"The Ghost of Zorro" (‘49)
Until the early ‘50s there was only one actor on record who could boast of having portrayed both The Lone Ranger and Zorro on screen. This was Robert Livingston who played the masked Texas Ranger in the Republic serial “The Lone Ranger Rides Again” (replacing Lee Powell who was the screen’s first Ranger) and who also was given the part of Zorro in the same studio’s full length feature, “The Bold Caballero”produced in ‘36. This would all change, however, when in 1949 Clayton Moore inherited the mantle of the Lone Ranger for television, a role he secured largely due to his having portrayed the lead part of the masked Californian in Republic’s “Ghost of Zorro” serial, less than a year earlier.
Zorro’s family had grown quite impressively over the years, his list of descendents including a host of grandchildren and others who had decided to emulate their famous ancestor in righting the west of many of its wrongs and who were featured in numerous B-features and cliffhangers, all of them produced by Republic.
The gist of “Ghost of Zorro” is that the Pioneer Telegraph Company wishes to extend its business through an area controlled by outlaws who don’t want their operations exposed by further frontier encroachment. To this end they do everything in their power to thwart the stringing of the lines, including murder. Sent out to help stop the interference is Ken Mason, one of Pioneer Telegraph’s engineers. Mason is viewed dis-respectfully by company co-owner Rita (Pamela Blake) as a bit of a dude (Moore wears what appears to be Allan Lane’s old duds from the earlier cliff-hanger“Daredevils of the West”) but he actually mixes it up fairly quickly with the bad guys so this nod to the old Don Diego fop routine is rather pointless. Speaking of Don Diego, it’s soon revealed in Royal Cole, William Lively and Sol Shor’s highly derivative script (from earlier Zorro cliffhangers), that Mason is in reality the grandson of the original Zorro, a fact which he decides to trade on with the help of his old Indian pal Moccasin (played by George J. Lewis, earlier the hero in Republic’s “Zorro’s Black Whip” where he assisted masked heroine Linda Stirling, and later the father of Guy Williams’ Don Diego on the ‘50s Disney “Zorro” TV series). The fact that Moccasin and all the old Zorro trappings—including Firebrand, an equestrian ancestor of the original Zorro’s trusted steed—just happens to be geographically in the same region where Mason’s parent company has sent him certainly stretches the boundaries of coincidence quite a bit, even for a serial.
The “ghost” angle of the serial’s title comes into play when the locals, seeing the legendary Zorro suddenly appear, come to believe this is no new avenging masked figure but the actual original do-gooder back from the grave. Or as Mason himself declares, “I’ll become the living ghost of Zorro.”
For the record, when Mason puts on his Zorro duds the voice that comes out of his mouth is not Clayton Moore’s but rather another actor dubbing the dialog. Astute reader Don Danard beleives it to be actor Jim Nolan. There is one slipup where this is not the case but for most of the masked man’s scenes we are denied Moore’s wonderfully familiar and resonant tones—so familiar to fans of TV’s "Lone Ranger" series—which is a pity and bad thinking on the part of the production staff although similar dubbing had occurred in other Republic efforts such as “The Masked Marvel” and “King of the Rocketmen”.
As in most western serials the cliffhangers are rarely inventive or created with any ingenuity. The old west setting prohibits much save exploding cabins, falls off cliffs, necktie parties and runaway wagons, scenes often culled from earlier productions which helped in trimming the budget.
In addition to Moore and Lewis the serial features a somewhat bland and whiney Pamela Blake as Rita, Roy Barcroft, for once not the main bad guy of the piece but rather lead henchman Kilgore, and Eugene Roth as his boss Crane who does double time as an upstanding citizen and blacksmith. Filling out the cast are familiar faces John Crawford, I. Stanford Jolley, Steve Darrell, Marshall Reed (who rides a white stallion and dresses like the Lone Ranger sans the mask), Steve Clark and the ubiquitous stuntmen/actors Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel.
“Ghost of Zorro” came near the conclusion of the days of the movie serial and it shows. The sparkle of earlier cliffhangers is simply not here. Moreover, there is a lackluster and fatigued feel about the whole production from the writing to the direction of Fred Brannon. Most of the performances, with the exception of Moore—who is solid and appealing—and Barcroft, who is always worth a look, seem tired and mailed-in. In short, it’s all been done before, and better.
The best thing that can be said about “Ghost of Zorro” is that it was the film viewed by the producers of TV’s “Lone Ranger” which cemented the casting of Clayton Moore in the classic title role.
Moore would be trading in one mask for another. But the second one would be a better and more memorable fit.
