It's no secret that the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is one of my favorite groups when it comes to the scoring and accompaniment of silent films. Their first DVD release of Buster Keaton's The General (review) was excellent and I was excited when I discovered that a second disc was in the works. This time they've scored The Mark of Zorro, one of Douglas Fairbank's most enjoyable pictures, and they've done their usual wonderful job.
Most people are familiar with the story of Zorro. The masked hero has appeared in dozens of movies, and a popular TV show produced by Disney. But his first screen appearance was in this 1920 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle.
In 19th century California the people are being oppressed. The appointed Spanish Governor rules with an iron fist. Native Indians are beaten for no reason, and even priests are tied up and whipped. But the people have someone on their side, the masked outlaw Zorro! The story starts with a Spanish solider brandishing a "Z" carved into his cheek. He was beating an Indian for no reason when Zorro appeared and scarred him. The sergeant in command, Pedro Gonzales (wonderfully played by Noah Beery) brags to the foppish Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks) that he'd like to meet Zorro face to face. Soon after Diego leaves someone suggests to Gonzales that if he beats a native, Zorro will surely arrive. True to the prediction, as soon as the Sergeant attacks an innocent Indian, Don Diego returns in the guise of Zorro. He locks the doors and windows and fights the rotund Gonzales leavening him marked with a "Z".
Back at home, Diego's father is disappointed in his idle and frivolous son. If he won't work, the least he can do is marry. So he sends Diego off to court Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte.) Though the bored Don Diego cannot get the fair Lolita interested in his handkerchief tricks or his latest hat, she is very interested in the dashing Zorro. Will Don Diego be able to win Lolita's heart, banish the corruption in California, and stay alive while doing it?
This one word that best describes this film is "fun." The action starts quickly and keeps on going, and the movie is liberally sprinkled with humor. When there isn't a sword fight or chase, Fairbanks is giving a wonderfully hilarious performance as the effete Don Diego. Another stand out performance was by Noah Beery as the pompous Sergeant Gonzales. He played the oafish sergeant with just the right amount of bravado and stupidity.
The direction is perfectly suited to the picture. It is fast and dynamic, keeping the film moving and didn't let it slow down. The director, Fred Niblo, would also direct Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers, and Valentino in Blood and Sand.
Though the acting was superb, and the direction was good, the main attraction to this movie is the action. There are some great sword fights, and breathtaking stunts. It's amazing to watch Fairbanks scamper up the side of a building and through the second story window as if it were nothing. He leaps and runs over the sets, all the while with a huge grin on his face. All of the buildings and surroundings were constructed to Fairbank's specifications, with hand holds just in the right places and everything tuned to his ample abilities. Even so, he makes the stunts look effortless, and that's the sign of a true master of his craft.
This film had a profound influence on heroic fiction, and still does today. Yes, this movie is based on a previously printed story, but the film was much more widely disseminated, and therefore had a larger impact. Many heroes that came after Zorro borrowed heavily from him. Mild mannered Clark (Superman) Kent and playboy millionaire Bruce (Batman) Wayne both come right from Don Diego, not to mention other heroes like the Green Hornet. The Lone Ranger was profoundly influenced by Zorro, and even Spider-man's witty banter in the middle of fights can be traced back to this film too. This movie is influential and entertaining, quiet a combination.
Although this is a disc produced and distributed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, it is a region-free DVD and not a DVD-R. It comes in a keepcase with a nicely illustrated cover.
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra does an absolutely wonderful job on the score to this film. I really enjoyed the piano score on Kino's earlier release of this film, but there's no comparison between a single piano and a five piece orchestra. This score fits the film beautifully, from Don Diego's introduction where the silence of a stranger entering a bar obscured by an umbrella is broken with some frivolous sounding music to the fast-paced songs used for the exciting chase at the end. The music always compliments the action on screen, but never overpowers it or distracts from the visuals. Needless to say, the members of Mont Alto are excellent musicians which makes this score all the more enjoyable to hear.
David Shepard provided the print used for this disc, and it looks very good. There are some scratches, dirt, and spots but the overall appearance is fine with a good amount of detail, great contrast and a generally clear and pleasing image. The film, sepia toned and tinted, was transferred at 20 fps (as opposed to the 24 fsp that the earlier Kino version uses) which is supposed to be more historically accurate. Luckily the chases and action scenes don't suffer from being a tad slower. The film is just as action packed as ever and in some areas the movements look more natural (though the chase at the end is still sped up due to undercranking.) The one area where this speed does improve the film is with Don Diego's jokes and frivolous nonsense. His handkerchief gags come across a bit better and his general demeanor is a bit more amusing at this slower speed. All in all this is a very nice looking disc.
This disc also features a commentary track with Rodney Sauer, pianist and orchestra leader for Mont Alto, John Tibbetts a professor of Film Studies at the University of Kansas as well as the author of biography of Fairbanks, and Denise Morrison, the host of the Kansas Silent Film Festival, commenting on the film. It's a lively and informative track and the contributors discuss Fairbanks and this film's place in his career, the changes made from the original story, and Mr. Sauer explains why he selected certain pieces of music for various scenes. I'm a big fan of commentaries by film scholars and this is a very good one.
There is also an image gallery of John Tibbetts' Fairbanks artwork, a Practical Guide to Silent Film Scoring, a four minute overview of just what is involved in adding music to a silent movie, a music cue subtitle track which gives the names and composers of the pieces used, and a trailer for Mont Alto's release of The General. Overall a solid set of bonus material.
This is a great Fairbanks film, full of excitement, comedy, and just the right amount of drama. This charming film is wonderfully accentuated by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra's score. Though the disc is only available through their web site, it's worth picking up as it's a quality production all the way around. Highly Recommended.