while Hatton steals many scenes with his characteristically cagy facial expressions and sardonic dialogue delivery; his successful pose as a Cossack in Chapter Five is particularly entertaining. Most importantly, their characters are not only consistently amusing but also consistently helpful to the hero–making them a true rarity in a 1930s Republic serial; most of the studio’s chapterplays of the era featured either bland but competent assistant heroes (like Steve Lockwood in the Dick Tracy serials) or obnoxiously stupid and unfunny sidekicks (like Snapper McGee in SOS Coast Guard).
Kay Hughes, as heroine Doris Colton (whose mining-engineer father is forced into supervising the villains’ gold mine), has comparatively little to do, spending most of her screen time as a prisoner-guest at Burr’s fortress and occasionally aiding the Eagle by sending messages via pigeon. She makes a very attractive leading lady, whether she’s spiritedly defying Burr, fervently worrying over the hero’s dangers, or resourcefully helping the hero out of trouble. As her father, the elderly and frail-looking Lloyd Ingraham has even less screen time–and spends most of it being abused by Burr’s henchmen and then recuperating from the rough treatment in bed.
Fred Kohler makes a splendid villain, his powerful build, scowling face, and intimidatingly aggressive manner ideally suited to his overbearing character. He alternates between sneering confidence (when bragging of his plan to become dictator of California) and towering rage (when thwarted by the Eagle), and is equally menacing in both aspects. Suave and dignified Robert Warwick provides a memorable contrast to Kohler’s roughneck dictator; his Count Raspinoff is a refined and intelligent diplomat who cautiously temporizes with the ambitious Burr and takes a rather wryly disapproving attitude towards the despot’s more brutal actions–but is quite happy to assist Burr with his own Machiavellian suggestions.
Bob Kortman is very good as the sinister Petroff, the leader of Burr’s Cossack troops (although his Russian accent comes and goes); he eschews his usual gloatingly evil manner in favor of a hard-bitten and appropriately militaristic bearing. John Merton plays the commander of Burr’s American followers and is his usual tough and nasty self–vigorously shoving both the peasantry and his own followers around and ferociously jutting his jaw as he barks out orders. Raspy-voiced Stanley Blystone is well-cast as the bullying slave-driver who lords it over Burr’s mine laborers, while Bud Osborne and Steve Clemente are ruffianly but mildly comic as two low-ranking henchmen who are continually being outwitted by the Eagle.
Yakima Canutt is good in a short-lived role as the vicious badman Barsam, who guns down the hero’s father and brother in the first chapter and utters the memorably thuggish line “Nobody that plays an organ’s any good” when someone suggests that the meek organist could be the outlawed Eagle. Old-time stage and silent-film star William Farnum is at his histrionic best as Padre Jose, dramatically bewailing the broken peace of Sonoma Valley and just as dramatically defying Burr’s henchmen–tearing down their posted orders or blocking their attempted entrances into his church with furious glares, rolling denunciations, and imposing gestures.
The stalwart and serious William Desmond, a regular in Universal’s chapterplays, takes his only Republic serial role as the most prominent of the Eagle’s vigilantes, while stuntman Tracy Layne plays a persistent traitor in the vigilantes’ ranks. Bud Pope is Bob Kortman’s principal Cossack subordinate, while other actors and stuntmen do double and sometimes triple duty as Cossacks, vigilantes, or outlaws–among them Jack Kirk, Al Taylor, Wally West, Frank Ellis, Ted Mapes, and Jack Ingram. Future director William Witney reputedly plays one of the Cossacks as well, but good luck spotting him beneath one of the Russians’ shaggy beards. Henry Hall and John O’Brien are the hero’s doomed father and brother (respectively), Phillip Armenta is their faithful servant, and Ray Corrigan–Bob Livingston’s co-star in the Three Mesquiteer series and a serial hero in his own right–appears as real-life soldier and explorer Captain Fremont, whose troops restore order at the serial’s conclusion.
The Vigilantes Are Coming will always be (understandably) overshadowed by notable descendants like The Lone Ranger or Zorro’s Fighting Legion, both of which borrowed much from it. The cheating cliffhangers and the weak battle scenes keep it from ranking alongside those two outings or other Republic classics, but its solid plotting and strong leading performances–not to mention Yakima Canutt’s whip-cracking stuntwork–make it too good to be missed.
Historical Note: I have admire the dexterity with which Vigilantes’ writers combine historical and fictional events in their imaginary scenario; Jason Burr is obviously modeled on the statesman and scoundrel Aaron Burr, who, several decades before the serial takes place, was accused of trying build much the same kind of western empire that his namesake aspires to here. Fremont, of course, really did explore the Northwestern territories in the 1840s and really did come to the aid of beleaguered American settlers in California, an action that led (as it does in the serial) to America’s annexation of California–but the real-life counterparts of Don Loring assisted by Fremont were not rebelling against Russian invaders but against the corrupt local Mexican government. Republic’s films enjoyed great popularity in Mexico, so Mexican heavies were out of the question–which meant the writers had to capitalize on Imperial Russia’s known interest in California during the early 19th century, and introduce foreign menaces who owed their allegiance to a safely extinct polity.