“After an RKO Edgar Kennedy short and a movie, I auditioned, at 10, and got ‘Red Ryder’ at Republic with Don Barry. My German-Lithuanian looks helped. I look like an Indian.”
“It was shot at the old Republic Studios, Radford and Ventura, where CBS Studio Center is now. It had two directors, William Witney and John English—great guys. Witney brought me to his house to learn how to ride a horse. I used to go horseback riding at Bill Witney’s house, where they had a little pinto pony. That did contribute, there’s no doubt about it. But I did have a little bit of a riding background. Also, before and during the serial, some of the wranglers took me out and worked with me a little bit.”
“Don was under contract to Republic, and Herbert J. Yates was the head of the studio. Some of the executives at Republic didn’t feel Don was physically the right specimen (to play Red Ryder). They said, ‘Y’know, Red Ryder is a tall guy, six feet tall, and a redhead. Barry’s five-eight, five-nine, he can’t ride…’ Yates said, ‘Well, teach him. He’s under contract, we’re paying him every week. We gotta put him to use. Teach him how to ride, that’s gonna be our Red Ryder.’ So they taught him—he learned to ride quite well. They put a wig on him, of course. And, like Alan Ladd, he was made to look a lot taller than he actually was. And Don could handle himself fist-wise. He was a tough guy but a nice guy.”
“They had some of the all-time great stuntmen in that serial. Davey Sharpe (Barry’s stuntman) was the greatest, and was always so nice. Of course I loved all the stuntmen, but Davey Sharpe in particular. Davey was the sweetest guy in the world, and there was nothing he couldn’t do as a stuntman. I don’t recall who my stuntman was, but they were adults. Of course they did put a wig on me (for the part of Little Beaver).”
“I remember, for insurance reasons, I was not supposed to get on a horse during shooting unless it was in a scene. They knew I could ride to an extent, so I could ride into a scene and I could start to ride out. But they would have a double for me any time Little Beaver had to ride real fast—they could just shoot the double from the back. But I would sneak off on a horse at lunchtime. I loved to ride. I had a little pinto called Cricket in the serial. They had a blanket over the pinto, but with stirrups. That’s the way I rode, I didn’t have a saddle.”
“I had a nice relationship with Don, and I had a little crush on the young girl who played Beth, Vivian Austin. She was a former Earl Carroll Varieties girl, and a good friend of my mother—they all liked my mother! Noah Beery was in it, and William Farnum the oldtime vaudeville actor, a fine actor who ended up playing roles on the ‘Red Ryder’ radio show. It was a lot of fun.”
“I’ll segue for a second and tell you a very tragic situation with Don Barry. About 40 years later, one day I get a call from him. He’s in Texas, working in a picture on location (“Back Roads”, ‘81). He says, ‘I’m working on something that’s gonna be fabulous and you gotta be a part of it. I’m putting together a deal to bring back Red Ryder. I’m gonna play Red’s father and you’re gonna play Little Beaver’s father. We’re going to sort of resurrect the show.’ I tell him I’d love to do it. Now, at this time he is on the outs with his wife. He comes back from location on this film and he goes and visits his estranged wife and gets into a huge argument and comes out of the house and he takes his gun…and he blows his brains out. This was not too long after I heard from him—just a matter of a couple of weeks. So that’s the story of Don ‘Red’ Barry.”
“Then, a year or so after ‘Red Ryder’, I went back to Republic and did ‘Jungle Girl’ native boy as Kimbu with the same directors, William Witney and John English. That might have been one of the reasons why I got the part. That was their niche, doing serials. When you’re shooting a serial, that’s a lot of filming, that’s why they used two directors. They were very nice to me. I’m sure they went out of their way to look after me.”
“I had a wonderful relationship with Tom Neal, who was the co-star with Frances Gifford. We were buddies. He was a cut-up, and he romanced a lot of gals. Frances Gifford was lovely, very nice, but Tom Neal was a real buddy. He took extra time to befriend me, we palled around and he was like a big father to me. I also remember I carried a little monkey on my shoulder, and I remember it crapped on me once. It always got ‘excited’ if a woman in her period was around. It would affect the monkey.”
“Gerald Mohr, the villain, was a good buddy. I must have done at least 100 radio shows with him. I ended up teaching tennis to his ex-wife, a Swedish gal.”
Cook went on to many other roles, including a stint as Little Beaver on NBC radio. In addition, he wrote and owns a piece of the movie “Rollercoaster”, created TV’s “Challenge of the Sexes”, is an excellent tennis pro and has taught many people as well as organizing celebrity tennis tournaments around the world.