Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Film Review: The Mark of Zorro

"The Mark of Zorro"  *** (out of ****)

I have made a conscience effort on this blog to write about all of the great figures in the history of cinema.

My intention for starting this blog was for it to serve as a place where people my age or younger would find out about great movies from Hollywood made in the 1920s, 30s & 40s and great international films.

I have always envisioned my audience as being college age film students or students in general, that don't know much about the history of cinema but truly want to discover it and expose themselves to the great works. All they need is a starting point. They need someone to introduce titles to them and point them in the right direction. That is where I hoped I would come in. I would be that voice that discussed classic Hollywood cinema and the great movie stars associated with it.

A successful blog, as I defined it, meant if I was able to introduce one person to one movie they never heard of before. If I could reach my generation and helped them gain an appreciation for silent movies or black and white movies, that would be success. These movies are entertaining. I truly believe my generation would enjoy them if they would only give them a chance.

Over the course of the years I written about many stars of the silent era; Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Louise Brooks, John Barrymore and Lillian Gish among others. I have also discussed the giants behind the camera such as  D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Famed international filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Miklos Jancso have been mentioned. As well as American filmmakers;  Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

Of all the great movie stars and filmmakers important to cinema however there was one person I had neglected to write about, the star of "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), Douglas Fairbanks.

The reason for Fairbanks omission is an embarrassing one. I didn't know where to start. When I think of Douglas Fairbanks I have the same image in my head all movie lovers have, that of a swashbuckling hero. But, I really couldn't pick one movie which I feel is the definitive Douglas Fairbanks movie. Would it be "Robin Hood" (1922)? "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924)? "The Black Pirate" (1926)? Or could it be "The Mark of Zorro"? The movie has its own list of distinctions.

The problem is, who talks about Douglas Fairbanks anymore? Who even still watches silent movies? I'm not able to scope the general public's taste.

"The Mark of Zorro" though is just as good as any place to start to discuss Fairbanks.

"The Mark of Zorro" was the first film adaptation of Johnston McCulley's "The Curse of Capistrano" published in 1919 and introduced the character Zorro (Spanish for fox), a bandit that claims to want to fight corruption and defend the poor and oppressed living in Los Angeles during the era of Spanish rule.

The movie was also the first film released through United Artist, a movie studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. The movie proved to be a huge financial and commercial success leading many film historians to claim "The Mark of Zorro" was the movie which catapulted Fairbanks to the level of movie star and would forever identify him as a swashbuckling hero.

Fairbanks started working in Hollywood in 1915 where he starred in many comedy movies at first and displayed great athletic abilities, doing his own stunts. Within a year of being in Hollywood however Fairbanks met Pickford and although the two were married, they began having an affair, which lasted until 1920, when they were married.

The new studio and "Zorro" would give Fairbanks more artistic control and freedom to make movies as he wanted to. Playing Zorro would allow Fairbanks to dress up in costume, have sword fight scenes, Zorro is an excellent fencer, charm beautiful women and engage in high action stunts, jumping from balconies and horse riding. It would serve as a wonderful vehicle for Fairbanks and Fairbanks was the only man that could play such a character at that time in Hollywood.

To help things along the movie was directed by Fred Niblo, who also directed Fairbanks in "The Three Musketeers" (1921), Valentino in "Blood and Sand" (1922), Garbo in "The Temptress" (1926) and my personal choice for the greatest movie made in the decade, "Ben-Hur" (1925), a lavish epic starring Ramon Novarro. And written by Fairbanks himself and Eugene Miller.

"The Mark of Zorro" does not strike me as a great film however. It is an entertaining picture that has all the scenes necessary for a adventure story but not enough plot to carry the characters' action. The movie starts off with title cards explaining the oppression of the town and the surrounding which has lead to the existence of Zorro. The learn of the two villains in the movie, Sgt. Gonzales (Noah Berry) and Captain Ramon (Robert McKim). Gonzales is hell bent on killing Zorro and Ramon is determined to win the hand of the beautiful Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte), who her parents have arranged for her to marry Don Diego Vega (Fairbanks), the son of a nobleman. Don Diego is a lazy playboy who is afraid of sword fighting and only interested in magic tricks. Because of this Lolita is in love with Zorro because of his bravery. But what Lolita doesn't know is Don Diego and Zorro are the same person.

Zorro plans to rid the town of the corrupt government headed by Gov. Alvarado (George Periolat) which mistreats the peons.

That is pretty much it. "Zorro" sets up a nice stage but doesn't go for the kill by providing us with a more detailed plot. The movie was remade 20 years later at 20th Century Fox and starred Tyrone Power as Zorro. That movie was a vast improvement as it explained who Don Diego was. A rich boy sent to Spain by his father for a better education. While in Spain Don Diego is a great swordsmen. When he returns home to Los Angeles he sees things are not as he remembers them and witness the mistreatment of the peons. A defender is needed thus Zorro is born. In order to keep his identity a secret Don Diego decides to let the people of the town believe he is a coward.

"The Mark of Zorro" explains some of this in title cards, the remake actually has the intelligence to show us and the movie is only 14 minutes longer and improves the plot and the character motivations for everyone!

Still given the time period one must acknowledge the importance of "The Mark of Zorro". While I never considered Zorro a superhero, surely one can see the influence the character must have had on The Lone Ranger, Batman and The Shadow. As for the movie itself, it helped established the action genre establishing many of the cliches still in use today. It is all here. Watch this movie and then watch any modern action movie of your choice and I bet you can compare character types and notice similar situations.

For that we must give "The Mark of Zorro" our appreciation if not our outright affection. It has a place in the history of cinema. Still, I suggest you also watch the 1940 remake as well.