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From the Vaults: 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920)

May 10, 2010 |  5:55 am

ZorroposterOK, people, let's swash some buckles; I finally got around to Zorro this week. (And this will probably be my last 1920 film for a while. Larry advises he's moving on from there. Upcoming reviews will focus on films from 1940, 1960 and possibly even -- 1980?) Before Iron Man, before Batman, before all your "I'm a playboy by day and fight for justice at night" masked heroes that keep our blogging colleague Geoff so busy over at Hero Complex, there was Zorro. (Really Larry should be writing this post, having been honored recently for Zorro-like heroics, but, well, he's not.)

The character first appears in a 1919 short story called "The Curse of Capistrano," and in bringing him to the big screen, Douglas Fairbanks created something huge. Not only did he launch a massive film, TV and pop culture franchise in Zorro, he created a swashbuckling superstar persona for himself. After this, he went on to star in "Robin Hood," "The Three Musketeers," "The Thief of Bagdad" and many other hero-in-tights roles. 1920 was also the year he married Mary Pickford, so it was a good year to be Fairbanks.

This was my first Douglas Fairbanks movie and I have to say I was pretty surprised at first. I was expecting another stone cold fox like John Barrymore, and Fairbanks is one goofy-looking guy. He's not bad-looking at all, but I just kept thinking, "wait, THIS is Zorro? He doesn't even stand up straight." This Zorro is not about being all Antonio Banderas and pouty and beautiful. He's really kind of a goofball. I mean, look at the poster here...  Zorro's more interested in having a good laugh than looking good, as long as said laugh comes at the expense of oppressors. But then Fairbanks starts springing around with his rapier, jumping onto mantels and balconies, showing off his signature athletic ability. He's pretty impressive!

ZorroYou know the plot, or can guess it: California is at the mercy of a nasty governor, whose cronies oppress  priests, native people and attractive ladies. The only person his evil forces fear is the bandit Zorro, who interrupts their fun and carves his mark "Z" into their foreheads. (Much as the Phantom would leave his little skull-ring mark on his victims, years later -- oh, I'm the only person who likes "The Phantom," aren't I?) Nasty military personnel such as Sgt. Gonzales (Noah Beery) and Capt. Ramon (Robert McKim) run amok, while the local caballeros languish in aristocratic ease. Don Diego Vega seems like the most indolent caballero of them all, lying around complaining of fatigue and doing really stupid magic tricks. Little does anyone suspect he is really Zorro! (Don Diego will usually walk offscreen and a title card will say "About 10 minutes elapse," and then here comes Zorro.)

I loved how over-the-top worthless Fairbanks behaves as his Don Diego alter ego. Watching a silent film really is like watching a dance, and Fairbanks invests his whole body with the qualities of both roles; as Don Diego, he seems to weigh 20 extra pounds, shuffling across the room and slouching even more than usual. You'd never recognize him as Zorro if he didn't take off his mask in front of you early on; you can see why everyone's shocked by the big reveal at the end (oops, spoiler). You don't even fault his romantic interest, the lovely Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte), for not noticing they're the same man. She complains of Don Diego "He's not a man -- he's a fish!" and it's quite apt: his alter ego yawns and droops and stares into space while supposedly courting her. Zorro, meanwhile, dashes around rescuing her from villains and leaping over walls. Fairbanks makes it into a very Jekyll & Hyde role; he's playing two different people.

But unlike Jekyll's story, of course, Zorro's is most of all a comedy, and the best thing about this movie is how much it's just plain fun to sit and watch. Zorro's fights with the nasty government soldiers play like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. There's just enough genuine villainy, embodied by Capt. Ramon (boo! hiss!), to keep you invested, but the overall tone is effervescent fun, right up to Diego/Zorro's final magic trick. You can see why Zorro became an icon; it's a blast to sit back and watch it happen.

And Fairbanks is a cutie. Next time I'm at Hollywood Forever, I'll stop by his reflecting-pool monument and say hey.

Next week: Hm, did someone say Tod Slaughter?

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Photo: United Artists. Zorro protects fair Lolita from the unwanted advances of Capt. Ramon, who is evil but is wearing some really stupendous trousers.