Republic, 12 Chapters, 1944. Starring Linda Stirling, George J. Lewis, Hal Taliaferro, Francis McDonald, John Merton, Lucien Littlefield.
In 1889, the Territory of Idaho becomes of the scene of a war between honest settlers determined to win statehood for their territory and ruthless outlaws equally determined to crush this campaign for statehood–and, with it, the threat of statewide law enforcement. Randolph Meredith (Jay Kirby), editor of the Crescent City Herald, fights on the side of the settlers in the guise of a masked rider known as the Black Whip, but is fatally wounded in an encounter with the outlaws–leading his sister Barbara (Linda Stirling) to take over the paper and the Black Whip identity in hopes of avenging her brother and finishing his work for him. In her ensuing clashes with the outlaws, she frequently joins forces with Vic Gordon (George J. Lewis), an undercover federal agent assigned to assist the statehood campaign; however, neither Vic or Barbara are aware that one of their supposed allies, respectable stage-line owner Dan Hammond (Francis McDonald) is actually the secret leader of their opponents.
Aside from the novel gimmick of a masked heroine, Zorro’s Black Whip is a typical wartime Republic serial–which is to say, it moves at a breathless pace and features an impressive array of well-done action scenes, but is correspondingly rather thin in the plotting and characterization departments. As in contemporary Republic outings Haunted Harbor and The Tiger Woman, the lightning pacing and the relentless emphasis on action force Black Whip’s writers (Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Joseph Poland, and Grant Nelson) to give short shrift to potentially dramatic story elements. The public exposure of Hammond as the outlaw mastermind takes place off-screen, in order to allow more space for the climactic battle, while the death of the heroic Randy Meredith–a scene that should pack an emotional punch–has almost no impact at all, since the first chapter moves into action mode so swiftly that we’re allowed no time to get to know Meredith or to see him interact with his sister. Similarly, Barbara is not given a chance to vow to avenge her brother, or even to comment on his death, until the Chapter Ten speech in which she tells Vic (who’s just learned of her identity) about her determination to complete Randy’s crusade–a bit of dialogue that would have fitted most appropriately in Chapter One. Columbia’s Deadwood Dick, which resembles Zorro’s Black Whip in its basic plot outline, did a much better job of presenting the death of a hero (Wild Bill Hickok) and the birth of a masked avenger in properly compelling style.
The writers of Black Whip do manage to do a respectable job of keeping the serial’s storyline from seeming too repetitive, despite the fact that the narrative really consists of little more than a series of battles loosely connected by the fight-for-statehood plot. They achieve this by providing a succession of subplots that are dissimilar enough to avoid canceling each other out; villainous attacks on the newspaper’s printing equipment, on a gold miner who strikes it rich, on the settlers that this strike brings into the Territory, and on the mounts of a horseback patrol organized to help said settlers are alternated with attempts by the villains to uncover the identity of the Black Whip. The arrests and escapes of both of the leading henchmen (wisely separated by many chapters) and the framing of Gordon for the theft of some reward money provide further narrative variety, while an all-out attempt by the heavies to stop a statehood referendum concludes the serial. In addition to shuffling their subplots deftly, the writers also neatly divide screen time between Vic and Barbara–believably arranging for them to be simultaneously involved in action scenes, even though their characters spend much of the serial working independently of each other.
The action scenes themselves, as aforementioned, are innumerable and (for the most part) remarkably well-executed. Directors Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell carefully try to make their heroine’s clashes with the villains look reasonably believable, much more so than in leading lady Linda Stirling’s previous vehicle Tiger Woman; instead of having the slender Stirling improbably hold her own in hand-to-hand struggles with husky henchmen, the directors repeatedly have the Black Whip disarm or take down villains with well-placed bullets or with deft flicks of a whip (the serial’s second-unit director Yakima Canutt, a bullwhip expert, undoubtedly had something to do with staging the whip scenes). The Chapter Three barn scene and the Chapter Seven cliff sequence are the only partial exceptions to this rule; even they rely largely on nimble ducking, dodging, and kicking by Stirling’s stunt double Babe DeFreest, and only feature brief moments of awkward and unconvincing wrestling–which not only look hokey, but also leave us wondering why on earth the henchmen involved don’t immediately realize that the Black Whip is a woman.
