Tag Archives: California

In Old California (1942)

in-old-california-1942I tend to think of John Wayne as a man of action, either in war movies or westerns. A somewhat rugged man, a man who is better at socking the bad guy than making a speech. In Old California is certainly a western, but Wayne plays a slightly different kind of character than usual. He is a pharmacist. An educated, gentlemanly man from Boston who takes on the rough and tumble men from Sacramento. Though he can also bend a coin with his thumb and is a remarkably good shot…which makes one wonder what he was doing in Boston when he wasn’t learning to be a druggist.

John Wayne is Tom Craig, a druggist looking to open a pharmacy in Sacramento. On his way there, he incurs the animus of Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), the local bully/would-be-land-owner who is bullying his way into wealth with a gun and a posse. Britt does have one redeeming feature, however. He is completely and sincerely nuts about saloon singer Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes). She is engaged to Britt, but is much taken with the more refined strength of Tom Craig.

When Dawson warns the inhabitants of Sacramento not to rent a building to Craig to set up shop, Lacey rents Craig her shack, with the promise of 50% of the profits. She then falls completely in love, though it takes Craig a while to realize it.

There are a number of subplots and plot twists in the film. There is the triangle between Britt, Lacey, and Craig. Another triangle between Craig, Lacey, and the pretty (but spoiled) debutante from San Francisco who catches Craig’s eye. There is Craig’s sidekick, Kegs McKeever (Edgar Kennedy), who becomes Craig’s sidekick after Craig uses some of his fancy pain killer to ease a raging toothache. Kegs himself has a (sort of) romance with Lacey’s gun-toting, sharpshooting maid (Patsy Kelly). And then there is Craig’s power struggle with Britt and his brother Joe Dawson (Dick Purcell).

There is even a gold strike, a fever epidemic, a gunfight on the plains of California, a barroom brawl, a murder by poison, several moments of slapstick comedy, and an attempted lynching. I was also pleased to note that Binnie Barnes’ slightly common saloon singer was able to rout her ingenue competition with aplomb. Very satisfying

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with a bag full of drugs

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with his bag full of drugs

I think I would describe this film as broadly comic and agreeable. At times it made me think of Destry Rides Again. The local bully engaged in a land grab, his saloon singer girlfriend, the outsider who is more gentlemanly, but still tough. But there is far more comedy than drama in In Old California and it has an easy-going, unpretentious charm. The cast is good (I am always happy to see Binnie Barnes in a film), but part of the fun is watching John Wayne in a different kind of role.

Apparently, John Wayne’s father really was a pharmacist and in the movie Wayne seems to be having a lot of fun with the role. He is quite believable as the educated, well-spoken and polite pharmacist. He never takes offense, he never overreacts, he’s never threatened when people assume he is not as tough as they are (he seems to have an inner assurance that he is, in fact, much tougher).

I confess I was not initially much of a John Wayne fan, but the more I see his films over the years, the more impressive he becomes. I guess I never appreciated how he was able to draw all the attention to himself without even trying. He sort of inhabits a scene, without having to come across as aggressive or in-your-face. Even in In Old California, he is distinctly non-aggressive compared to Dawson, but your eye still watches him.

It’s interesting, because earlier this year I watched a movie called The Life of Jimmy Dolan, made in 1933 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. John Wayne makes a brief appearance in the film and he’s so young and callow and had none of the effortless presence he developed later. I guess he just needed time. My sister and I sometimes joke that an actor (or actress) doesn’t truly become interesting until they’re 30.

Not exactly one of John Wayne’s best films, but there is something winning about In Old California. It has a unique charm, as does John Wayne.

Thanks so much to Hamlette’s Soliloquy and The Midnite Drive-In for hosting The John Wayne Blogathon! For all the other posts, click here.



Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Movies


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The Mark of Zorro (1920)

downloadDouglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro is simply delightful. I enjoyed it even more the second time I saw it. Irrepressible, joyously bouncy, mischievous humor, swashbuckling and acrobatic heroics – it’s hard not to laugh and smile throughout the entire movie.

The Mark of Zorro was adapted from Johnston McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano only one year after it’s publication. Evidently Mary Pickford, Fairbank’s wife at the time, suggested he turn it into a movie. I’m not exactly sure how faithful the movie is to the book, though I suspect not startlingly so (which isn’t a bad thing). But Fairbank’s film did provide the template for all future Zorro stories.

Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks) was educated in Spain and has been back in California for three months. His father is disgusted with him, saying his “blood has turned to water.” The only thing that seems to compel his interest are his magic tricks involving his handkerchief (“Have you seen this one?” he asks languidly). His father wants Diego to marry and figures the only woman who would be interested in his weak son would be an impoverished woman of noble blood.

But Diego is really Zorro, the mysterious masked bandit who rides about at night, punishing the soldiers who persecute the native people of California. His sworn mission is to free California of the oppression of Governor  Alvaredo (George Periolat) and his henchman, Captain Ramon (Robert McKim). He wants to rouse the caballeros into action by shaming them into doing their duty as men of noble blood (people are rather obsessed with noble blood in this film).

an awkward first meeting for Lolita and Diego

an awkward first meeting for Lolita and Diego

Meanwhile, his father’s plan to get Diego married proceeds apace. The Pulido family have been stripped of everything by the governor and need to repair their fortune, so Don Diego’s father and the parents of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte) attempt to arrange a union. Initially, Lolita is excited…until she meets Diego. He sits limply in a chair and yawns, uttering inane comments about how he will send a servant to sing under her window (she replies by saying she has a servant who adores music) while she makes faces of the utmost disgust. When he shows her one of his ubiquitous magic tricks, her reaction is priceless. “He’s not a man. He’s a fish!” is Lolita’s verdict after he leaves.

But not ten minutes after Diego leaves, Zorro shows up to do his own wooing and Lolita is remarkably receptive to a masked bandit singing poetry to her in her garden. while her parents send someone to tell Captain Ramon about the presence of Zorro (not apparently fearing for the safety of their daughter) in the hopes of being restored to favor. Captain Ramon turns out to be lecherous, however, and after Zorro leaves, poor Lolita has to listen to yet a third profession of love in the same day.

The rest of the film builds to an extremely entertaining finale involving a rescue (several rescues), sword fights and an extended scene where Zorro leads Ramon’s men on a merry chase through the town: over walls, up walls, through windows. He leaps and swings and even stops to have a bite of breakfast while the poor soldiers are left hopelessly in his dust. It all looks like the best fun in the world and provides a perfect showcase for what makes Douglas Fairbanks so irresistible.

Zorro and Captain Ramon have a face-off

Zorro and Captain Ramon have a face-off

Fairbanks has a great deal of fun as Diego, too. He yawns, constantly fatigued and languid, and looks out from under hooded, sleepy eyes, only to grin ruefully (and with a twinkle of sly intelligence) whenever people react with disgust to him. The contrast between Diego and the energetic, joyous Zorro makes for one of the best contrasts in character I’ve seen in a Zorro film (or in any story featuring a character with a secret identity).

It’s also a fun role for Marguerite De La Motte. Douglas Fairbanks’ leading ladies do not generally have the most interesting roles, but Lolita is one of the better ones. She doesn’t get to do anything heroic, but she’s fun, highly expressive and lively (and her expressions of disgust are a panic).

I’ve discovered that with silent films (at least non-Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd comedies), it can take me several viewings to fully appreciate them. Silent films grow on me, possibly because I notice more each time I watch. I am reading Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (an excellent and highly readable biography) and she discussed how one can miss little actions in silent films. Modern audiences are used to dialogue and music to direct are attention, whereas in silent films, little bits of business can occur quickly without our noticing. For example, when Diego first comes to call on the Pulido family, he does not intend to stay long. While he is greeting them all, different people keep trying to take his hat. The hat has a long tie attached to it and whenever they lay his hat down, he twitches it back…until he sees Lolita and then he lets them finally take the hat. It’s all done beneath the surface. It’s not flaunted; it’s simply happening while he’s talking. I didn’t notice the first time I saw the film, but it’s very amusingly done and nicely illustrates that he’s impressed with Lolita, even though he goes out of his way to demonstrate that he isn’t.

Mark 4Another thing I liked about the film is the finale, where the reveal of his identity is saved for the very end (even thought it should be entirely obvious to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds). But it’s dramatically satisfying as Diego finally loses his Diego lethargy and morphs into Zorro before everyone’s astonished eyes.

The version I watched was a Kino release and the piano score by Jon G. Mirsalis suits the action well. Since Douglas Fairbanks was never into doing romantic scenes, the romantic music for those scenes heightens the romance, as well as has a habit of getting stuck in my head.

According to Tracey Goessel, Fairbanks Zorro character influenced several creators of superheros. Bob Kane got the idea of the bat cave from Zorro’s hidden cave and Superman was partly modeled after Fairbanks, as well. In many ways, one could argue that Douglas Fairbanks was the first superhero.


Posted by on April 20, 2016 in Movies


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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.


Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Movies


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