Tuesday 14 February 2023

Zorro’s Black Whip


Whipping Yarns

Zorro’s Black Whip
Directed by Spencer Gordon
and Wallace Grissell
Republic Pictures
Elstree Studios DVD Region 2
Double volume, six episodes on each.

Warning: Some spoilers.

Zorro’s Black Whip is a 1944 Western theatrical serial put out by Republic Pictures, one of their many chapter plays of this period. Although male co-star and surrogate damsel in distress George G Lewis somehow gets top billing as government agent Vic Gordon, the star of the show here is Linda Sterling who plays Barbara Meredith... who, after her brother, the crime fighting ‘Black Whip’ is shot and killed in the first episode, takes up his mantle to continue the legend of... The Black Whip.

Not Zorro’s Black Whip though... as the title would misleadingly have you believe...

Okay, here’s the thing. Zorro’s Black Whip and its crime fighting leading lady has absolutely nothing to do with Zorro in any way, shape or form whatsoever. It’s not set in Spain (the setting is the Old West), there’s no sword play and Zorro is not mentioned one single time throughout the whole serial. Except in the opening credits of each chapter where, in addition to his name bizarrely being on the title, he is also credited as a character to his original creator. But the actual character of The Black Whip in the story has nothing to do with Zorro except... okay, she kinda dresses like him with the black outfit, hat and mask (plus the whip, obviously).

So I don’t know what’s really going on here. It could have been that the producers were too frightened by the similarity of the dress of the character (which probably was just an old recycled Zorro costume) that they thought they should probably give the creator a credit and royalties rather than have to duck a legal fee. Or, perhaps, they were playing the old bandwagon game and riding the coat tails of the popular character. Certainly, you see this done time and time again in the history of cinema, with the Italians being especially good at providing ‘inspired’ rip off non-sequels under the guise of actually being sequels... such as the gazillions of Django movies made with very few of them actually being sequels and not all of them featuring a character with the name Django... for example. I don’t remember seeing it done in the US of A like this though but, perhaps I’m less familiar with the period so, yeah, there were The Creeper movies, I guess, inspired by Rondo Hatton’s ill fated character in a Sherlock Holmes movie (more on that when I put the review of that movie up on this site... hopefully this year, folks). If you know of any other USA knock offs cashing in on famous characters in their titles without actually including that same character, please drop me the info on the comments section below this review.

The story is about a corrupt governor in the sleepy town of Idaho, where they are about to have elections to find out if the people want to make it a state of the union... which goes against this particular high up and less than outstanding citizen’s plans. So he has his thugs go after anything which will swing the vote in the favour of becoming a state and it’s up to The Black Whip to stop all the trouble and give the people a chance to choose for themselves, to go forward into democracy... blazing away for justice with her guns and her trusty whip. Not to mention her horse who, in the denouement of the final episode, saves her life by stomping her main antagonist to death.

Okay, so, that established, this one is a typical Republic serial but with a female lead... kinda. She does fine in the action scenes but George G. Lewis gets a huge hunk of screen time too, mostly so he can be set up to be knocked unconscious or held prisoner in order for Linda Sterling to suit up and rescue him a little later. It’s fast and furious in the way that only the cheaply made Republic serials could be. Universal, Columbia and Fox all have their little identifying features which mark them out as serials coming from a particular stable and, with Republic, it was minimum of plot and characterisation and plenty of action. When I started watching this one with my dad and it was clear the first of many fist fights was about to take place, I reminded him that this was a Republic serial so, everything you see in the room of the fight... every piece of furniture or prop... was going to get broken over someone’s head or flung around and, sure enough, within a few minutes, the room was a total wreck. I’d hate to be the cleaner for a character who lived inside a Republic branded serial, for sure.

And yeah, by this point in Republic’s output, they’d got it down to a fine art... there’s ample chasing, fist fighting and shooting here. In fact, these guns they’re using are less like six shooters and more like one hundred and thirty six shooters. Don’t start counting the bullets because they hardly ever run out of shots... except when it’s dramatically pertinent for them to do so, in order for somebody to be captured by the opposition. Also, these people including the title character, are waving their pistols off dramatically and firing more into the air than anything else, it seems to me. Although, there are some wonderful stunts such as one early on where The Black Whip rolls herself down the slope of a cabin roof, arms by her sides and then lands on her horse and rides it off... nice stuff.

The dialogue is particularly stripped down on this one. Barbara Meredith’s real job is to run the town newspaper, which she does with the aid of her press room guy, Lucien Littlefield as the aptly named ‘Tenpoint’ Jackson. There’s a few comedy scenes with him doing a cut rate Gabby Hayes style comedy scene here and there but, it’s all about the action with just a few lines of dialogue to explain what’s happening, delivered by various characters, before the next action scene is upon us. It gets to the point in the final episode where The Black Whip knows that the masked villain has a welt from her whip on his wrist... so all she and Vic Gordon have to do is go back to town to the committee and see which one of them has the wound which will reveal who the enemy ring leader is. However, rather than have the usual reveal scene, we then just get a newspaper headline summarising that the villain’s identity was uncovered but he escaped, all in order to make way very quickly for the final gun battle where the heroine tracks him down again.

All in all, though, the serial delivers mostly what you’re expecting from it (except Zorro, obviously) and I have to say that Zorro’s Black Whip is a pretty entertaining entry in the pantheon of Republic serials of the time... if you’re not expecting more than lots of punching, shooting and galloping, that is. Eagle eyed viewers will spot one of the committee members in a few episodes being played by none other than John Hamilton, who would of course go on to play Perry White opposite George Reeves in The Adventures Of Superman TV show in the 1950s.

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