Due to the continual shifting of the focus from hero to heroine in the action scenes, fistfights don’t dominate Black Whip quite as thoroughly as they do other wartime Republic outings. However, the serial is still packed with Bennet’s characteristic set-smashing slugfests, with stuntmen Dale Van Sickel (doubling leading man George J. Lewis), Tom Steele (doubling primary henchman Hal Taliaferro), and Duke Green (doubling secondary henchman John Merton) all doing excellent work–assisted by other stuntmen like Fred Graham, Duke Taylor, Ken Terrell, Cliff Lyons, and Carey Loftin. The Green/Van Sickel fight in the ranch house in Chapter Nine, the Steele/Van Sickel/Green cabin fight that immediately follows it, the Chapter Two office fight featuring the same three combatants, and the Chapter Five mine fight involving the same trio (plus Terrell) are particular standouts, but virtually every other fistfight in the serial approaches the same high level of quality.
Above left: Dale Van Sickel poises to leap on Tom Steele from an overturned bunk-bed, during the Chapter Five fight. Above right: Van Sickel slams Duke Green against the wall during the Chapter Nine ranch-house fight.
These indoor brawls are supplemented by several strong outdoor action scenes, most of them shot at Iverson’s Ranch; the Chapter Seven wagon-train attack sequence–a mass running battle that’s intercut with the Black Whip’s attack on outlaws who are preparing an explosive ambush for the train–is one of the most elaborate of these; the Chapter Six fight on the cliffs above the prospector’s camp and the Chapter Four attack on the stage are good as well. Much more short-lived, but similarly entertaining, are the brief horseback chase that ends with a neat “clotheslining” of the villains in Chapter Two, the race across the barn roof and the subsequent drop to a waiting horse in Chapter Three, and the shootout at the ranch in Chapter Ten. The fine climactic battle in Chapter Twelve combines indoor and outdoor action, featuring as it does both a gun battle in the streets of the town and another office brawl between Van Sickel and Steele.
Some of Black Whip’s cliffhangers are good but very familiar ones that rely on stock footage from earlier Republic outings (the wagon off the cliff, the stagecoach off the bridge), while others are more original. The Chapter Two safe explosion provides a nice twist on the usual Republic “safe door falls outwards” cliffhanger; here, the heroine is locked inside the safe for the explosion; the resolution to this chapter ending is simple but pleasingly unexpected and creative. The same goes for the resolutions to the spectacular Chapter Eleven cliffhanger (which involves a mine tunnel and a moving coal-oil barrel), the Chapter Ten pitchfork cliffhanger, and the Chapter Five tent explosion. The resolution to the Chapter Eight shooting cliffhanger is also ingenious, and is actually used to set up the plot of the ensuing episode; the Chapter Nine avalanche cliffhanger is less cleverly resolved, but still memorable, thanks to some excellent miniature work by the Lydecker Brothers. The “take off that mask” cliffhanger of Chapter Five, an equivalent of which can be found in nearly every Republic masked-rider cliffhanger, also works well, and incorporates a striking zoom shot.
All of Black Whip’s featured players are solid pros–which is more than can be said for some of the actors in other wartime Republics like The Masked Marvel. Leading lady Linda Stirling looks so lovely and acts so charming in her scenes as Barbara Meredith–balancing as she does intelligence and calm self-assurance with warm graciousness and cheerfulness–that one winds up slightly regretting the fact that the plot forces her to spend so much of her screen time masked and silent; however, she does do a good job of registering various emotions (alarm, determination, thoughtfulness) through her eyes alone, in her closeups during these masked scenes.
