Republic, 12 Chapters, 1949. Starring Clayton Moore, Pamela Blake, Roy Barcroft, Gene Roth, George J. Lewis.
Blacksmith Joe Crane (Gene Roth), the most prominent and respected citizen of the frontier town of Twin Bluffs, is secretly in league with the outlaw bands that infest the surrounding territory, and uses his influence to protect them from the law in exchange for a share of their plunder. This setup is threatened when Jonathan White (Steve Clark), the owner of the Pioneer Telegraph company, begins the construction of a telegraph line which will connect the Twin Bluffs region to civilization. Knowing that the telegraph will bring the law (and lawmen) with it, Crane and his outlaw associates set out to destroy Pioneer Telegraph; they succeed in killing White, but White’s daughter Rita (Pamela Blake) carries on in his stead–with help from the masked avenger Zorro, who is actually Pioneer Telegraph’s chief engineer Ken Mason (Clayton Moore). Mason is the grandson of the original Zorro, Don Diego Vega, and is determined to break the power of the Twin Bluffs outlaws–partly because of those outlaws’ destruction of the Vega family ranch and their dispossession of the Vegas’ tenants and neighbors during his absence at school in the East.
Ghost of Zorro follows Republic’s standardized “pioneering-project-plagued-by-outlaws” plotting template, which is featured in one form or another in most of the studio’s 1940s and 1950s Western serials. Almost every chapter has Crane and his outlaw associate Kilgore coming up with a scheme for destroying Pioneer Telegraph (destroying their equipment, stealing their funding, throwing legal obstacles in their path); their machinations and Zorro’s counter-moves provide action that leads up to the chapter’s cliffhanger, after which the villains devise a brand-new plan and the cycle repeats itself. The villains’ attempt to frame Zorro and set a US Marshal on his trail provides one of the few deviations from this repetitive format, but this potentially interesting idea is (like the heavies’ other schemes) quickly disposed of in the course of a single chapter. The deadline imposed on the telegraph project (the heroine must complete the job before November 15 or lose her government franchise) does lend a certain amount of overarching suspense to the repetitious narrative—but said narrative is only really saved from tediousness by the short episode runtimes common to all of Republic’s post-war serials.
Above: Roy Barcroft prepares to rip down a Pioneer Telegraph “help wanted” sign.
Writers Sol Shor, William Lively, and Royal Cole obviously hoped to lend additional color to their formulaic screenplay by adding a version of Zorro to the mix—but this addition does comparatively little for the serial. The masked avenger’s introductory scene—with Ken Mason vowing, amid the mementoes of his grandfather’s heroism, to “become the living ghost of Zorro and drive these renegades from the land”– is well-written and dramatic, but the hero’s assumption of a double identity still comes off as a bit pointless–since this Zorro is not battling corrupt officials (as in Zorro’s Fighting Legion or Son of Zorro) but outlaws, making it unnecessary for him to wear a mask. Mason’s concealment of his identity from Rita White also seems pointless, while Rita’s continual belittling of Mason seems downright unpleasant—since the engineer behaves in a competent and intelligent fashion utterly unlike the classic “Don Diego” pose of other screen Zorros. Occasional references to Mason’s supposed unfamiliarity with the West make it seem as if the writers originally intended to make him assume a slightly comic tenderfoot guise when unmasked, but then changed their minds—and forgot to tone down the heroine’s disparaging attitude towards him.
Above: Steve Clark and Pamela Blake react with overstated horror to Clayton Moore’s supposedly “fancy” duds upon the hero’s first arrival.
Ghost of Zorro’s action scenes are less uneven than its scripting, thanks to the ever-reliable Republic stunt team. Tom Steele doubles Clayton Moore in most of the fights, while Dale Van Sickel doubles action heavy Roy Barcroft; Van Sickel also stands in for Moore in a fight sequence that has Moore’s Zorro battling an outlaw played by Steele; Eddie Parker, Johnny Daheim, Joe Yrigoyen, and Ken Terrell are on hand as well. The Chapter Six cabin fight (performed by Van Sickel, Steele, and Parker) is one of the serial’s action highlights, being filled with good leaps and shot at a distinctive upwards angle by director Fred C. Brannon. The Chapter Nine outdoor fight by the log pile (with Van Sickel, Steele, and Marshall Reed) is similarly shot and is similarly good; the office fight in Chapter Three, with Steele and Van Sickel performing some neat acrobatics, is another standout, as is the energetic clifftop fight scene with Steele, Van Sickel, and Terrell in Chapter Five.
Above left: Tom Steele makes a flying leap across a table during the Chapter Six cabin fight. Above right: Dale Van Sickel prepares to jump Tom Steele from an upper bunk, as the latter fights Eddie Parker during the same sequence.
