Douglas 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
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
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.
Another 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.