16 October, 2014

The Mark Of Zorro

His three-cut signature – the letter Z – is unmistakable.  It’s the sign of The Fox.  The calling card of the masked avenger we cheer as Zorro!

His creator, Johnston McCulley, started as a crime reporter for “The Police Gazette” and served in Army Public Affairs in World War I.  A history buff, he would go on to write hundreds of stories, fifty novels and numerous screenplays for movies and TV, often using the rough and romantic Southern California Desert as his backdrop.  And it was in 1919 that he first introduced us to his most famous character, in a serialized story appearing in the pulp magazine “All-Story Weekly.”

The black costume with the flowing cape, the cowl mask under the flat-brimmed sombrero, the sword in one hand and bullwhip in the other;  mounted on his trusted steed Tornado, he is the heroic vigilante fighting for the people of El Pueblo De Los Angeles!

Of course, he started as a curse. 

Let me explain.

It was in that ‘All-Story Weekly’ Pulp that McCulley unleashed ‘The Curse of Capistrano.’  Don Diego Vega is Señor Zorro avenging the oppressed townspeople.  Well, it’s our hero who’s dubbed “The Curse” by the evil Captain Ramon and The Noblemen.  Of course, in the end, our hero thwarts the aristocrats, romances the beautiful Lolita Pulido, and frees the good people of the town to live to fight another day.

But who is he?  To begin, is Zorro Spanish or Mexican?  The simplest answer is McCulley created the character as “of Mexican heritage” who is educated in Spain before returning to California in the 1820s.  Don Diego Vega (later De La Vega) / Zorro has appeared in several incarnations, from stories to radio to comics to features to television and, of course, things change.  Interestingly, the fox – zorro is Spanish for Fox – is never depicted as an emblem but rather a metaphor for the character's cunning.  McCulley's concept of a band of men helping Zorro, for instance, is often absent from other versions;  a significant exception is the Serial ‘Zorro’s Fighting Legion’ (1939).  In the original stories, Zorro is aided by a deaf-mute named Bernardo.  In Disney’s TV Series (1957), Bernardo is not deaf but pretends to be, serving as a spy.  The Family Channel’s TV Series (1990) replaces Bernardo with a teenager named Felipe, but with a similar disability and pretense.  The two Antonio Banderas features (1998 & 2005) reintroduced the character to a wide modern audience -- the first, by the way, is very good -- and in 2009 a popular TV Series in – wait for it – The Philippines began, continuing 95 years of the Spanish-Mexican-California hero.

Ah, but is he fact or fiction?  Well – fact? – the historical figure most often associated with the Zorro character is Joaquin Murrieta, a miner turned outlaw during The California Gold Rush.  Opinions on why he became an outlaw vary, not unlike our old friend Jesse James.  He's also – fiction? – widely regarded – significantly due to an 1854 dime novel by John Rollin Ridge – as The Mexican Robin Hood.  (None other than William Wellman told the story in his 1936 film ‘The Robin Hood Of El Dorado’ and – for you close-watching fans – yes, that’s why Antonio Banderas’ character’s name is Murrieta.)  The character of Zorro certainly resembles Robin Hood, is a direct literary descendent of Orczy’s ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (1903), and is a rather obvious ancestor to Batman (first appearing in the comics in 1939);  in fact, in several iterations of the Wayne murders, it’s our film today that Thomas and Martha took young Bruce to see that fateful night.  But I digress … 

While the pulp magazines and even an early Serial (1919’s ‘The Masked Rider’) continued to evolve similar ideas, the most significant version – without question – came in the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks silent ‘The Mark Of Zorro.’  Adapted directly from 'The Curse Of Capistrano,' it was produced by Fairbanks for his own production company and was the first film released through United Artists, the company co-formed with what’s-her-name, what’s-his-name and what’s-his-name.  An unparalleled success – think the original ‘Star Wars’ when it came out – Fairbanks’ ‘Mark’ is indeed genre defining, birthing the likes of Errol Flynn and, sure, Tyrone Power (did you think we’d forgotten about him here?).  The original 1920 New York Times review wrote, “[Fairbanks’] Señor Zorro [is] an alert and mysterious avenger of the people’s wrongs … with a sure sword, a swift horse and a sense of humor.  Certainly there are moments in the motion picture which must delight anyone … There is a duel scene, for example, which is something distinctly original in the history of mortal combat on the stage or screen, and there are spirited races and pursuits, sudden appearances, quick changes, and flashes of tempestuous love-making that are typically, and entertainingly, Fairbanksian.”

And it wouldn’t be touched – much less matched – for twenty years.

'The Mark Of Zorro' (1940)
w John Taintor Foote, Garrett Fort & Bess Meredyth
d Rouben Mamoulian

Okay let’s start, simply, with how great this movie is.  Not how great this movie was then – our version today was first released nearly 75 years ago – but how great this movie is.