Taking a break from the villain roles that were his usual lot in the serials of the early 1940s, leading man George J. Lewis shows none of the exuberant geniality that marked his other serial-hero turn in the 1933 Mascot serial The Wolf Dog; instead, he’s urgently serious to the point of grimness when planning strategies, and stern to the point of harshness when confronting villains–although he does leaven his gravity with flashes of quiet good-humor (as during his jocular interchange with Stirling in Chapter Four). Overall, his energetic and authoritative performance is solidly effective, if not very charismatic.
As the scheming but outwardly respectable Hammond, Francis McDonald does an excellent job of acting shrewd, nasty, and decisive in his plotting scenes with his henchmen–and of displaying vehement fake indignation in reaction to outlaw outrages. However, from a physical point of view, he’s somewhat miscast as a classic “two-faced” villain, since–unlike Kenneth MacDonald, LeRoy Mason, and other actors who specialized in such roles–he simply looks too shifty and unpleasant to make all the good guys’ implicit trust in him entirely believable.
Hal Taliaferro is very good as the outlaw Baxter, the serial’s principal action heavy; he gives his character a cagy, gruffly stubborn, sarcastically humorous, and swaggeringly overconfident air that makes him seem both formidable and funny, and even slightly likable at times. As Baxter’s chief assistant Ross, John Merton has a lot less dialogue than Taliaferro does, but tackles his lines with his usual snarling vigor and performs his henchman duties with his usual ferocious scowl.
Lucien Littlefield plays the heroine’s loyal but nervous printer and confidant “Ten-Point,” who provides alleged comic relief through his constantly swigging of “nerve medicine” and his habit of repeating words (“Yep, yep–Nope, nope”); he acts so fumbling and jittery that one wonders why Barbara lets him in on the secret of her identity, yet withholds it from the much more useful Vic. Littlefield, a fine comic character actor who appeared in many feature films, can’t really make this one-dimensional character very amusing, but at least his performance is too subdued to be annoying–unlike the irritatingly loud and heavy-handedly “funny” music that accompanies Ten-Point’s (thankfully infrequent) antics.
Jack Kirk is very likable as the laid-back but stalwart and competent town marshal; Tom Chatterton and John Hamilton are noticeable throughout as two of the town’s leading concerned citizens. Stanley Price pops up frequently as Hammond’s furtive clerk, Si Jenks does a colorful character turn as a feisty old prospector, and Tom London appears in the first chapter as a dignified (and ill-fated) federal commissioner. Forrest Taylor has a nice extended bit as a cunning henchman, while all the serial’s stuntmen play at least one henchman role (most of them take two or more such parts). Marshall Reed and Nolan Leary play lynch-mob leaders, Bob Wilke has a non-speaking role as a horse trader, and the pleasant but bland and under-energized Jay Kirby is seen briefly as the doomed Randolph Meredith.
Zorro’s Black Whip, like almost all of Republic’s wartime chapterplays, is easy to critique for its focus on action above all else, a focus that gives it a rather mechanical air at times. However, the precision, skill, ingenuity, and sheer energy displayed during its action scenes and its cliffhanger sequences, and the assured performances of a thoroughly capable cast, also make it easy to praise–and extremely easy to enjoy.
A Note on the Source: Though the credits of Zorro’s Black Whip contain a line that reads “Zorro character created by Johnston McCulley,” Zorro is not referred to once in the course of the serial; the name was apparently placed in the title solely for its publicity value. As Raymond William Stedman points out in Book Two of The Movie Serial Companion, Black Whip might owe something to Pathé’s 1925 silent serial Idaho–which was not only set in the same geographic area as Black Whip, but which also featured a heroine who adopted a secret identity and donned her slain brother’s clothes to fight against the outlaws responsible for his death. Like most silent chapterplays, Idaho is lost, and no writing credits are available for it–but Black Whip writer Basil Dickey worked on many silent serials, and could quite possibly have been the link between the two chapterplays.