Hollywood classics don’t have to be stuffy — this 1940 swashbuckling adventure has style, great action, laughs and one of the most attractive screen couples of their day, Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. And that’s not mentioning a superb fencing match, a great, quaint Spanish dance, and a smart cast directed by Rouben Mamoulian at his best. This German import is fully compatible with U.S. players.
The Mark of Zorro
Im Zeichen des Zorro
All-Region Blu-ray Special Edition
Explosive Media GmbH
1940 / B&W/colorized / 1:37 Academy / 94 min. / Im Zeichen des Zorro / Street Date September 27, 2018 / Available through Amazon.de / EUR 15,99
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
Film Editor: Robert Bischoff
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Written by John Taintor Foote, Garrett Fort
Produced by Raymond Griffith, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
“I am off to California, where a man may only marry, raise fat children, and watch his vineyards grow.”
Still one of the best adventure films to come out of Golden Hollywood, Rouben Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro was personally overseen by Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, the 20th-Fox mogul with perhaps the best instinct for story construction. He earned the respect of his directors even as he retained editorial control over their work: only he had final cut. Zanuck also made sure he was getting full value from his acting talent — a top star like Tyrone power made the predictable romantic and adventure films Zanuck wanted made. Zanuck developed top female talent but also discarded them as soon as he felt they were slipping.
A remake of a famous silent swashbuckler, The Mark of Zorro is an overachieving studio picture designed to maximize Darryl Zanuck’s revenue from his top star Tyrone Power. Although often compared to Warners’ The Adventures of Robin Hood it’s actually a medium-tier production, filmed relatively cheaply in B&W. Zorro does share some acting talent in common with Robin Hood: Basil Rathbone, Montague Love and Eugene Pallette, as well as 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. It’s possible that Mamoulian’s reward for Zorro’s success was the directorship of the next Tyrone Power picture, the lavish Technicolor period piece Blood and Sand.
The screenplay by John Taintor Foote, Garrett Fort returns to the popular Zorro character, a fictional outgrowth (some say) of the real life ‘Robin Hood of the West,’ bandit Joaquin Murrieta. His fictionalized story was told in the grim Warners movie (1936), which emphasized the appalling anti- Mexican-American hatred of the California Gold Rush Days. The Zorro fantasy takes place fifty years or so earlier, to imagine a generic power struggle in the Spanish colonial territory. Summoned back to California from a military academy in Madrid, the dashing young Don Diego de la Vega (Tyrone Power) arrives in Old Los Angeles to find his father’s governorship stolen by corrupt thief Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), the bumbling puppet of the venal Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Don Diego can’t fight the colonial military in the open, so he adopts a tricky secret identity, or actually, two secret identities. He assumes the superhero-like mask and cape of Zorro (‘the fox’) to terrorize Alcalde Quintero and frustrate Captain Estaban’s work extorting tax revenue from the peons.
Nobody suspects that the newly-arrived Caballero Don Diego is Zorro, because they think he’s a ‘fop’ — not necessarily gay, just extremely non-masculine. Don Diego frets and faints, waving his handkerchief about and feigning distress at the thought of politics or violence. As such Don Diego disgusts his father Don Alejandro Vega (Montague Love), the leader of the landholding Caballeros that have lost power. Alejandro doesn’t realize that his ‘useless’ son is secretly fomenting an elitist rebellion against Quintero and Pasquale’s tyranny.
Don Diego’s foppery is played for laughs, a gag familiar from costume dramas with frilly costumes and powdered hair. It’s a safe way of laughing at typed gay mannerisms, which might have offense potential just the same. It’s firmly established that Don Diego is a Macho from Madrid. He’s secretly dismayed that his disguise forces him to displease Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell), the woman of his dreams. The daughter of his enemy Don Luis Quintero. Lolita blanches at thought of marrying the sexless Diego — her father and Esteban Pasquale suggest the idea to solidify their power over the Caballeros.
