The Mark of Zorro

Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation, released Nov. 29, 1920, by United Artists, black and white, 35mm Academy 1.33:1 screen ratio, silent, 80 mins., Laserdisc released 1988, DVD released 1998.

poster from IMDb

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This film is a romantic adventure set in historical Old California about a hero's dual identity, first as a timid aristocrat, but emerging as Zorro to help the peasants, Indians, caballeros fight the corrupt tyranny of Mexican officials. The original story of Zorro was published by Johnston McCulley as a 5-part serial in the All-Story Weekly pulp fiction magazine starting August 9, 1919. Someone brought it to the attention of Fairbanks; the daughter of his brother Robert said it was her father who showed it to brother Doug; stunt man Richard Talmadge said it was a cowboy friend of Doug's named Charlie Stevens; and Mary Pickford wrote that she gave it to Doug on their European honeymoon trip to Europe. Mary had acted in a number of California adventure films when she worked for D.W. Griffith, including a 1910 dramatization of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona. Whatever source, Douglas Fairbanks agreed to produce and star in the film in order to give his career a new direction at a turning point in his life when he had just formed United Artists and divorced Beth (with one son from that first marriage) to marry Mary Pickford and move into the new glamor movie colony of Beverly Hills. He had made 29 films since 1915 and was wealthy at the age of 44, but his manager Dennis O'Brien warned him that he was losing the growing middle-class audience that wanted more elaborate films and satisfying characters. America had just emerged from World War I disillusioned with Europe and political tyranny and fearful of radicals and blacks and labor agitators. It was time to change the contemporary characters he had played struggling with the social problems of the progressive era. His screenplay closely followed the basic plot and characters and dialog of McCulley's story that in turn followed the adventure formula popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs (his first Mars adventure featuring the swordsman John Carter was published in 1912 in the All-Story Weekly) But Fairbanks added critical visual elements to the film and acted the part in a way that attracted a huge popular audience to the new motion picture adventure narrative. When it opened at the Capital Theater in New York, 19,547 people paid $11,708 to see it on the first day, the largest single day gross in movie history up to that time. Police had to close the theater after the 9 pm show to disperse the crowds waiting to get it. It made Fairbanks the number one box office star of 1920 and launched his new image as a romatic hero in a series of exotic costume adventures that became more elaborate with each new film. His Zorro characterization spawned numerous offshoots: Fairbanks played both father and son in the 1925 Don Q, the Son of Zorro set in Spain; John Carroll starred in the 1937 Republic serial Zorro Rides Again; Tyrone Power remade the original in the 1940 Mark of Zorro; Linda Sterling played a female Zorro in the 1944 serial Zorro's Black Whip; Guy Williams starred in the very popular Disney TV series 1957-59 (the 78 episodes were computer colorized by Disney in 1992 for international distribution and the Disney Channel); and George Hamilton played in a spoof of the character in the 1981 Zorro the Gay Blade. Anthony Hopkins plays the aging Zorro who teaches Antonio Banderas to become the new Zorro in the 1998 Mask of Zorro.

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revised 9/1/06 by Schoenherr | reserve 1 2 3 4 | Filmnotes