Sunday, July 19, 2015

Film Review: The Mark of Zorro

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

Tyrone Power gives Douglas Fairbanks a run for his money as the masked bandit Zorro in the 20th Century Fox remake "The Mark of Zorro" (1940).

When I was growing up I had four favorite crime fighters. There was Dick Tracy, The Shadow, the Long Ranger and Zorro. Though I was never one to cheer the heroes in movies as a child Zorro was a character I found exciting.

When I think of Zorro two things come to mind and represent Zorro of  my childhood. One was Guy Williams in the role as part of the Walt Disney television series "Zorro" which ran from 1957 - 1959. The other Zorro I fondly remember is Tyrone Power in this movie. For me this remake of the original Douglas Fairbanks silent version also called "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) vastly improves the origin story of the character. Of course it is not even fair to make such a statement because the Fairbanks version gives the background story in inter-titles. It makes no attempt to visually show us how Zorro came to be Zorro.

Comparing the two versions should give one a greater appreciation of this movie though even if you haven't seen the original version this remake is still an entertaining picture which movie fans should enjoy watching regardless.

"The Mark of Zorro" was the beginning of 20th Century Fox billing Power as a swashbuckler instead of the romantic lead they had previously cast him as in movies such as "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) where he starred opposite Alice Faye in both pictures. "The Mark of Zorro" was such a success the studio would continue to cast him in more action movies: "The Black Swan" (1942), "Captain from Castile" (1947) and "Prince of Foxes" (1949).

In this version the movie starts off showing us a young Don Diego Vega (Power) in Madrid, where he was sent by his parents, to get an education. In Spain Don Diego becomes a great horseback rider and fencer. He is also known as something of a ladies man. However one day his father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), request Diego came back home to California, much to the disappointment of Diego, who sees a life in California as simple and dull.

Prior to Diego leaving for Spain, his father was the Alcalde of the town and was a well respected man but when Diego returns to California he hears nothing but horror stories from the townspeople who speak of the mistreatment they have endured from the Alcalde. One man says he was lashed 20 times for misspeaking, another we are told had his tongue cut off when complaining about the high taxes the poor have to pay. Diego has a hard time understanding how the citizens can say such awful things about his father.

It is only later, when going to what he believed was still his family's home, does Diego learn there is a new Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who along with Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), who serves as head of the army, have forced Don Alejandro to retire. The new Alcalde has no regard for the poor and heavily taxes them.

Diego, outraged by this injustice, decides to disguise himself as a bandit named Zorro (Spanish for fox) who will defend the rights of the people and force Don Luis to resign and reinstate Don Alejandro as the Alcalde.

In order to not bring suspicion to himself Diego hides his sword fighting and horse back riding abilities pretending to be a lazy nobleman who is disgusted at the thought of fighting and would much rather spend his time sleeping or doing magic tricks.

Zorro proves the be quite effective at scaring Don Luis though Captain Pasquale awaits the opportunity to sword fight Zorro and kill him.

Because of Zorro's plan to reinstate Don Alejandro, the Captain and Don Luis suspect Don Alejandro must be collaborating with Zorro and so the two men decide the arrange a marriage between Diego and Don Luis's niece Lolita (Linda Darnell). Diego has spoken to Lolita once before, when dressed as Zorro, and immediately fell in love with her. He gladly accepts the offer while Don Alejandro opposes such an arrangement joining the two families together. However Lolita is not attracted to Diego and is in love with Zorro.

"The Mark of Zorro", though not a comedy, has a sense of humor about it and creates situations which are comedic in nature. Diego, trying to escape from the Captain's troops, while dressed as Zorro, disguises himself as a priest while unknown to him, Lolita is praying in the same chapel and would like to speak to the father but Diego, even though dressed as a priest, can't help himself from making passes at Lolita.

Eugene Pallette, a popular character actor at the time, plays Father Felipe, who also disproves of the new government and constantly wishes harm to Don Luis and after his harsh words follows up with "God forgive me" while looking up at the heavens.

I find a lot of the supporting characters are just as much fun to watch as the lead characters. That was the way it was during the studio system. You had a lot of good character actors like Pallette, Edward Everette Horton, Eric Bore, Edna May Oliver and Eve Arden. They would often steal their scenes. Usually they played comic relief to the star of the picture. The studio would consistent put them in picture after picture that soon audiences would begin to recognize them and took just as much delight in seeing them as a star like Tyrone Power. "The Mark of Zorro" is no different. Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg and Gale Sondergaard, as Don Luis's wife, are all enjoyable to watch.

Unfortunately I didn't find much chemistry between Linda Darnell and Power. Separately I enjoy watching them but together you don't feel they are in love with one another. Instead it feels like we are watching two actors give separate performances even when they are in the same scene together.

You will also find some complain there is too much Don Diego and not enough Zorro. The movie almost gets the right balance but one or two more scenes with Zorro wouldn't have hurt in an attempt to build more suspense.

Like the 1920 version "The Mark of Zorro" is based on Johnson McCulley's "The Curse of Capistrano" written in 1919. This time around the screenplay was adapted by John Taintor Foote, who also wrote "The Story of Seabiscuit" (1949) with Shirley Temple. The movie's musical score by Alfred Newman received the movie's only Academy Award nomination.

The movie was directed by Rouben Mamoulian who did not direct too many movies but is best known for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931), "Love Me Tonight" (1932) and "Silk Stockings" (1957).

"The Mark of Zorro" does the best job of presenting the Zorro origins compared to many of the movie adaptations. Power was a good choice to play the character. I like the movie's playful sense of humor as well as several of the fencing scenes. Basil Rathbone actually did know how to fence. This, for me, will always be the definitive Zorro and take me back to my childhood.