Even more dismayed by Don Diego is the fighting priest Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette), who wishes that angels with flaming swords would descend to return Los Angeles to an Oligarchy. Fray Filipe, Don Alejandro and even Esteban Pasqualte look for new words to insult the faint-hearted Don Diego. Little do they know that he’s racing about on a jet black mare, igniting a reign of terror guaranteed to put things right in Old Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles.
Tyrone Power has a field day as the 19th-century Castilian — he’s so good at being a fop that he makes foppery come off as attractive. Everybody enjoys a Clark Kent / double identity situation with romantic drawbacks. The girl of Diego’s dreams swoons for Zorro, the masked avenger who can’t show his face. But as the perfume-loving Don Diego, the same man makes her skin crawl. The narrative tension is guaranteed.
As a costume drama The Mark of Zorro is tops, great fun from one end to the other. The characters are rich, the dialogue witty and the action sequences excellent. Period adventures often benefit from a sense of humor, and Mamoulian has fun playing 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. As the forces of good represented by Don Diego’s disapproving father are stiff and humorless, Zorro’s main contribution is to lighten things up while raising havoc with the authorities. The fun is anticipating when Don Diego will finally come out from behind the mask, so we can see the shock in the faces of friend and foe alike.
Mamoulian’s show may not be the spectacular Technicolor entertainment machine that is Robin Hood, but it has subtle touches of its own that evade Errol Flynn’s broad strokes. 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 Hood. One man alone against the valid authorities, he’s a vigilante cast from the same mold as Judex, the serial avenger who may be the filmic original for justice-seeking superheroes. Like Judex, Zorro fights a conspiracy from inside and outside at the same time. He battles on rooftops and on horseback, but also at the dining table.
The Mark of Zorro includes one of the best fencing sequences ever filmed. Mamoulian clearly took on the scene as a challenge, and the genuine fencing expert Basil Rathbone gets to show off fantastic moves, while helping Tyrone Power to look good as well. A couple of optical tricks aid details like the cutting of a candle and a tell-tale (but discreet) oozing bloodstain. The camera under-cranks the fencing scene somewhat, and a few moments do seem sped-up. But overall the intricacy and flourish of the fighting wasn’t bettered for decades. Stewart Granger did well in a couple of 1950s movies, and I imagine there might be European pictures that impress as well. For involving the audience in the mechanics and strategy of various kinds of sword fighting, my favorite is 1995’s Rob Roy with Liam Neeson.
Rouben Mamoulian looks to have been directly involved in the action scenes, as they’re particularly exciting. Bloodshed is minimized, of course, but Zorro does slay a number of guards and a haughty sergeant, whose body is tossed over Don Quintero’s wall. Before political violence became a daily commonplace in America, ‘terrorist’ characters like Robin Hood and Zorro could be heroes too.
The writers resist the opportunity to make in-jokes about the Los Angeles setting — no scene takes place in the La Brea Tar Pits, and there are no jokes about stars in the sidewalks. But there is a sense of history, of a Spanish California ruled by land grants and a quiet order cruelly enforced. Plenty of swarthy-looking Mexican stereotypes are around to make the silver-saddle Castilian 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 shifts all power back to the elitist land barons. I’d like to know exactly how all that property changed hands after the 1848 U.S. takeover.
Basil Rathbone gets more opportunities for subtle performing here than in Robin Hood. Linda Darnell always communicated much more than beauty; I agree with Shaun Chang that she would have been a better choice than Jean Peters for Captain from Castile — I’m not sure that her gypsy dancing would be an improvement, but she’d certainly more look the part. Especially good as the villains are Gale Sondergaard’s spoiled, bored, oversexed Early Angeleno housewife. Her flirtations with Don Diego are good comedy relief. J. Edward Bromberg’s foolish Alcalde Quintero strikes a nice balance. He plays cowardly and contrite with equal zest, but also commands the scene where Quintero finally figures out Zorro’s secret identity.
