"The Vigilantes are Coming" is a 12-chapter serial, released by Republic Pictures in their first year, 1936, directed by Mack V. Wright and Ray Taylor. The screenplay is by John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty and Winston Miller, the story by Maurice Geraghty and Leslie Swabacker.
General Jason Burr (Fred Kohler) has discovered gold, in 1840's California, and plans to become dictator, negotiating with Count Raspinoff (Robert Warwick), special emissary of the Tsar, to provide military support and make California a Russian colony. Don Loring (Robert Livingston), returning home after guiding Captain Fremont (Ray Corrigan) on his expedition to the Pacific Northwest, finds his father and brother have been killed, and Sonoma Valley oppressed by Burr, who has been abducting people as slaves to operate his gold mine. With help from Father Jose (William Farnum) of the local mission, Don becomes "The Eagle," masked vigilante who conceals his true identity by posing as a meek organist at the mission.
History takes several hits here, but the serial was made in the wake of "The Phantom Empire" so a little lunacy is to be expected. Some of the cliffhangers involve fairly extreme "cheating" where the changes made to save the hero from certain death would have been noticed even with a week between chapters. Still, the plot moves along quite well, and Robert Livingston is fine as the Zorro-like hero, with good support from the rest of the cast. Burr has imprisoned a mining engineer, John Colton (Lloyd Ingraham) and his daughter Doris (Kay Hughes), both of whom get rescued a couple times. Burr's main henchmen are Rance Talbot (John Merton) and Boris Petroff (Bob Kortman), while The Eagle is aided by Salvation and Whipsaw (Raymond Hatton and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) who provide fairly-restrained comic relief. Several actors familiar from other serials and "B" movies appear in smaller roles, including William Desmond, Yakima Canutt, Stanley Blystone, Jack Ingram, Al Taylor and Robert Walker. The photography is first rate, with some fine effects, like the "eagle shadow" melting into the hero's in the first chapter. The musical score, under the direction of Harry Grey, combines Republic's "stock" music with Liszt's "Les Preludes" and Beethoven's "Egmont" overture, all integrated reasonably well with the action.
VCI's DVD edition, # 8836 is on a single disc, double layer. The source print appears to be the same one used for VCI's VHS edition, # 1714, though the DVD transfer is considerably better. The image is reasonably sharp, but the gray scale is limited, and the low contrast used for the transfer makes the opening titles look quite muddy, giving a poor first impression. The picture improves during the chapters, if details are hard to see in the darker areas. Better prints are not likely to be found, since Republic's old VHS edition had similar problems, and was one of their few releases NOT claimed to have been "Digitally Restored from the Original Negatives." VCI's sound was also initially disappointing, lacking in high frequency content which muffles the dialogue, and no captions are provided. Boosting the treble above 2 KHz helps quite a bit, without significant increase in noise, and the low frequency response is an improvement over Republic's old release, giving a fairly satisfying fullness to the music. So with a little adjustment the sound is fine. Framing is marginal on the chapter recap text, but it is all there on monitors showing the bottom of the frame. And unlike some of VCI's other DVD's, the text is not turned into a slide-show; it remains an honest transfer of movie film. Somewhat surprising for a VCI release, no "bonus" features are provided.
Republic Home Video's edition on VHS, # 5071 was issued in 1993 on two cassettes, dubbed at SP speed. It was transferred with higher contrast than VCI's DVD, but gray scale is similar, and highlights tend to burn out, with a few blank faces in some chapters. The opening titles are less murky, and reduced in size to keep the text well-within the boundries of television screens. The sharpness is good for a VHS release, though it can't match that of VCI's DVD. The sound is crisp enough and has little distortion, but with a constant low-level crackle, frequency response that makes it sound a little "tinny," and a lot of "wow" in Chapter Seven, possibly from poor processing when the release print was made.
Alpha's DVD, # ALP 4891D is on a single disc. The picture has a "VHS" quality to it, with a head-switch glitch at the very bottom of the frame, apparently copied from Republic's tape since it has similar appearance and the same minor defects in the picture, crackle in the sound and the woeful wow in Chapter Seven. The sound is slightly out-of-sync, but only about a quarter second behind the picture. The transfer added a little video overshoot from sharpness enhancement, causing objects to be slightly "outlined" and accentuating details like grass and shrubbery. The picture is stretched a little horizontally during the chapter introductions where Alpha "de-matted" the image, which had larger margins on the sides. They also added their logo in the upper-right corner during the opening titles and credits. While the picture looks good for an Alpha release, their sourcing of it from a 1990's commercial VHS tape is not commendable, legal or not, and the tape had a cleaner image.
This is an entertaining serial, and if the plot can't be taken too seriously it isn't beset with the kind of "comic relief" characters present in other early Republic productions. It is best watched with some time between chapters so the "cheating" of the cliffhangers isn't as obvious. While VCI's DVD isn't as spectacular as had been hoped, the sharpness, control of highlights and sound are an improvement over the other editions, and the serial itself is easily worth a 5-star "I Love It" rating.