The shootout in the darkened cave in Chapter Six is good as well, but the Indian attack on the telegraph camp in Chapter One is marred by the constant switching between spacious Lone-Pine-filmed footage filmed for Daredevils of the West and new shots of the protagonists on an obvious soundstage. The Indians’ pursuit of the buckboard in Chapter One, the wagon chase in Chapter Three, and the stagecoach chase sequence in Chapter Eleven are also derived almost wholesale from Daredevils, but are mixed much more smoothly with the new footage. The latter two sequences lead into Daredevils-derived chapter endings, while the avalanche cliffhanger is borrowed from Son of Zorro; the ideas behind two other cliffhangers (the safe explosion and the firing squad) are also lifted from Son, but consist of all-new footage. Surprisingly, there are many other all-new chapter endings to be found in Ghost of Zorro, most of them small-scaled but quite effective–particularly Zorro’s apparent electrocution in Chapter Seven (which is cleverly resolved), the Chapter Nine log fall, and the booby-trapped telegraph transmitter scene in Chapter Ten. The cave ambush cliffhanger in Chapter Five–with its complete cessation of music as the outlaws wait for the sound of Zorro’s jingling spurs to draw closer–is good as well, although a near-duplication of a scene in Jesse James Rides Again.
Above: The thread holding up a load of logs starts to snap as the heavies flee, leaving Zorro unconscious underneath at the end of Chapter Nine.
Ghost of Zorro features far less location shooting than most of the post-war Republic Westerns that preceded and followed it; although several sequences (like the fights in Chapter Four and Nine) are staged at Iverson’s Ranch, many other scenes are set inside buildings and caves, or at the good guys’ telegraph-camp base–which is a painfully noticeable sound-stage. Another ostensible outdoor sequence–the buckboard chase in Chapter Seven–takes all its long shots from the Sunset Carson B-western Firebrands of Arizona, with Ghost’s characters cut in via close-up shots and process-screen work. Bad weather was probably chiefly to blame for this dearth of outdoor filming; as Jack Mathis recounts in his book Valley of the Cliffhangers, Ghost of Zorro was filmed during an unusually chilly January, the coldest stretch of winter that Hollywood had experienced in twenty-five years.
Above: Roy Barcroft, Marshall Reed, and Tom Steele assemble in front of a faux backdrop.
Clayton Moore, as always, makes a strong and energetically earnest hero–but his screen time is severely diminished by the producers’ decision to have another actor dub his lines whenever Mason is masked as Zorro–a frustrating and rather odd decision, considering the excellent quality of Moore’s own voice and the fact that all of Republic’s other Zorros had been allowed to deliver their own dialogue. The unidentified actor who provides the dubbing does do a good job of sounding forbiddingly tough, giving a harshly sinister edge to his lines in scenes like Zorro’s interrogation of a henchman in Chapter Five–but his voice lacks both the polish and the quiet intensity of Moore’s.
Leading lady Pamela Blake mourns her father’s death, laments the delay of the telegraph project, and inveighs against the villains in an intently serious and bitterly angry manner that seems much more realistic in the circumstances than the incongruously easygoing attitude of other, similarly-beleaguered chapterplay heroines (Blake, unlike many of her peers, enjoyed years of professional acting training before becoming a serial player). However, she unwisely displays similarly convincing anger in the many above-mentioned scenes in which she scornfully criticizes Moore–which makes her seem somewhat off-putting at times. However, as the serial progresses she makes this anger seem more like exasperation, arising from a genuine liking for Moore and a wish to see him succeed, than like simple contempt.
Above: Clayton Moore defends himself against a burst of irritation from Pamela Blake.
George J. Lewis, as Mason’s Indian confidant Moccasin, makes one of the more interesting sidekicks in Republic’s latter-day serials, although he’s not given that much screen time; he’s suitably grave when recounting the Vega family’s history in Chapter One and menacingly grim when confronting the heavies, but he adopts a cheerfully enthusiastic manner in most of his other scenes, providing an interesting change from the Tonto-like stoicism of other serials’ Indian hero-assistants and furnishing a welcome counterpoint to the somberness of both Moore and Blake.
Above: George J. Lewis feigns deadpan agreement with another of Pamela Blake’s criticisms, to the irritation of Clayton Moore.
Gene Roth’s Joe Crane characterization is also something of a departure from serial formula; instead of a suit-wearing slicker, Crane is an earthy and bluffly genial brains heavy who comes off as so unpretentiously affable that the good guys’ unfailing trust in him seems less foolish than it otherwise would have; Roth, with his unrefined appearance, easygoing Midwestern drawl, and crafty facial expressions, is ideally cast in the part. Roy Barcroft is equally crafty but far more aggressive as Crane’s outlaw cohort Kilgore, sneering at the good guys with his usual aplomb and pointedly questioning Crane’s plans; the contrast in personality between the laid-back Roth and the snappish Barcroft makes their plotting scenes quite entertaining.
