Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorron merkki / Zorros märke / (Il segno di Zorro) (dist: United Artists – US © 1920 Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation) Working titles: The Curse of Capistrano; The Black Fox D: Fred Niblo; SC: Elton Thomas [Douglas Fairbanks], Eugene Miller, based on the story by Johnston McCulley, “The Curse of Capistrano” (serialized 8-9.1919, All-Story Weekly); DP: William McGann, Harry [Harris] Thorpe; AD: Edward Langley; ass. D. (2nd unit): Theodore Reed; C: Douglas Fairbanks (Don Diego Vega / Señor Zorro), Marguerite De La Motte (Lolita Pulido), Robert McKim (Captain Juan Ramón), Noah Beery (Sergeant Pedro Gonzales), Charles Hill Mailes (Don Carlos Pulido), Claire McDowell (Doña Catalina Pulido), Snitz Edwards (innkeeper), Sydney [Sidney] De Grey (Don Alejandro), George Periolat (Governor Alvarado), Tote du Crow (Bernardo); NY opening: week of 29.11.1920; rel. 5.12.1920; orig. l: 8 rl.; DCP (from 35 mm, 8019 ft.), 107' (transferred at 20 fps); titles: ENG; print source: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi (Il canone rivisitato), with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Neil Brand, 6 Oct 2015

Tracey Goessel (GCM catalog and website): "When audiences in 1920 went to see The Mark of Zorro they knew they were in for a rip-roaring good time. But they did not know that they were going to see a film that was to ignite a wave of costume films, and totally re-engineer the career of its leading man, who, up to this point, had appeared only in modern-dress comedies."

"Fairbanks took the bold step of making a costume film when he was at a personal high point in his life. His divorce and remarriage to Mary Pickford had not ruined both their careers, as they had feared, but only increased his popularity. Upon his bride’s urging, he bought the rights to the pulp magazine story “The Curse of Capistrano” during their triumphant European honeymoon. Much has been written about the transition that Fairbanks made from “coat and tie” films to swashbucklers in the 1920s. Scholars all agree that the post-war psyche called for a new form of escapism, and point to a small but meaningful renaissance in the costume genre with the successful release of the German films Madame DuBarry and Anna Boleyn."

"But here the logic gets circular: DuBarry was not released in the United States until December 1920, and Boleyn was not seen on American shores until April 1921. And with Doug, intellect took second place to intuition. He demonstrated a pattern of following his gut instinct, and happily for his reputation and bottom line, his instinct was to be a reliable measure of the vox populi for the decade ahead. The scholars ell us why his decision was right for his time. But they do not tell us how he got there."

"Certainly, he had known for some time that a change was in order. When The Lamb was released in 1915, it took only a simple leap from a low slanting roof and a few fisticuffs to enchant audiences and critics. He had developed and enhanced the level of stunts in successive outings. The roduction value of his films had increased ten-fold; now floods and avalanches rained down upon the protagonists. But what had dazzled before was insufficient now. He had been aware of this since the reviews for Arizona (1918). His personality, they complained, was no substitute for good scripts."

"Fairbanks didn’t want to be just a personality; he wanted to be an actor. And the role he wanted to play, more than any other, was D’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers. But a period piece – a famous one, at that – would be both expensive (if done right) and risky. Accordingly, he took a careful, intermediate step. “I was a little timid and did not wish to risk The Three Musketeers, so I put out as a feeler another costume play, The Mark of Zorro,” he wrote two years later. Zorro’s location was Southern California. It would be no more costly to create sets for it than it had been for The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919), his last Paramount-Artcraft film."

"The gamble paid off. Zorro got everything right. The blend of humor and heroics remains the benchmark that other action films try to reach. The climactic chase was the epitome of the Fairbanksian series of escapes from the befuddled collective constabulary, and is extracted in film compilations even today."

"Zorro was to outlive his creators in the American psyche. The idea of the double-identity hero was not original to The Mark of Zorro, having first been seen at the turn of the century with The Scarlet Pimpernel. But a young Robert Kahn (later Bob Kane) had never seen the Pimpernel play or read the book. Still, like all little boys, he did go to the movies, and worshipped Douglas Fairbanks. It was Zorro, with its subterranean hideout, dual identities, and masked hero, that served as his inspiration for the creation of Batman." –Tracey Goessel

"The Mark of Zorro was the eleventh release by United Artists, set up the year before, and crowned a run of extraordinary box-office successes. Fairbanks’ embodiment of Johnston McCulley’s pulp fiction hero was to give the character an enduring life, perhaps unparalleled in cinema. In the intervening 95 years, Zorro (the name means “Fox”) has reappeared in more than 40 films in different languages, played by actors who have included Tyrone Power and Alain Delon (with recently reported plans for Gael García Bernal), as well as countless adaptations to other media. For its first audiences, the Mark of Zorro was still a historically themed film: Juan Bautista Alvarado, the Mexican Governor of California who figures as the villain of the film, was still a living memory, only 38 years after his death; but as the super-romantic hero, Zorro has survived history."

AA: I had never seen the original The Mark of Zorro before, the first period film of Douglas Fairbanks and the first film adaptation of the adventures of the Californian rebel hero. I very much like the remake of Rouben Mamoulian (1940, with Tyrone Power). The Legend of Zorro (2005, with Antonio Banderas) felt slightly uninspired despite top production values. Now the Fairbanks version is the one for me. It is one of Fairbanks's best.

Double roles are an actor's dream. Douglas Fairbanks gets to play the effete Don Diego Vega who often yawns, complains about fatigue, shows no interest in the beautiful Lolita, tinkers with his hat strings, and enjoys handkerchief tricks and shadow plays.

Nobody would expect him to be the athletic and intrepid Zorro who seems to appear like a ghost wherever there is injustice, especially when priests and natives are harassed. The worst offenders he brands with his "Z" mark on their faces. But he is also a romancer and serenader to Señorita Lolita.

Having seen both Uncle Tom's Cabin and October yesterday afternoon, associations run to both. A priest is being subjected to a public whipping; at night Zorro has the whipper himself whipped at the public stake. Zorro protects the oppressed, fights for justice and calls for revolution against the corrupt rule of Don Alejandro and his henchmen Captain Juan Ramón and Sergeant Pedro Gonzales.

In the finale Zorro is caught and his double life exposed. We now witness the electrifying transformation of the foppish Don Diego into a furious Zorro without a change into superhero costume. The final battle ends with the victory of justice. "Here your abuse of power ends". "He fights like Zorro"... "and I love like Zorro". We see the final handkerchief trick. It is lifted by the wind. In the last image Lolita's hands are visibly trembling.

The Mark of Zorro is an excellent action film full of the joy of movement. It also has elegic moments of deprivation and desperation, as well as scenes of the sadness and loneliness of Lolita. In the heart of the film is Fairbanks's profound sense of humour and self-irony. His aim is true, yet he always laughs at himself, and invites us to join him in the laughter.

Neil Brand at the grand piano provided the rousing action music with a flavour of Spanish fantasy, humour, and romance.

The viewing material was a digital representation of a print held at the George Eastman House, a black and white version of a film that has obviously had colour, often enough with a good visual quality, at times with a low contrast.

Exhilarating and engrossing.

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