And let’s take a moment to appreciate how difficult this genre is:  High Adventure.  Not straight Action (let’s say ‘The Terminator’) or straight Drama (‘The Godfather’) or even straight Comedy (‘Airplane’) but a tightrope-balanced blend of all three.  Because they’re brutal to make work, and the easiest to make badly.  As the saying goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”  Well, I think High Adventure runs right alongside.  When it’s done right, it’s gold.  Flynn’s ‘Desperate Journey’ – which you can read about in his Top 5 – and one of its grandchildren, ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark,’ are perfect examples.

And so is this ‘Mark Of Zorro.’  You can’t help but have fun watching it.  In fact, that’s one of the marks of High Adventure, how much fun it is.  (Either to help or confuse you even more, let’s try these two films.  ‘Jaws,’ as much fun as it is, I wouldn’t call High Adventure while ‘Die Hard,’ as action-packed as it is, I would.  Point being …)  We’re not all that worried that Diego won’t succeed.  The swordplay and horse-chases, natch, the melodrama, sure, wooing the beautiful maiden, you bet.  Even the well-peppered comedy.  Because all of it’s in the same well-balanced tone.   And – as in any genre but key in High Adventure – cradling tone is crucial.

(Speaking just briefly on its comedy, sure, there’s Ty doing Diego’s dandy alter ego – “My bath was too tepid!” – but I do still laugh out loud when he and Lolita are in the chapel, he shrouded in the cloak, she leans to get a better view, and he simply leans further out of her way;  so simple but it still works.)

Travel back to the days when swashbuckling was serious business, when boyish adventure films still had their innocence, and the bravado of thrilling stunt work was all a movie needed in the way of special effects.  Even if its major sets and vistas have a backlot artificiality, it’s eagerly embraced, as there’s nothing phony about the vigorous exertion on which Ty, Cast & Crew thrive.  What more can be said for, simply, one of the great adventure classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age?  As Janet Maslin wrote for The L.A. Times, “[Tyrone Power] does it all so showstoppingly that the film's appeal extends well beyond boyish action-adventure with his Zorro shaped most endearingly into a hero worthy of mask, steed, mission and the works.”


Touching on the Behind-The-Scenes as I do, let’s start today with our first writer, John Taintor Foote.  More a Novelist & Playwright by trade, he’s best known as a Screenwriter for our film today though, interestingly, there’s an even more famous movie he's part of:  Ben Hecht’s screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ was based on Foote’s story ‘The Song Of The Dragon.’  (More on Hecht in our next entry as he co-wrote 'The Black Swan.'  And as an extra tidbit?  Foote now rests in the same cemetery as Ty.)  Our second writer, Garrett Fort, is a name that might ring a bell to you horror fans.  He was as prominent in Silents as well as Talkies, significantly with ‘Applause’ (1929), also directed by today’s Rouben Mamoulian;  that film notable because it was one of the first to take all that bulky sound equipment out of the studio and onto the streets of Manhattan.   Oh and for you comedy fans?  He did 'Panama Lady' with Lucille Ball.  But what about the horror?  Yes, he’s the guy that brought us ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and ‘Dracula’s Daughter.’  Our third writer, Bess Meredyth – née Helen Elizabeth MacGlashen – was a prolific Writer, more so than most men around her;  155 credits from 1910 through the mid-40s;  and she even acted in the early teens.  She was one of the thirty-six founders of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and – wait for it – married Michael Curtiz.  And holding the reins through all this high Californian adventure?  Rouben Mamoulian;  a name you might not recognize, but you sure know his work:  with Garbo (‘Queen Christina’), Fred Astaire & Cyd Charise (‘Silk Stockings’), William Holden (‘Golden Boy’) and our two leads today – Ty and Linda Darnell – in their reunion, ‘Blood And Sand.’  Oh and he started the Elizabeth Taylor ‘Cleopatra’ before being replaced by Joseph Mankiewicz.

Let’s continue with our lovely lead today, Miss Linda Darnell.  While we premiered this latest Top 5 with ‘Jesse James’ on Ty’s birthday, here we are chatting ‘Zorro’ on hers.  Born Monetta Eloyse Darnell on 16 October, 1923, she was often called “The Girl With The Perfect Face” (and one of her best friends was Lana Turner).  And for you math whizzes, yep, she’s only 17 years old in our film today.  But that’s not her early start.  At 11 she was already modeling – giving her age as 16 – and at 13 she appeared on the stage.  Hollywood tried to sign her but found out she was only 13 and made her wait two years.  (Isn’t that nice of them?)  So it was ‘Hotel For Women’ (released 1940, shot when she was only 15) that made a name for her as (she’s too monikered) “The Youngest Leading Lady In Hollywood History.”   (See some photos of her in that and ‘Day-Time Wife.’  Admittedly, she doesn’t look like a kid.)  Sharing the screen with our boy Ty wasn’t new either, as they were together in ‘Day-Time Wife’ and would be again in ‘Brigham Young’ and ‘Blood And Sand.’  Perhaps best known for either ‘Zorro’ or the John Ford classic ‘My Darling Clementine,’ she stunned us in over fifty roles (46 features), her early rise sadly meeting an early end.  In 1965, when she was only 41, she was caught in a house fire in Glenview, Illinois and would die in the hospital a day later.  (So the story goes, she had just watched one of her own, ‘Star Dust,’ before falling forever asleep.)