Above: Gene Roth and Roy Barcroft.
Marshall Reed appears as an imposing henchman in several scenes, almost enough to qualify as a secondary action heavy; Alex Montoya, later a fairly prominent television character actor, also appears in multiple episodes as the villains’ renegade Indian cohort Yellow Hawk. Dale Van Sickel and Tom Steele have good-sized heavy roles as well, while the serial’s other stuntmen play far smaller heavy bits. I. Stanford Jolley is enjoyably smooth and hypocritical as a crooked land-office official, while John Crawford plays another (non-villainous) land-office representative (his puzzled reaction after being slugged and thrown off a stagecoach by Barcroft is rather funny). Aged but dogged-looking Steve Clark is good as the heroine’s father, while Steve Darrell does a short but good turn as an upright marshal. Mike Ragan pops up as a thug, Jack O’Shea and Stanley Blystone as telegraph company employees, and George Chesebro as a loud-mouthed lyncher.
Ghost of Zorro’s new action scenes are good, its cast strong and its repetitive plotting no worse than that of Republic’s other later Western serials, but its minor flaws–the unnecessary dubbing of Moore, Blake’s pointless hostility towards him, the comparative lack of location shooting–are numerous enough to have a cumulative effect, which makes Ghost a little less enjoyable than otherwise similar outings like Adventures of Frank and Jesse James or Don Daredevil Rides Again.
Being the Republc serial fanatic that I am, it pains me to say that this is one of my less favorite serials. Other than Clayton Moore’s stellar performance, I found it to be a standard late era production. In fact Roth and Barcroft come out ahead in the acting department. Too much backlot shooting and stock footage mar what could have been a much better serial. On top of that add my less than pristine print. All this adds up to a rating of ** out of *****
Ghost of Zorro is my guilty pleasure. Yup its end-of- the-line Republic serial making. Yup, Zorro’s dubbed in voice and footage from other serials and Pamela Blake’s uneven acting. Yup, its all there, I even have a bad VHS and DVD of the serial. BUT I watch it once a year.
I also own (in VHS) the feature version of this serial also called: Ghost of Zorro. This was done to cash in on Disney’s very popular Zorro television show starring Guy Williams. And Republic was about to cease feature film production and may have thought this was one last way to make a buck before the doors were padlocked. Others have maligned this serial and feature version and there points are valid. It’s like finding your old baseball bat or a favorite mitt That’s Ghost of Zorro. Yup, I still like it.
Funny you should mention the feature version of Ghost of Zorro, Paul–since it’s one of the only feature-ized serials that I actually like a little better than the complete version. This might have something to do with the fact that the feature exists in much better print quality than the serial itself, but I think it’s mostly because the repetitive effect of the heroine’s continually harsh treatment of the hero (and the plot repetition in other areas) is far less noticeable in the feature. There’s material for several satisfying little features in several of the more routine later Republic outings, I think.
I pretty much agree with your review. This is certainly not one of Republic’s more memorable efforts. But it is noteworthy for another reason. In 1949 when The Lone Ranger TV series was being planned the producers needed someone to play the title role. Brace Beemer who had played The Lone Ranger on radio for many years looked too old for TV. George Trendle, the owner and creator of The Lone Ranger saw Clayton Moore in Ghost Of Zorro. He liked Moore in the mystery man role. The rest, as they say, is history.
A very routine entry from the Republic assembly line, saved only by some entertaining performances and the studio’s usual efficiency in staging the new action sequences, and in integrating the older stock footage. The idea of adding Zorro to this otherwise standard storyline doesn’t really help to any degree, and actually makes for some pretty silly transitions. Instead of riding directly to confront the latest scheme of the villains, our hero has to first visit the cave, change clothes, get his “Zorro” horse, and THEN go the rescue. The saving grace here is the work of Barcroft, Roth and, to a lesser degree, Lewis. Their presence, especially Roth’s as the smooth operator behind all the troubles and his interaction with Barcroft’s character, provide what little interest the story generates. Blake’s character is so irritated and off-putting, it’s a wonder that anyone would want to work for her, let alone risk their lives for her project. I also thought dubbing Clayton Moore was totally ill-conceived. Every time Zorro spoke, it only served to remind me of the substitution. All in all, the serial is watchable enough, but not one that I could envision seeing more than once, at least not in the full chapter form. Based on the comments about the feature version, I might check that one out, just to see if it comes together a little better.