Douglas Fairbanks stars in the very first Zorro movie. The tale is familiar: Zorro is a Californian Robin Hood, who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, fights oppression, romances the beautiful Lolita and does battle with the villainous Captain Ramon. And, this being a Fairbanks vehicle, there is quite a lot of leaping about in the bargain!
Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1940 version starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Click here to skip to the talkie review.
Douglas Fairbanks in a swashbuckler? Nah, too risky!
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is hard to imagine a time when Douglas Fairbanks feared to embark on a full-costume swashbuckler. Fairbanks was flying high (quite literally, he was the consummate athlete) in modern comedies and westerns. His breezy, contemporary persona was beloved by his fans but he wanted to make something a little more challenging. He had flirted with costumed sequences but The Mark of Zorro was the first time he attempted anything as ambitious as a 100% historical film.
Fairbanks understood that changing his screen image was a risk. Fellow star Charles Ray would attempt such a transformation and have his fortune wiped out with one pricey 1923 historical drama. So you can see, Fairbanks was quite right to be wary.
Would his fans accept him in costume roles– at the time seen as heavier and more serious– or would they turn up their noses and demand the old Doug back? This was especially critical as Fairbanks was on his way to co-founding United Artists with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. He could not afford to let his screen popularity slip.
The selection of the recently-published Zorro story (then titled The Curse of Capistrano) was a stroke of genius. (Courtesy of Mary Pickford, who knew a thing or two about star vehicles.) The light adventure was easy to follow and the dual character of Zorro (both bold vigilante and his secret identity, the sleepy Don Diego Vega) gave Fairbanks an opportunity to work his comedic skills while still engaging in bold heroics.
The film opens with a close-up of a soldier’s wounded face. He beat a native Californian nearly to death and Zorro made him pay with a “Z” cut into his cheek.
Who is the mysterious Zorro? No one knows. He is like a ghost. He appears, revenges wrongs and then vanishes.
Sergeant Gonzalez is a blustering soldier with ambition but not many brains. Such a part just screams for a Beery and Noah does the honors. Gonzalez has vowed to capture Zorro and claim to generous reward offered.
Gonzalez is drinking with his men when Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks) enters the inn. Don Diego is awkward, sleepy and cowardly. He abhors violence and will not let fighting even be mentioned in his presence. Merely walking from his home to the inn fatigues him. He has struck up an odd friendship with Gonzalez, who is more than willing to be chums with a rich eccentric who always foots the drinking bill. Besides, Don Diego always likes to hear about the pursuit of Zorro. Gonzalez says he will slice Zorro to pieces once he catches him.
After Don Diego has gone home, Gonzalez continues to bluster. Then a mysterious figure in black enters the inn. When he slashes his trademark “Z” into the wall, everyone knows that they have met Zorro. Poor Gonzalez does not stand a chance. Zorro cuts his mark into the sergeant’s trousers and then makes good his escape.
But who is this Zorro? Don Diego, of course! You didn’t think Doug would spend the whole movie playing a wet blanket, did you? Don Diego has lost his temper at the injustices suffered in California under a corrupt governor. The other wealthy young men are more interested in parties and duels than justice. Don Diego means to awaken everyone’s sense of duty through outrageous acts of rebellion. He affects peculiarities in order to deflect suspicion from his illegal but just activities.
And now, the ladies. Or, specifically, one lady. Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte, Fairbanks’s frequent co-star) is a headstrong young woman with a few problems. Her family has lost favor with the governor and have lost their fortune along with it. She is having to endure the unwanted advances of Captain Ramon (Robert McKim). Worst of all, she has to put up with Don Diego.
Don Diego’s father (Sidney De Gray) has ordered his useless son to find a wife. Don Diego drags himself to the Pulido home and begins to woo Lolita. Well, maybe “woo” is too strong a word. He complains to her about having to get married, offers to to send his servant to serenade her (much too much trouble to do it himself) and finally uses his pocket handkerchief and snuffbox to improvise a puppet show to impress the young lady.
