The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies, Chapter 6: ‘The Vigilante’
ScreenCrush editor, comic-book lover, and undiagnosed masochist Matt Singer is systematically watching every single (American) comic-book movie ever made in the order in which they were released. This week in The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies: A “Prairie Troubador” gets into trouble in Hollywood.
The Vigilante: Fighting Hero of the West (1947)
Director: Wallace Fox
Writers: Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, George H. Plympton
Starring: Ralph Byrd, Lyle Talbot, George Offerman Jr.
Based on: The Vigilante, created by Mort Weisinger and Mort Meskin in Action Comics #42
Onscreen Iteration: First appearance
The Best Special Effect: At the end of Chapter 7, the Vigilante (Ralph Byrd) dives into a moving car and starts a fight with a bunch of bad guys. The car careens off the road and into a ditch. The cliffhanger resume in Chapter 8, and we see the stunt again at much greater length. The coupe flies off the road and Byrd’s stunt double leaps off the back and then tumbles awkwardly down a steep hill. It looks incredibly dangerous and, therefore, incredibly awesome.
The Worst Special Effect: At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the cliffhanger that involves a carnival gorilla who winds up menacing the Vigilante and his love interest, Betty Winslow (Ramsay Ames). If this thing is not the worst gorilla suit in film history, it’s only by the slimmest of margins. The hands aren’t articulated, so they flop around lifelessly as the actor inside chases after Ames. This gangly, mangy creature makes Planet of the Apes look like a nature documentary.
Most Dated Moment: Several sequences in The Vigilante take place around a dude range in Hidden Valley, California. That prompts lines of dialogue like “Did you try the Hidden Valley Ranch?” In 2015, the response to that question would have to be “Yes, and it was absolutely delicious with celery.” No one would make the Hidden Valley Ranch a location in a serious Western today, because of jokes like that. But The Vigilante actually predates ranch dressing; the actual Hidden Valley Ranch didn’t begin serving it until the mid-1950s.
Most Timeless Moment: The Vigilante does feature one moment so cool it’s surprising more comic-book movies and action films haven’t ripped it off. In Chapter 3, the henchmen of the mysterious villain X-1 corner the Vigilante and order him to surrender. “Come out of there or I’ll start shooting!” one yells. Rather than give up, the Vigilante leaps out from around the corner, shoots the gun right out of the goon’s hand, then socks him right in the jaw. Do not mess with the Vigilante, bro. He will shoot you.
Further Thoughts: Another week, another relatively obscure Golden Age hero. This one, at least, hasn’t been totally forgotten. The Vigilante, a “Prairie Troubadour” who created his masked (technically bandana’d) alter ego after his father’s murder, shared the pages of Action Comics with Superman for many years, then joined the Seven Soldiers of Victory, an early superhero team. He reemerged in the 1970s when DC began to revive their Golden Age heroes, and received a couple of backup features in books like World’s Finest and Adventure Comics. The Vigilante name was later given to several other characters, and was last revived in 2009-10 for a short-lived series. He even appeared in the highly acclaimed Justice League Unlimited animated cartoon.
So the Vigilante’s not quite as minor a character as Hop Harrigan, and his serial’s not quite as bad as his either. At 15 chapters and over four hours, The Vigilante is still way too long with far too little story, one rehashed from every single previous serial. (Take one masked evildoer, add in an army of interchangeable goons and a bunch of valuable objects to chase after, then stir for 240 minutes or until done.) But The Vigilante does have an appealingly offbeat mix of genres, including action, mystery, superheroes, behind-the-scenes Hollywood drama, Western, and even musicals (true to his billing, the Prairie Troubador sings a number or two). It throws enough disparate elements together to keep things interesting, and the fights and chases are varied and energetic.
By far, the most appealing part of the serial is its meta commentary about the movie business. In the comics, the Vigilante’s alter ego, Greg Sanders, works in radio. In the film, he’s a movie star, shooting singing cowboy movies when he’s not chasing after his shadowy nemesis, X-1. After a long night fighting crime, he shows up to work, where the director of his latest project doesn’t even seem to like him. “These days all you have to do is take a good-looking guy, give him a nice pair of boots, a ten gallon hat, a fancy horse and you’ve got yourself a new star!” the director says at one point. (In an even more meta touch, the director character’s played by The Vigilante’s real director, Wallace Fox.) The director keeps offering Greg a stunt double, but he refuses to use one. “I’ll do my own stunts if you don’t mind,” he says in Chapter 8 after the director proposes a particularly difficult series of stunts. “Go ahead!” Fox replies. “It’s your neck!”
These exchanges are ludicrous; no director is dumb enough to let his star break his neck, even if he thinks the guy is easily replaceable by anyone in a nice pair of boots and a ten gallon hat. At the same time, they do hint at one of the fundamental attractions of these serials: Their realistic and sometimes shockingly risky stunt work. No one went toThe Vigilante for nuanced drama or complex characters; these films were showcases for exciting action and feats of bravery. When Greg Sanders tells his director he’ll do his own stunts, he’s tacitly acknowledging the importance of authenticity to this genre.
Most of the serials in this column so far have had a big problem with cheating their cliffhangers; one chapter ends with what looks like the hero getting shot or caught in a deadly explosion and the next will reveal he jumped out of the way just in time. The Vigilante has the opposite problem. It has all these impressively treacherous-looking stunts —fights on roofs, some scary falls, a couple really sketchy car crashes — and then the resolution in almost every case is “Somehow Greg survived.” At the end of Chapter 11, Greg falls into a roaring fire; at the start of Chapter 12 he lands in the fire and hops off. At the end of Chapter 12, his car gets clipped by an oncoming train; at the start of Chapter 13, he walks out of the wreckage like it’s no big thing. This happens over and over. For a guy without any superpowers, the Vigilante sure seems indestructible.
Every comic-book movie in this column to date has been in black and white, but The Vigilante was the first where I acutely felt the absence of color. In the comics, Vigilante’s costume — blue tunic, red bandana, brown cowboy hat — pops off the page. In film (and in black and white), he just looks like another dude in a workshirt. Even with his motorcycle and sidekick, he doesn’t seem very special. It really makes you aware how important color was to the Golden Age of superhero comics, which were so bright and lively. The Vigilante’s bland, muddy grays just don’t do the character or his milieu justice.
Finally, if you’ll indulge me, I have a nit to pick. The name of this film is The Vigilante. The character calls himself “The Vigilante.” But he works for the U.S. government! So the Vigilante from The Vigilante is technically not a vigilante. This serial is pretty entertaining, but that detail alone makes it pretty dumb.
The Vigilante is out-of-print on home video, but you can find bootlegs on eBay.