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The Mark of Zorro

The Mark of Zorro
Fox Home Entertainment
1940 / B&W/ 1:37 flat full frame / 94 min. / Street Date October 7, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Eugene Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg, Montagu Love, Janet Beecher, George Regas, Chris-Pin Martin
Cinematography Arthur Miller
Art Direction Richard Day. Joseph C. Wright
Film Editor Robert Bischoff
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by John Taintor Foote and Garrett Fort
Produced by Raymond Griffith, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This favorite swashbuckler is actually an overachieving Fox studio picture designed to maximize Darryl Zanuck's revenue from his top star Tyrone Power. In B&W and actually done rather on the cheap, it has little in common with The Adventures of Robin Hood in terms of production, but shares some talent in common: actors Basil Rathbone and Eugene Pallette, and the same ace fencing coach. Progressive studio director Rouben Mamoulian leaves the experimentation behind on this one and just does his best to outdo Douglas Fairbanks. He'll catch up with his color research on his next Power pic, Blood and Sand.


Summoned back to California from Madrid, young Don Diego de la Vega (Tyrone Power) finds his father's governorship stolen by corrupt thief Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), the bumbling puppet of Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). To rectify the situation, Don Diego takes on the secret identity of Zorro while posing by daytime as a fop, much to the disgust of both his father and a possible matrimonial partner, the lovely Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell). But with the help of Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette), Don Diego starts a reign of terror guaranteed to put things right in Old Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles.

Good old Zorro has been a perennial throughout film history; almost any Zorro picture is guaranteed a minimal number of thrills and laughs, including Dreamworks' effort from 1998. It's pretty much a ripoff of this best-remembered tale of Don Diego de la Vega, a 1940 gem that never ceases to please.

The picture is fun from one end to the other. Tyrone Power has a field day as the 19th-century Castilian who masquerades as a limp-wristed 'fop.' He's so good at being a fop that he makes foppery come off as attractive. Here's a Clark Kent variation that actually has some drawbacks. The girl of his dreams goes for his alter-ego Zorro, the masked avenger who can't show his face. But undercover as the perfume-loving Don Diego, the same man makes her skin crawl.

A costume drama can be straight to the point of numbness or have a sense of humor about itself. The Mark of Zorro has a lot of good-natured fun with the sword'n snuff-box genre. The rigid society is revealed as corrupt, with an idiot mayor being cuckolded by his wife and his own partner and crime. The mayor's luscious daughter Lolita (LDL) looks to Don Diego for a romantic way out, and eventually gets it. In this story the forces of good as represented by Don Diego's disapproving father are too stiff and humorless, so Zorro's main contribution is to lighten things up while raising havoc with the authorities. Naturally, he has to fool everyone with his helpless daffodil act, even his allies. The fun is anticipating when he'll finally come out from behind the mask, so we can see the shock in the faces of friend and foe alike.

The Mark of Zorro isn't the general entertainment machine that Robin Hood is, but it has some subtle touches of its own that Flynn's broad strokes can't quite touch. Don Diego is a sensitive guy, and we watch his face for signs that his masquerade is cracking. He's also more of a risk-taker than Robin, as he's basically one man alone against the valid authorities, a vigilante cast from the same mold as the now-generic comic book hero type celebrated in Watchmen. To right wrongs he has to galvanize the public against a tyrant and fight from the inside as well. This is done on rooftops and on horseback, but also at the dining table. Power and Darnell have a fantastic (and authentic) dance scene that's one of the best of its kind on film. Darnell is charmed by his new Madrid dance moves, and also probably his tight Chinos. With the certifiably dashing Tyrone on camera, we do get a sense that what we're seeing is the height of cool, circa 1820.

The setting is Los Angeles and the writers resist the opportunity to make jokes - there's no scene in the La Brea Tar Pits, and Zorro doesn't get a star on a fresh sidewalk anywhere. But there is a sense of history, of the Spanish California ruled by land grants and quiet order. There are lots of swarthy-looking Mexican stereotypes around to make the Castilian silver-saddle class look all the more classy. Once again, modern audiences have to wonder at the big celebrations at the end of the various versions of Zorro - victory basically puts all power back into the hands of a few elitist land barons. I'd like to know exactly how all that property changed hands after the 1848 U.S. takeover.

The Mark of Zorro has great action, including some of the best fencing scenes ever. Mamoulian undercranks them a little too much, as a few moments seem far too sped up. But overall the intricacy and flourish of the fighting wasn't bettered until 1995's Rob Roy. Basil Rathbone once again gets skewered while using his superior fencing skills to make a matinee idol look good.

I have a back story for one action scene. Pursued at night, Zorro escapes by making his horse jump off a bridge into a roaring river. The horse leaps the rail and falls, legs stiff, at least twenty feet. It looks incredible, all in one shot. Just the year before Fox had impressed the fans and probably killed a couple of horses with an wild leap from a cliff in Jesse James; here the feat was accomplished with unique trickery.

The horse was trained on the bridge set, which was initially built with an additional circular ramp leading from the center of the span back to land. The stuntman ran the horse out, and showed him how to use the ramp. As the horse became more accustomed to the route, a rail was raised for the horse to first step and finally jump over. When it came time to shoot the scene, a day-for-night shot, the ramp was removed. The rider brought the horse onto the bridge and over the rail as he always had, and whoops - no ramp. I hope the horse didn't snap a leg or its neck from shock as it went down. I believe the wicked stunt rates a special chapter of Evil in the annals of the ASPCA, as a dirty trick played on a victim of the equine persuasion.

Fox's Studio Classics edition of The Mark of Zorro is a fine disc with unusually rich audio. Some night scenes are a little dark and contrasty and dirty too, as if a bad reel had to be replaced.

Richard Shickel provides an okay commentary that rambles on about many a subject while giving us the rundown on Fox, Darryl Zanuck, Mamoulian, and Power. The main extra is a Biography piece on Tyrone Power that appropriately soft-peddles (ok, Avie?) Power's sexuality situation, and has a big emotional kick at the end with his shocking, early death. Many of Tyrone's films are covered, and I was looking forward to seeing coverage on Jesse James and The Captain from Castille. Both were big hits and Castille was a top production. The omission was a little disturbing. Castille really deserves rescue as a Studio Classics presentation, along with The Gang's All Here. Whattaya say, Fox?

The docu contains a little gag outtake bit where Zorro slashes not a 'Z' but 'DZ' into some coach upholstery. A frightened passenger shouts in fear, "Zanuck!" and Power says 'Dammit!' The gag is great - and was saved because it was tacked on to the 35mm nitrate studio print we had at UCLA. Every time we showed the film, it popped up at the end for a big laugh.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Mark of Zorro rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Bio Doc on Tyrone Power, Commentary by Richard Shickel
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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