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The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Mark_of_Zorro_1940In some ways, The Mark of Zorro looks an awful lot like 20th Century Fox was attempting to garner a little of the success achieved by the 1938 Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. Both are swashbuckling adventures with an outlaw on the side of the oppressed, sword fights, horse chases, a little romance, a little politics, general adventure with a good dose of humor, the hero climbing the balcony to woo his beloved, a confrontation between hero and Basil Rathbone. It even has three of the same actors: Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette and Montagu Love. But I must confess that as much as I have always enjoyed The Adventures of Robin Hood, I love The Mark of Zorro. It is a film that, despite many similarities, stands on its own as one of the most fun swashbucklers ever made.

One of the things I especially like about the film is the scope it gives Tyrone Power to play two different characters: dashing hero and lover, and affected fop…and they don’t skimp on the fop, either.

Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is at a military academy at Spain, but is called home by his father (Montagu Love), who is the Alcade (governor?) in California. But when he arrives home, he is shocked to find everything changed. His father has been forced out of office and replaced by the weaselly Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his bodyguard/enforcer Captain Estaban Pasquale (Basil Rathone), who is very fond if his sword and likes to swing it around for dramatic affect while speaking.

When Diego sees what has happened, he comes up with a quick plan not to reveal that he is actually a fine swordsman and instead pretends to everyone that he is a fop and dandy, too worried about his clothes and slight of hand tricks to concern himself with all the oppression and high taxes enforced by Quintero and Pasquale. His father, and especially his priest, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallete, in a role nearly identical to the one he play in The Adventures of Robin Hood) are disgusted with him, but Diego has a plan. Disguising himself as a bandit, he begins to prey on Quintero and his soldiers and to take back some of the stolen wealth from the peons (the name for the people at the bottom rung of society). However, his plan is not so much about helping peons, as it is about making California so hot for Quintero that Quintero will eventually leave for fear of his life.

Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell

Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell

And that’s what I really liked about The Mark of Zorro. The story not only gives him scope to ride about and fight, but also to scheme and machinate. Don Diego is fighting a two-front war single handed. While he is robbing, leaving his signature Z on every convenient surface, terrorizing Quintero and his cohorts, he is also trying to convince him, in the role of Don Diego, that the masked bandit is probably a madman who will end up cutting his throat. Meanwhile, he is flirting with Quintero’s wife, Inez (the magnificent Gale Sondergaard), who despises her uncouth husband and longs for the glamour and elegance of Madrid, a longing happily fueled by Don Diego.

At the same time, he has fallen in love with Quintero’s niece, Lolita (a very young Linda Darnell, still only 17 or 18), who has developed a crush on the masked bandit, but can’t stand the prissy and languid Diego.

One of my favorite scenes is at a small family party at the Quinteros to celebrate the arranged engagement between Diego and Lolita. Pasquale, a man who prides himself on his swordplay and virility and who has definitely been carrying on with Inez (one suspects they are the ones who propelled Quintero to his current position) is jealous of Diego, who has fascinated Inez with his talk of Madrid, court, fashion and pretty speeches. Inez is jealous of Lolita, because she is younger and engaged to Diego. Diego is trying to keep his flirtation with Inez up, while surreptitiously wooing Lolita (especially through a dance) and Lolita can barely tolerate to even sit next to him (except when they dance and he shows a spark of virility himself).

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone

The inevitable sword fight between Power and Rathbone is also excellent (poor Rathbone lost so many fights, one can’t help feeling a pang of sympathy and wish that he’d win one, just once, since he really is the superior fencer). The fight occurs  in a much smaller space than The Adventures of Robin Hood, less bouncy, but more personal, more face-to face and quite exciting.

The Mark of Zorro is a remake of the silent 1920 The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, but I do not know to what extant the 1940 version owes to the original. Does it have more in common with the silent film or The Adventures of Robin Hood? Does anyone know? The silent film is on my list of films I most want to see next.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Movies

 

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Casanova’s Big Night (1954) – Bob Hope Spoof of Swashbucklers

300px-Casanovas_Big_Night_1954_posterNobody can spoof a genre quite like Bon Hope. In My Favorite Brunette, he spoofs film noir, in My Favorite Blonde, it’s Hitchcock spy/thrillers. He spoofed westerns, gangster films, ghost stories and in Casanova’s Big Night, he aims at the swashbuckler.