I’d be remiss to not at least mention Gale Sondergaard – our Inez Quintero today – mostly because by now you must expect I’ll make some link to Bob Hope.  Well, Ms. Sondegaard made three films with him, ‘The Cat And The Canary’ (which you can read about in his Top 5), ‘My Favorite Blonde’ and ‘The Road To Rio.’   

Interestingly, there are a few links to another great swashbuckler in these Top 5s, Errol Flynn’s classic ‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood.’  First, our Co-Writer today, Bess Meredyth, was married to that Director, Michael Curtiz.  Our Don Alejandro Vega – actor Montagu Love – is also in that film.  And, remember, like this ‘Zorro,’ that film was a remake of a Douglas Fairbanks classic, though, while they couldn’t use the original story material, here they could, re-adapting McCulley’s ‘Curse.’  And?  Both Flynn’s ‘Robin’ and Ty’s ‘Diego’ are up against the wonderfully sinister Basil Rathbone.

I was indeed remiss to not single him out in ‘Robin Hood’ (or in Danny Kaye’s ‘Court Jester’) so I must here.  Born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in 1892 in Johannesburg, South Africa to English parents, his father was – wait for it – labeled a spy by The Boers and the family fled to London.  Not enough of a start for you?  How about he’s the cousin of Major Henry Rathbone who was wounded chasing John Wilkes Booth after President Lincoln’s assassination.  If you have so much as an inkling, do find more on dear old Basil.  There really is some great stuff on top of his films:  he won a Tony, was nominated for two Oscars (interestingly losing both to Walter Brennan) and has three stars on The Hollywood Walk Of Fame.  And then there’s his real life heroism, in which, for “conspicuous daring and resource on patrol” during World War I, he was awarded The Military Cross.  Oh and for fun?  Like Ty, Mr. Rathbone was an honest to God fencing champion (and he’s often said Ty was the best fencer he ever faced).  Of course, he’s best known for portraying the sleuth, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, in fourteen features.  A little more Bob Hope?  All right.  Mr. Rathbone appeared opposite “The Nose” in ‘Casanova’s Big Night’ and his wife, Ouida Rathbone, developed a reputation for hosting elaborate, expensive parties in their home.  So well known and coveted were these that there’s the great throwaway in Hope’s ‘The Ghost Breakers’ during the New York thunderstorm:  “Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party!”

And I’ll use Mr. Rathbone to take us back to today’s film.  If there’s one thing that irks me in this ‘Zorro,’ it’s Rathbone's demise.  Not that he does – hey, our hero has to win – but when he does, that’s really the end of the film.  Or feels like it is.  After all, he’s the one we’re waiting Ty to face, to fight, so once he’s gone, we’re left handling a deflated balloon.  Sure, we need to wrap things up – the townspeople taking control again, returning power from Don Quintero back to Don Vega, Diego’s reunion with Lolita – but – for such a great High Adventure film such as this – with Rathbone’s extinguish, our blade dulls.  Is it wrong?  No.  Is it bad?  No, it just irks me.  To parallel the complete other end of the spectrum, almost the perfect example of post-climax wrap-up is Hitchcock’s ‘North By Northwest.’  From Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clinging by their fingertips to “The End?”  Clock it, it’ll shock you.  And look how much story Screenwriter Ernest Lehman and Hitch wrap up there!  (But I digress …)

In 1940, our old friend Bosley Crowther wrote, in part, “It has been just twenty years since the late Douglas Fairbanks, in all his glory, was thundering across the screens of the land, flashing his blade and boldly inscribing jagged Zs upon all and sundry.  Yes, twenty long years it has been, and we who were young then have grown older, and many who weren't even born are now financially responsible movie-goers.  So Twentieth Century-Fox reasoned wisely when it decided to remake this romantic thriller, this fabulous cinematic gasconade.  Director Rouben Mamoulian has kept the picture in the spirit of romantic make believe, with a lot of elegant trifling, some highly fantastic fights and flights, and one jim-dandy duel between Mr. Power and the villainous Basil Rathbone, which ends about as juicily as any one could wish.  To carry a torch as bright as Fairbanks is nothing easy, but Power et al carry it well, bounding along at a lively, exciting clip, the way all extravagant fictions should.  Sergeant, turn out the guard! Zorro—or perhaps his son—is somewhere on the grounds, again!”

                 Up next?  Ty takes a cutlass to the seven seas in Rafael Sabatini’s ‘The Black Swan!’

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