Um… er… thanks?
Lolita wants nothing to do with him but her parents urge her to try harder. Don Diego is the richest man within 100 miles and Lolita can restore the Pulido family to honor and wealth if she becomes his wife.
Lolita is despairing in the garden when Zorro arrives. He is passionate. A little zany but definitely passionate. And daring, and clever. And no puppet shows. Just what Lolita wants in a man!
Now, on to the villain of the film. Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) is a swaggering bully who has been trying to badger Lolita into marrying him. Ramon has the ear of the governor and a word from him can either save or condemn Lolita’s family. He is also a dangerous swordsman in his own right and has also vowed to bring Zorro in dead or… well, dead.
Ramon’s pursuit of Zorro is about to get personal.
Lolita is visiting town and Captain Ramon finds her alone in Don Diego’s house. He takes the opportunity to force his attentions on her. Not smart. Zorro arrives, makes quick work of the Captain and forces him to apologize (on his knees!) to Lolita.
But Zorro has unwittingly given Ramon a weapon to use against him. Now the Pulidos will be targeted more than ever. Will Zorro succeed in fomenting rebellion against the corrupt government? Will he be able to defeat Ramon a second time? Will Don Diego stop doing weird things with handkerchiefs? Watch The Mark of Zorro to find out.
The real highlight of the movie is the final 15 minutes, which feature Fairbanks leaping from rooftops, onto horses, into wagons… Fairbanks made use of hidden footholds, trampolines and other little tricks to make his leaps more impressive. However, no one can fake the gracefulness that he displays. He practically floats. The whole sequence climaxes with the Zorro/Don Diego personalities fusing just before a fierce swordfight.
Zorro would, of course, change the course of Douglas Fairbanks’s career. After releasing one more modern film (The Nut, filmed as insurance in case Zorro tanked), he gave himself over entirely to costume films for the remainder of the silent era.
However, Fairbanks would have an equally powerful affect on the character of Zorro. Fairbanks was the first Zorro and so he was able to write rules for the character that are still being used today. Among them:
The costume: Zorro in the original novel wore a mask that covered his entire face. Fairbanks was the first to wear the half-mask. In fact, his Zorro costume has remained nearly unchanged no matter who plays the part.
The “Z” carving: In the novel, the “Z” carving was mentioned but not particularly emphasized. Fairbanks turned it into a flamboyant trademark.
The whip: Zorro used a whip in the book in retaliation for the flogging of a friar. It was in the sequel to this film, Don Q Son of Zorro, that Fairbanks introduced the whip into the Zorro legend’s arsenal.
Fairbanks improved the story in other ways. In the book, Don Diego Vega is not revealed to be Zorro until the very end even though it is painfully obvious. Fairbanks (who co-adapted the scenario) eliminates that aspect and lets the audience in on the secret from the beginning. It would be pointless to try to hide it anyway since the audience would guess Zorro’s identity the moment the action started. Who else could move like Fairbanks?
Further, Don Diego of the books adopted the lazy persona as a teenager in anticipation of growing up to be Zorro. This seems a little far-fetched. Fairbanks has his Don Diego adopt the persona while he is away getting an education in Spain, a more reasonable explanation as to why he is able to so thoroughly fool his father and friends.
Finally, the Zorro of the books merely wanted the corrupt governor to behave. The Zorro of the film wants him removed. A considerably stronger goal.
One change that is not welcome is the difference in Lolita. I really enjoyed Marguerite De La Motte’s performance. She and Fairbanks were personal friends and had great on-screen chemistry. She is expressive and lively and she is able to hold her own with Fairbanks. However, at the grand climax she is reduced to the standard issue damsel in distress. I realize that putting her in danger gives Zorro extra motive to act but Lolita was so much livelier in the book. She manages to rescue herself, outride a band of soldiers and stand with Zorro during the climactic battle.