Made in 1954 in glorious Technicolor, replete with extraordinary costumes of extraordinary color (the women’s costumes were by Edith Head, who must have had a ball, though Yvonne Wood probably wasn’t bored designing the men’s clothes, either), Casanova’s Big Night has an excellent cast who all look like they are having the most tremendously good time and might start laughing any minute.

Bob Hope is Pippo Popolino, Casanova’s tailor’s apprentice. He disguises himself as Casanova in the hope of stealing a kiss from one of Casanova’s paramours, the merchant grocer widow Francesca Bruni (Joan Fontaine – definitely looking like she would like to laugh at any moment). However, his ruse is discovered and the real Casanova appears (delightfully played by an uncredited Vincent Price). Casanova, it turns out, has not paid his bills in many months, even to his grocer/paramour, and although she does like his kisses, she would prefer her money. He tells her to bring all the merchants to his home the following morning and they will be paid.

Basil Rathbone, Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine

Basil Rathbone, Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine

The merchants arrive en masse to be let into the house by Casanova’s snaky valet, Lucio (Basil Rathbone), who says he hasn’t been paid in eighteen months, either. Lucio then discovers a note left by Casanova informing him that he has skipped town. At the same time, the Duchess of Castelbello has arrived from Genoa and she wants to hire Casanova to test the fidelity of her future daughter-in-law, Elena (Audrey Dalton). If he can steal her petticoat, then she has obviously been unfaithful. The merchants and Lucio see a perfect way to recoup their losses and talk Pippo into posing as Casanova and going to Venice – where Elena lives – to try and steal the petticoat. Francesca and Lucio will go with him, to guide and try to instruct him on how to be Casanova.

In brief moments, then (all too brief) who have a Pygmalion set up with Lucio and Francesca trying to mold Pippo into the shape they want him. But they fail miserably. As Lucio later tells him, “You will never be anyone other than Pippo Popolino and I can’t think of anything more insulting.” There is also a hilarious moment when Lucio, demonstrating with Francesca, shows Pippo how to kiss, how to fight and how, in extreme cases, to kiss and fight at the same time.

Once in Venice, Pippo discovers the trials of being Casanova. There is a rather complicated political situation going on, with the Doge of Venice (Arnold Moss) wanting to make war on Genoa. If Casanova were to steal the petticoat of Elena and the Duchess of Castelbello were to then break of the engagement of her son to Elena, then it would be an insult to Venice and the Doge could then go to war with Genoa. Meanwhile, the Doge’s sidekick, Foressi (John Carradine) is not convinced that Pippo is really Casanova and devises various tests for him, including a duel. And also meanwhile, Pippo has met Elena and finds that he cannot bring himself to ruin her reputation and refuses to steal her petticoat, despite the Doge’s offer to assist him any way he can.

Joan Fontaine and Bob Hope in drag - she keeps losing her moustache and he keeps losing his shape

Joan Fontaine and Bob Hope in drag – she keeps losing her moustache and he keeps losing his shape

Bob Hope’s persona was always that of a coward, with a good heart, who often lets the women do the heroic stuff that the guys usually do and Casanova’s Big Night is no exception. In the movie, it is actually Joan Fontaine who does most of the swashbuckling. She breaks into prison to rescue Pippo, she fences her way out of the prison while Pippo clutches his bundle of clothes, and when they jump into a gondola, she is the one to row them away. Pippo’s great talent is that he can sew.

And in an extension of this role reversal, when they crash the Doge’s party it is with Pippo dressed as a woman, while Francesca is dressed as a man. Francesca tries to get in touch with Elena while Pippo wangles a dance with the Doge, though the petticoat he stuffed down his dress to give him more shape keeps slipping.

