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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 decidedly off-putting at times.
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.
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.
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.