A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920)

Film firsts are usually worth checking out, and this one is a double first: It's the first appearance of the title character on-screen, and it's the first of the genre of films for which Fairbanks remains best-known, the swashbuckler. Since Fairbanks and co-scenarist Eugene Miller adapted Johnston McCulley's 1919 magazine story, "The Curse of Capistrano," the masked hero has been played by Tyrone Power, Guy Williams (in the Disney TV series), Frank Langella, George Hamilton (in a spoof featuring Zorro's gay twin brother), Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas (as the aging Zorro and his hand-picked successor), and appeared in numerous Mexican and European films, including one starring Alain Delon. The trope of the do-gooder who pretends to be a wimp but turns into a force for justice when he hides his identity behind a mask is seen in countless superhero tales, most notably the Clark Kent/Superman story. As the languid fop Don Diego Vega, Fairbanks affects a weary slouch and spends his time doing tricks that involve a handkerchief. When he turns into Zorro, with mask and scarf over his head, he pastes on a little mustache oddly reminiscent of Boris Badenov, but he succeeds in taking on the villains with great élan. The film itself begins slowly, with too much exposition crammed into the intertitles, but eventually Fairbanks gets his act together, and the climax of the movie is a hilarious showpiece for his acrobatic moves. He leads the Capistrano constabulary on a merry chase over walls and across rooftops, inevitably tempting them into disaster: He leaps over a pigsty, for example, whereupon the pursuers fall into it. At the end, revealing his secret identity, he wins the hand of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte), by saving her family's estate from the clutches of the evil governor (George Periolat) and his henchmen, Capitán Juan Ramon (Robert McKim) and Sgt. Pedro Gonzales (Noah Beery), both of whom get branded with the emblematic Z (though the sergeant gets his only in the seat of his pants). Good fun, once it gets going.