Friday, November 25, 2011

Helen Christian & Zorro Rides Again

A Washingtonian debutante and the daughter of a socially prominent politician from Helena, Montana, Helen Christian, nee Fitzgerald-Collins, abandoned show business in favor of marrying Robert Bishop, a Pennsylvania newspaper magnate and aide to Illinois Governor Henry Horner. The nuptials took place in May of 1939 while the bride was appearing on Broadway in “I Must Love Someone,” a play that also featured another former serial lead, Scott Kolk/Scott Colton of Secret Agent X-9 (1937).

Zorro Rides Again (Republic, 1937)

James Vega (John Carroll) returns to his hacienda after the murder of his uncle, Don Manuel Vega (Nigel de Brulier), by El Lobo (Richard Alexander), henchman of railroad tycoon J.A. Marsden (Noah Beery). Battling Marsden and his thugs, James manages to keep his alter-ego a secret and is considered a fop by all, including railroad owners Joyce (Helen Christian) and Philip Andrews (Reed Howes).

Five minutes into Zorro Rides Again brutish El Lobo and his thugs blow up a train and depot then brutally murder peons Pedro (Chris-Pin Martin) and Jose (George Mari), the latter just a young boy.(It should come as a great relief to any susceptible viewer that the child playing the part of Jose returns very much alive playing another Mexican boy in chapter 8.) All in an effort to force the California-Yucatan railroad out of business. How is that for a dramatic – not to mention violent – serial opener? And we have yet to meet either the title hero and the boss heavy!

It should come as no surprise that this was the debut of the best directorial team in serial history, William Witney and John English, both of whom came from the editing rooms, and despite their shared dislike for leading man John Carroll, who was forced on the production and thought he was too good for serials, Rides Again remains one of the team's best efforts, a rollicking adventure yarn set in modern times with enough thrills, chills and spills to satisfy even the most discriminate palate. Whether it ranks above the team's 1939 follow-up, Zorro's Fighting Legion, a more traditional recounting of Johnston McCulley's legendary hero, is purely a matter of taste; technically and in narrative complexity both rank near the top of the serial heap and the difference may come down to whether you prefer the dynamic Carroll or the silvery-tongued Reed Hadley. Or, indeed, if a classic retelling is more your cup of tea than a modern update with a hero leaping tall buildings and traveling commercial airlines.

If the story is vaguely familiar to non-Zorro fans, the reason should be obvious: Superman is, of course, nothing but a space age Zorro rip-off, complete with a foppish alter-ego and a less than startling disguise that nevertheless manages to fool all and sundry. In addition to the action – which is fast and plentiful – Republic added a touch of pop music to the mix and had John Carroll serenading Helen Christian (sort of) in chapter 8 by warbling Walter Hirsch and Lou Handman's "A Beautiful Shade of Blue" and Alberto Colombo and Eddie Cherkose's rousing title song, "Riding Along." This just about makes Rides Again the most tuneful serial this side of Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire (1935) … and that in a season that also gave moviegoers a crooning flyboy in Universal’s Ace Drummond.

In contrast to the furious action and lively music, lead villain Noah Beery spends most of his screen time stuck behind a desk in a big city skyscraper office. The veteran blackguard, who seems to have filmed his entire part in a day, gives his customary solid performance and is ably assisted by the always dastardly Robert Kortman and Richard Alexander, the latter best remembered as an underling to Bela Lugosi in Republic's previous serial entry S O S Coast Guard.

Nominal second-leads Helen Christian and Reed Howes are adequate and pleasant enough to look at, and Duncan Renaldo, made up to look far older than he was, does well in the standard loyal factotum role. But like all the Witney-English serials to come, Zorro Rides Again belongs mostly to the stunt performers, notably Yakima Canutt, who doubles for John Carroll when in disguise and has more actual screen time than the star.

(left to right: Jack Ingram, Robert Kortman, Reed Howes, Richard Alexander and Helen Christian in Zorro Rides Again)

About the production
Zorro's handsome pinto (Pair O'Dice) was a stud owned by actor-director Ralph McCutcheon who earned $350 and a $5000 insurance policy for 22 days of filming Zorro Rides Again. The railroad scenes were filmed at the Southern Pacific Railroad Espee Branch near the Iverson Ranch location. Other locations: Red Rock Canyon, Pacoima Dam and the Cascade Coffee Shop in San Fernando.

The Republic Pictures songbook
John Carroll, a trained baritone, twice warbles Colombo and Cherkose’s title song:

Zorro rides again, into the night, riding along, singing a song
Zorro lives, he takes, then he gives, happy and gay, singing away
I laugh at life, through storm and strife, with mighty grip, I crack my whip
With courage bold, like knights of old, rollicking on, into the dawn
Hear ye men, for Zorro rides again, riding along, singing a song.

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