Perhaps not exactly sophisticated or deep, Casanova’s Big Night has a high entertainment factor for me and I think one of the reasons is that the cast really does look like they are having a ball. It looks like so much fun to be in this movie, that I almost wished I could be, too.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Comedy

 

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) – Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock_Holmes_-_The_Man_with_the_Twisted_Lip

Sidney Paget’s illustration of Holmes for Strand Magazine for the story “The Man With the Twisted Lip”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes in two books: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, however, it was in his short stories that the character of Sherlock Holmes really became widely followed. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1892 and contains the first twelve short stories that he published in the Strand Magazine.

It was on my bookshelf (I got a very nice copy at a library book sale) and I decided that it was about time that I read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to counter the great diversity of Sherlock Holmes adaptations I had seen on screen.

What I chiefly noticed was how Sherlock Holmes seemed to me a man of so many parts that no actor has ever succeeded in fully portraying him. I think actors must choose a certain interpretation and stick with it, but Holmes in the stories has quite a few moods and personality quirks.

He was more amiable than I had expected him to be; he really does have pretty good people skills – not that he always uses them. He’s good at putting his clients at ease and drawing them out to tell him their full story. He seems, especially, to have a knack for putting his female clients at ease, with an almost gentle (perhaps not exactly gentle, but reassuring) interest in their concerns. Out of the twelve stories, he has five female clients. He even takes a slight interest in their welfare and can admire their courage and fortitude. Watson, however, expresses disappointment at the end of the final story in the book, “The Adventure of the Copper Beaches,” that Holmes’ interest in his client, Violet Hunter, ceases as soon as the case is over. Holmes also has, most famously, tremendous admiration for Irene Adler, who manages to outwit him in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

He also can alternate between tranquil cold logic and fanatical pursuit. Here is Watson’s description of him in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

Copp-03

Sidney Paget’s illustration for the Strand Magazine for the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beaches”

“Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon a scent as this. Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognize him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.”

Here is yet another side of Sherlock Holmes, from “The Red-headed League”

“All afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.”

Dr. Watson is also rather different in the stories; he’s a bit of a blank wall. We know he is married, sympathetic to other people’s problems, handy with his gun, game for all Holmes’ adventures, but his main purpose is to reflect light on Holmes. The stories he selects to tell – or that Doyle chose to write – are mostly meant to demonstrate Holmes’ incredible deductive powers, so he chose cases that were on the surface, simple or even trivial, arguing that more sensational cases are less interesting. In some of the cases, there isn’t even anything criminal going on, just dubious or mysterious. He shows how much he can learn from a man by just looking at his hat in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and demonstrates his ability more than once to determine the true identity of various people.

Sidney Paget's illustration for "The Five Orange Pips"

Sidney Paget’s illustration for “The Five Orange Pips”

I think I have decided that I am okay if my Sherlock Holmes film adaptations are not like the stories. I’ve seen at least seven different actors play him: John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Jonathan Pryce, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller. My favorites are Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch, for reasons that have very little to do with accuracy, since I have only just read any Sherlock Holmes stories. Basil Rathbone’s version is a lot of fun. And even though his Watson (Nigel Bruce) is not the brightest chap, their interactions are entertaining. His later Sherlock movies portray him practically as a superhero, friend of the people type. But that’s not entirely an inaccurate idea. In the stories, Holmes frequently takes matters of justice into his own hands, deciding the fate of people, quite apart from the police, and generally providing assistance and pretty much helping anyone who comes to him, regardless of finances or class.

I also really enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition of the character, even though his is a slightly more neurotic portrayal, and perhaps a little more emotional, but marvelously well done and he has excellent chemistry with Martin Freeman’s Watson. Jeremy Brett is the one usually considered the most accurate. I haven’t seen many of his; the one I did see, however, was extremely close to the story I had just read, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” but it was so extremely close that it was seemed literally to be word-for word. This might be an eccentric complaint, but I think that is actually too close for me. I want my movies to bring something new, otherwise I feel like I might as well just read the books. And it was well worth reading. I don’t know why it took me so long to actually get around to reading Doyle’s Holmes.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2014 in Fiction

 

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