The rest of the cast does their job quite well. Noah Beery is particularly amusing as the comedy relief villain Gonzalez. Snitz Edwards is his usual amusing self as the cowardly innkeeper. It should be note that, as was common for films of this period, all the major roles are filled by non-Latinos. (Hollywood still has not learned its lesson about this.)
The Mark of Zorro had a decent budget but not as large as Fairbanks’s later spectacles. I feel that this actually works in the film’s favor. Fairbanks had a distinct personality but he started to get overwhelmed by the sheer size of his later epics. This film is lean, tight and fast. There is no time to stand around admiring gargantuan sets or to spit out endless highfalutin title cards.
The Mark of Zorro was an instant classic. Fairbanks would make a direct sequel in 1926. Republic made a serial and a color film featuring the character in the 1930’s. However, a true remake of the original film was not attempted until 1940. But more on that in a moment…
This film is an example of a silent classic that lives up to his reputation. It is a great opportunity to watch the early breezy Fairbanks begin to adopt the swashbuckler character that would seal his status as a screen legend.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Mark of Zorro is widely available on DVD and via online streaming, including budget editions but remember that you get what you pay for. Kino sells it as a double feature with its sequel, Don Q Son of Zorro. I love the version included in the Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer box set from Flicker Alley. The print is pristine, the best available on the market by far, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score in first rate. The whole box is absolutely worth the investment. You get a beautiful Zorro print and a large selection of Fairbanks’ rare early work. Good stuff.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, a swashbuckler classic starring Douglas Fairbanks. And in that corner we have the 1940 version of the same tale, starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Who will be named champion of this California Robin Hood tale? Let the fight begin!
The Talkie Challenger: The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Zorro has been played by many actors over the decades and fans can argue for hours about the best performer for the job. One thing is certain, though: Tyrone Power is definitely in the running for champion. Young, handsome and a talented fencer to boot, he was ideally suited to be Zorro for a new generation.
Add to this the fact that Zorro’s nemesis is played by Basil Rathbone, one of the all-time greats of swashbuckling villainy, and I can safely say that this is a bit of a happening.
Less of an adaptation of the novel than a direct remake of the 1920 version, the film opens in Spain where Don Diego Vega is dueling and carousing his way through military training. He is a brilliant swordsman and a tireless rider.
Don Diego fully intends to stay in Spain but he is urgently summoned home to California by his father (Montagu Love, one of the top baddies of the silent era, in a gruff but likable role) with no explanation.
His father has been replaced as local magistrate and his successor, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) is oppressing the people. The brain behind Quintero is Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), a ruthless swordsman.
Realizing that he must disguise his abilities if he is to help, Don Diego transforms himself into a useless fop who spends his time flirting with Inez (a delightful Gale Sondergaard), the trite wife of Don Luis. By night, however, he dons the black mask and becomes Zorro, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. His only confederate is Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette, who else?), a fiery Franciscan, who is to distribute Zorro’s loot to the poor.
On a mission to scare the corrupt officials out of office, Don Diego meets Don Luis’s lovely niece, Lolita (Linda Darnell), and instantly falls for her. Will Don Diego/Zorro be able to win the girl of his dreams? Will be succeed in forcing Don Luis into retirement? Will Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone finally square off in a duel? Well, I’m not giving it away.
So, which Zorro is best?
You realize, of course, that this was the most difficult silent versus talkie decision that I have had to make so far. Both films are so evenly matched that it was almost impossible to choose between them. But there are no ties in this game.
Let’s take the assorted elements of the films one by one.
Direction: Fred Niblo, who directed the 1920 version, can be described charitably as a risk-adverse director. He basically plunks the camera down and starts grinding. Rouben Mamoulian, on the other hand, has style and flare to spare and he displays all of it in the 1940 version. A point to 1940.