A special highlight is Don Diego’s period Spanish dance with Lolita. It’s nearly authentic, which for Hollywood was a rarity. Don Diego begins dancing only reluctantly, and strikes a fine figure despite being bored; an expert stands in for close-ups of his fancy footwork. Darnell is charmed by his new Madrid dance moves, and also probably his tight Chinos; by the finish, the romance-starved girl is breathing hard and fast. With the certifiably dashing Tyrone on camera, we do get a sense that what we’re seeing is the height of cool, circa 1820.
They trick horses, don’t they?
Swashbuckler aficionado Rocco Gioffre once told me the back story for a key Zorro 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 all happens in one perfect shot. Just the year before, Fox had impressed the fans and probably killed a horse with a wild leap from a cliff in Tyrone Power’s 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 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.
Watching this scene on the sharper Blu-ray, I wonder if there’s more to the story: the descending horse appears to be roto-scoped. Was the bridge actually built on the film lot, and the background partly matted-in?
Good old Zorro has been a perennial throughout film history; almost any Zorro picture is guaranteed a minimal number of thrills and laughs. A silent version established Douglas Fairbanks as the bigger-than-life hero of swashbuckling adventure epics. A serial from Republic (Zorro’s Fighting Legion) is considered one of that studio’s best productions. Now forgotten but a huge hit in the late ‘fifties was Disney’s TV show starring Guy Williams. Dreamworks’ efforts from 1998 and 2005, both with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, are pretty much direct ripoffs of the best-remembered iteration, this 1940 gem that never ceases to please.
Explosive Media’s All-Region Blu-ray of The Mark of Zorro is a two-disc special edition for the German market, which also plays for English-speaking audiences with no drawbacks. One simply has to go to ‘setup’ on the menu for ‘Im Zeichen des Zorro’ and choose English audio, and if desired, English subtitles. The disc is completely compatible with Region A, U.S. formatted Blu-ray players.
The attractive B&W HD transfer shows off Arthur Miller’s sparkling images, giving Fox’s up’n’coming star Linda Darnell no end of dazzling close-ups — almost as many as given Tyrone Power, with his thin mustache and bushy sideburns. The entire picture carries a glossy sheen; only in one short section did I see some light film damage.
The sound is especially rich, even in two-channel mono — the musical numbers are especially clean. Is it fair to suppose that Rouben Mamoulian, a pioneer of early talkies, was heavily involved there as well. Hollywood soundtracks around this time took a general step-up in audio quality, as heard at Fox in great features like Orchestra Wives.
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. He tells us that Zorro was not that big of a production — Zanuck saw Tyrone Power as a reliable hit-maker, to be placed in vehicles that maximized profit. The disc’s second extra is a Biography piece on Tyrone Power that gently sidesteps issues of Power’s sexuality, and ends with the emotional kick of his unexpected early death. Many of Tyrone’s films are covered, but not the key titles Jesse James and Captain from Castile.
The second disc is identical to the first except that the feature has been colorized — disc one is labeled ‘Schwarz/Weiss’ and disc two ‘Koloriert.’ I admire the B&W photography too much to want to discuss the faux-color. The colorized version is exclusive to Explosive Media; a B&W Kino Lorber domestic release is still available, from August 2016. The Explosive special edition comes with a 28-page insert booklet with some handsome stills and color posters, and a 2018 essay by Thorsten Winter, in German.
The docu contains a little gag outtake bit where Zorro slashes his monogram into some coach upholstery, not a ‘Z’ but ‘DZ’. A frightened J. Edgar Bromberg shouts in fear, “Zanuck!” and Power says ‘Dammit!’ The terrific gag survived because it was tacked onto the 35mm nitrate studio print we had at UCLA. Every time we screened The Mark of Zorro, it popped up at the end for a big laugh.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Mark of Zorro
All-Region Blu-ray rates:
Video: Excellent (the B&W version)
Sound: Excellent (English + German)
Supplements: Biography show on Tyrone Power, commentary by Richard Schickel
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English + German (feature only)
Packaging: Two discs in folding plastic and card holder with an insert booklet in a card sleeve.
Reviewed: February 26, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson