The Mark of Zorro (1920) Director: Fred Niblo
I was expecting a silly, forgettable adventure, however The Mark of Zorro is a surprisingly impressive film. It stars Hollywood’s early acrobatic star of the silent screen, Douglas Fairbanks, and the film became the first in a long series of Zorro films extending over a century into the present-day. As a point of fact, The Mark of Zorro was the first film to be released by United Artists, the unique collaborative venture of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. This was Fairbanks’s 30th film and it was one of his earliest ‘swashbuckling’ character roles. At the time, he was unsure of how audiences might react to this character transformation, however as a result of waning hostilities in WWI and the sudden outbreak of the Spanish flu, audiences were keen to latch onto a tale of romance and high adventure. It thus vaulted Fairbanks into newfound success.
Today, we regard The Mark of Zorro as an essential Douglas Fairbanks film, brilliant and engaging with beautiful scenery –it is a great adventure story rife with nostalgia for the days of early old Hollywood.
The Zorro story is derived from The Curse of Capistrano, a 1919 serialized story of old Spanish California written by Johnston McCulley, a Southern California writer. The film is set amidst the backdrop of the old rancheros, adobes, and Mission San Juan Capistrano. It is a time of lawlessness and oppression. Fairbanks plays the odd and effeminate, Don Diego Vega, son of a wealthy ranchero. His father finds Don Diego disappointing and embarrassing. Tired of the oppression of the colonial government by the landowners toward the natives, Don Diego begins to assume the persona of Zorro (meaning “Fox”), a masked hero who stands up for the oppressed throughout California’s lush countryside. His signature emblem is a “Z”-shaped scar which he brands on evil men. Don Diego hopes to court a beautiful woman named Lolita but she cannot stand him, instead she falls in love with the masked hero Zorro. In the end, Don Diego reveals himself to be Zorro as he vanquishes the villainous colonial leaders, like Captain Ramon, and he banishes them from the territory. He and Lolita wind up together in the end.
This 1920 film is unique in that Zorro is portrayed as a champion not just of justice, but also of faith, as he was a more authentic Spanish Catholic in California than others. Interestingly enough, the story of Zorro is actually the inspiration for the DC Comics hero, Batman. I was previously unaware of this news. In fact, according to Batman lore, the film Bruce Wayne went to see with his parents before they were mugged and killed in Gotham City was actually Zorro, though different accounts of the Batman story diverge depending on whether it was published in the 1920s version or the 1940s Tyrone Power version.
Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) was born in Colorado, the son of an absent and alcoholic father. He developed a unique personality from a young age on Broadway, known for goofing off backstage, and performing acrobatic stunts. As an adult, he moved to Hollywood and started working for Triangle Pictures under the direction of D.W. Griffith. In his films, he was known for his athletic abilities. Soon he started his own film company, and signed with Paramount. He met Mary Pickford at a party in 1916 and they began a romantic affair. Through the late 1910s, he sold war bonds with Charlie Chaplin, and together he, Chaplin, and Pickford were the most popular and highest paid actors of the time. They created United Artists, together with D.W. Griffith, in 1919, giving them complete artistic control over their films. Eventually, Fairbanks “Everybody’s Hero” and Pickford “America’s Sweetheart” divorced their respective spouses and were married. They hosted lavish parties in Beverly Hills at their extravagant 18-acre, Tudor-style home “Pickfair.” He was a founding member of the Motion Picture Academy and he hosted the first ever Academy Awards in 1929. His notable films were: The Thief of Baghdad (1924), Robin Hood (1922), and The Mark of Zorro (1920). His career declined with the advent of talkies, but in his heyday, he was considered the ‘king of Hollywood.’ He and Pickford later separated as he had an affair with another woman, who later became his third wife. He died in 1939 of a heart attack in Santa Monica. The nickname of the UC Santa Barbara sports team the “Gauchos” is named for Fairbanks’s film, The Gaucho 1927.