Setting: The 1920 version takes advantage of the California setting and has Zorro chased up hill and down dale. The city and its citizens are suitably gritty and everything looks lived-in. While the 1940 version is lavish and beautiful, it still has that plastic backlot sheen. A point to 1920.
Comic villainy: Both versions feature villains who are more comedic than dangerous. In 1920, Noah Beery takes on the part of Sgt. Gonzalez, engages in some buffoonish battles with Zorro and unwittingly keeps him informed of efforts to capture him. In 1940, the comic villain is Inez, played by a deliciously petty Gale Sondergaard, a cougar who thinks that Don Diego is her prey. A tie on this one.
Dangerous villainy: Robert McKim is suitably swaggering as Captain Ramon but no one beats Basil Rathbone as the elegant fiend. He brandishes his sword, rages and threatens wonderfully. A point to 1940.
Leading lady: Marguerite De La Motte was the frequent co-star of Douglas Fairbanks and it is easy to see why. She had a unique beauty and her screen presence was strong enough to still be noticed when Doug started on his athletic feats. Linda Darnell was still fairly new to acting when she was cast in the 1940 version but the camera loved her and her idealistic Lolita is charming. I am going to have to go with Marguerite, though. The 1920 Lolita is the more conflicted character. She needs to marry money for the sake of her parents but she loves a bandit. 1940 Lolita, on the other hand, has no such qualms about her Zorro. A point to 1920.
So it comes down to Zorro himself. Douglas Fairbanks vs. Tyrone Power. Fairbanks was the better athlete but Power was the better swordsman. Both men do very well as the effete Don Diego, so fond of hanky tricks.
And the winner is…
In the end, though, Fairbanks wins the match. But why?
While the Fairbanks Zorro is the master of advance planning, the Power Zorro flies by the seat of his pants. The 1940 Zorro adopts the foppish demeanor on the spur of the moment when he senses something wrong is afoot. The 1920 Zorro, on the other hand, has carefully planned his secret identity. He has a secret passage in and out of his house to make his transformation seamless. His plans may go awry at the climax (due largely to the fact that his confederates have taken possession of the idiot ball) but he shows a talent for thinking ahead.
The 1940 Zorro goes into the vigilante business without much of a plan. He actually shoots himself in the foot by openly suggesting to the villains that his father be returned to his post. ‘Cuz that won’t be suspicious at all. Later, he picks up that idiot ball himself by revealing his fencing skills to the villains and accidentally leading them to a secret passage instrumental to his escape.
The idea to have Don Diego freshly returned from Spain is a good one but it leads to one small problem: No one puts together the fact that Don Diego and Zorro appeared at the exact same time? Plus, where did he get his gear? No one noticed a young man purchasing large quantities of all-black clothing? Or did he have the clothes already? If so, why?
(Yes, I realize I am over-thinking this but they are the ones who changed the script, not me.)
Finally, the climactic duel between Rathbone and Power (while splendid to behold) occurs too early in the film and does not have enough in the way of personal stakes. The McKim/Fairbanks duel was instigated by a threat to Lolita. I am not saying that they should have employed the damsel-in-distress cliche but it is always more interesting for a hero to face the villain with some kind of emotional stake in the mix. In the 1940 version the duel happens because Zorro is just plain sick of Esteban.
By changing the duel, the 1940 film also eliminates the big reveal. The 1920 duel was the first time Don Diego showed himself as Zorro to the rest of the cast. Fairbanks changed his expression, his posture, his movements to show the sudden transformation. The 1940 version has Zorro slowly revealing his true identity to the most important people in his life. Less dramatic, more subtle. Subtle is not so good with Zorro. The man prances about in a all-black ensemble, a mask and a cape and carves Z’s into wall, furniture and peaple. Subtle he is not.
So it is 1920 but only by the tiniest fraction. By all means, enjoy both wonderful films and discover why Zorro has remained such a popular figure.
Availability: The 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro is available on DVD.