Friday, November 28, 2014

Mark of Zorro, The (1940)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian


Twenty years after the wildly popular Douglas Fairbanks adventure picture The Mark of Zorro, which had brought silent movie audiences to the edge of their seats with excitement, 20th Century-Fox recaptures the thrill of the masked sword-wielding bandito in a remake staring Tyrone Power as the title character. A new generation of movie goers would discover the adventures of swashbuckling hero and in return transitioned its star actor into a new realm of being a major name in the realm of action/adventure. A thriller with a touch of romance, this tale of old west Los Angeles would reinvigorate the Zorro character as it proved to be a very popular character through much of the 20th century.

The Mark of Zorro is the second major screen adaption of the adventure/drama tale about a man in early 19th century Los Angeles who transforms himself into a masked hero to help save the people from the corruption that rule over them. Tyrone Power stars as the masked hero Zorro, whose false front is as a spoiled and lazy child of wealth all the while secretly battling against injustice as a mysterious that strikes with speed and surprise. Zorro seeks to rid the people of Los Angeles of their ill-treatment by appointed leader Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who is protected by his skilled swordsman Captain Esteban Pasguale, played by the wonderful villain actor Basil Rathbone. A relationship grows between Zorro and Quintero’s niece Lolita (Linda Darnell) to add a touch of romance to the tale which concludes with one of the finer fencing scenes of the era between Power and Rathbone . In classic story manner Zorro defeats the enemy, wins the girl, and defends the rights of the people.
This adventure picture is a particularly well mix of action with drama, along with moments of humor and a touch of a love story. Like the many swashbuckling films of the day (i.e. Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood) the film has its fair share of sword play and action, but this feature contains a solid overall plot intertwined into a neat action vehical that does not need the vast epic qualities that the other major adventure films had. In fact, The Mark of Zorro might be considered a more satisfying production overall from an audience’s perspective as nearly all elements from story, characters, through production quality leaves viewers with a sense of experiencing an overall entertaining production from beginning to end.

It is no secret that Douglas Fairbanks’ performance in the 1920 adaption of The Mark of Zorro was one of many great adventure features the star would be known for in his iconic career. For 20th Century-Fox the twenty years since the release of that film allowed for a new version of the now classic story to be told, re-launching the legend of Zorro.

Directed by the accomplished filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian, who has had great success in serious drama and period pieces, The Mark of Zorro captures the essence of early 19th century Southern California as a Spanish territory. The film does not focus on the detail of time period as much as it does on the characters which carry the tale. This is most evident in Don Diego Vega as a privileged, educated young gentleman who feels he must aid those hindered by the injustice of the political leader in the town. Mamoulian appears to understand that a period piece does not need to overly focus on the spectacle of being from a certain period, a mistake of many filmmakers as setting seems to overshadow the story in many cases, but allowing the story to work and speak for itself.

Basil Rathbone was very impressed with Tyrone Power's swordsmanship.
To star as the masked hero is the 26 year-old actor Tyrone Power who had by this fresh age already become and rather meaning performer of the screen. With past works in heavy dramas Power takes advantage of this more complicated and multi-dimensional version of the character to spread his wings creatively and allow himself to become an action hero as well as a very strong dramatic actor. In fact his highly praised performance as Vega/Zorro would transform his on screen personality from straight dramatic actor to landing him various swashbuckling action roles in the future.

What impressed his fellow star Basil Rathbone, who plays a major villain in the film, was Power’s swordsmanship. Rathbone was an accomplished fencing expert whose work included the being villains in many of the Errol Flynn adventure pictures. When asked how well Power performed in their fencing scenes together Rathbone gave significant praise to Power. Rathbone stated Power was the finest he was ever paired with on screen and that he could easily out do Flynn, as his scenes tended to be flailing a sword around while Power obviously manifests great skill in this picture.

Power and Darnell
Featured as Zorro’s main love interest is Lolita portrayed by Linda Darnell whose acting career received a huge boost with her performance alongside of Tyrone Power. Only a seventeen year-old actress who for had lied about her age to make it in Hollywood, Darnell would be paired with Power in the biographical picture Brigham Young earlier in 1940 and because of the well-received nature of their on screen chemistry the two would be cast together once again in Day-Time Wife, a financial success, and then for a third time in 1940 with The Mark of Zorro. It becomes oblivious that her initial success is because of her simply appearing alongside Tyrone Power is a big part into why her career would find success at such a young age.

The picture also features the work of J. Edward Bromberg and Gale Sondergaard. Bromberg, a character actor, portrays the political villain while Sondergaard, a former Academy Award winning actress, plays his elitist wife. They are minor role players, but both actors leave their marks on the picture.

The Mark of Zorro was a rather popular picture of its day which helped not only transform its star, but popular culture. In the success of the Douglas Fairbanks 1920 adaption of Zorro comic book author Bob Kane was inspired to create his character who was wealthy playboy by day and a masked/caped hero by night when he introduced Batman. This Tyrone Power version of Zorro decades later would be linked into the Batman mythos as the 1940 feature was written into the comic books as the movie the young Bruce Wayne character attended the night his parents were murdered, inspiring the heir to take on his own mask and fight injustice. Therefore actual events would, in a way, inspire future stories that are passed down in the history of different generations’ characters and storylines.

The rousing score of the picture was provided by the legendary composer in cinematic history Alfred Newman who would earn one of his numerous Academy Award nominations for his original compositions. In 2009 The Mark of Zorro would join the ranks of America’s most treasured motion pictures as it was elected for preservation as part of the National Film Registry. Looking back this version of Zorro helped to inspire all future adaptions and recreations of the famed masked character; including the popular 1950s Walt Disney television series and various films domestically and internationally with look and style. The Mark of Zorro remains a strong feature and stands well against the tests of time as a solid adventure picture.

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