Monday, January 29, 2018
ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP (1944), THE MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP (1954)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
To re-iterate the same point made in practically every other reference to the film, there is no "Zorro" in the house. Republic had no rights to use the character, so they just stuck the name onto the title of their serial and presumably hoped no one would bother to sue.
There's not much to say about this bare-bones adventure, except that it's one of the rare serials in which a heroine is presented as a formidable adventure-character. This was actress Linda Stirling's second serial, following THE TIGER WOMAN the same year. TIGER WOMAN is far from one of the best of the chapterplays, but it shows far more care in its stuntwork and writing than BLACK WHIP, which I suspect was rushed into production.
Possibly the initial script was produced with the idea that the heroine would inherit the Zorro role from a male perceptor. The first chapter, taking place in Idaho in its pre-statehood era, posits that there are lawless elements seeking to foil any attempts to bring the territory under U.S. aegis, so that it can remain a haven for lawlessness. A masked, whip-wielding hero, the Black Whip, has arisen to oppose the owlhoots. But he's fatally shot, and Barbara Meredith (Stirling) comes across the wounded hero, just in time to learn that it's her own brother who has assumed the role of masked avenger. Barbara, who for a girl of the 1880s is unusually adept at fighting and shooting, takes up the role. As in TIGER WOMAN and related serials, the heroine's male companion has to handle the majority of the fight-scenes, and here it's George J. Lewis, playing Vic Gordon, a local cowhand on the side of justice. However, there are still a fair number of scenes in which the main heroine mixes things up with male outlaws, none of whom notice that she's not quite as broad-shouldered as the old Whip. The serial-makers at least have Stirling doubled by a female substitute during the action-scenes, so that the viewers still know that she's female. Why the outlaws don't notice is anyone's guess.
Despite the repetitive nature of the perils and the colorless villains, once in a while the script does convey some of the characters' uncertainty over the fate of their home state, which gives the serial a little sociological heft. But the gimmick of Barbara posing as a man wears a little thin, even if her buddy Vic Gordon takes her place toward the end to protect her dual identity. In the end, even if the outlaws never know what Barbara did, WHIP does strike a blow for gender equity.
Today the name "Richard Simmons" connotes an exercise-guru with a swishy gay persona, but in the 1950s, it was just the name of one more serial-actor. The 1950s Simmons' essays a dual role for THE MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP, playing both tough rancher Jerry Randall and his masked I.D. "El Latigo." And both the rancher and the masked hero are very manly men, except when El Latigo turns into a woman.
STEEL WHIP came out during the fading years of the serial film, and it's one of many such films that simply recycled footage from earlier chapterplays. In this case, El Latigo's costume was modeled after that of 1944's Black Whip, so that the studio could rework footage from THE BLACK WHIP into STEEL WHIP and so save money. This results in one amusing aspect of this dead-serious oater: that in some episodes El Latigo suddenly changes into a much smaller and more feminine version of himself, since he's being played by Linda Stirling's female stunt double. Still, when Simmons himself is on the screen, he plays his scenes with a fair amount of brio.
That non-diegetic aspect aside, the most interesting sociological aspect of STEEL WHIP is that it's yet another story in which evil white outlaws are seeking to force Native Americans off their reservation-lands. Even in 1954 this was a pretty hoary plot, having perhaps been done best in 1935's MIRACLE RIDER, though that serial took place in the 20th-century West. STEEL WHIP takes place back in the 1800s, and thus the villains-- another colorless lot-- are using the old "fake Indians" strategy to rile up the white ranchers, so that the Indians will be driven away and the criminals can claim their lands.
A handful of serials, such as 1940's MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN, assert that the contemporary avenger follows in the footsteps of some earlier crimefighter. Jerry Randall pursues this trope as well, choosing to model himself on an earlier hero who was a friend to the local Indian tribe. The Native American characters aren't subject to any denigration here, since they're meant to garner sympathy. However, there are some sections of the well-meaning serial that might reflect the trope of The Great White Father. In one episode, the question is raised as to whether the tribal Indians should sell some of their lands to new settlers. El Latigo, friend of the red men, advises the Indians to take the offer, arguing that the Indians don't need all their land because they hunt, rather than farm, for their sustenance. To modern ears, this almost puts the hero on the same side as the villains. He may not share the bad guys' precise motives. But these days, any white guy who tells an Indian that he ought to yield a little lebensraum doesn't sound too terribly heroic.