The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 14, 2014

The Mark of Zorro—Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Linda Darnell, J. Edward Bromberg, Gale Sondergaard, Montagu Love, Eugene Pallette (1940; Dir:  Rouben Mamoulian)

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This is a quite serviceable version of the oft-remade tale of the fictional black-clad Robin Hood of early California.  The two romantic leads of Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell are extraordinarily beautiful, but one supposes that Errol Flynn would have brought more dash to the role of Zorro.  It’s not a standard western, using swords more than guns, but the setting is in the American West at a time when it was on the frontier.

Young Diego Vega returns from years of education in Spain to his family’s home in southern California ca. 1820, only to find that his father Alejandro (Montagu Love) is no longer the alcalde in Los Angeles.  The new alcalde, Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) is corrupt and oppressive, with the commander of the local garrison, Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), providing the muscle and real brains behind the oppression of local hidalgos and peons alike.  Quintero’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) is very interested in Diego’s knowledge of the social life of Madrid and new fashions, and Quintero’s almost 18-year-old niece Lolita (Linda Darnell, in a negligible role) is also interested.

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Diego adopts the manners of a fop and the secret identity of Zorro (a la The Scarlet Pimpernel) to avenge the wrongs of Quintero and Pasquale and to champion the cause of the people.  Ultimately it comes down to a duel between Esteban and Zorro, and of course Zorro wins.  Rathbone had a reputation as perhaps the best fencer in Hollywood, but since he normally played villains (except when he was Sherlock Holmes), he was seldom allowed to win on film.  In the end, Esteban is killed (a little too soon), Quintero is banished and Lolita and Diego are together.

This version was a hit in its time and remains highly watchable, with more modest pretensions and a simpler story than the more elaborate 1998 remake with Antonio Banderas.  The 1920 Douglas Fairbanks version (the first film version, since the source story by Johnston McCulley, The Curse of Capistrano, was only published in 1919) is probably more fun.

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The famous duel between Diego and Esteban was staged by the resident Hollywood fencing master of the time, Fred Cavens.  Cavens specialized in staging duels that relied more on actual fighting than on the participants jumping on furniture and leaping from balconies.  Cavens’ son Albert doubled for Tyrone Power in the more challenging parts of the duel (mostly with his back to camera), such as the extended exchange with Esteban that ends with Diego’s sword smashing into the bookcase.  Fast fencing shots were under-cranked to 18 or 20 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24fps); and all the sound effects were post-synchronized.  Rathbone was asked how well Tyrone Power did in their scenes in which stunt doubles were not used.  Rathbone responded, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera.  Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”

In DC comics lore, this version of Zorro with Tyrone Power is the movie that a young Bruce Wayne goes to see the night his parents are mugged and shot by Joe Chill.  Parents and child are coming out of the movie and walking through an alley when they are mugged, and that leads to Batman’s creation.

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In black and white, with an Oscar-nominated score by Alfred Newman.  The gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as Fray Felipe is doing a sort of reprise of his role as Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, and the voice and uni-dimensional character can become tiresome.  Tyrone Power didn’t make a lot of westerns, but he was pretty good in Jesse James and in Rawhide.  Linda Darnell is pretty much just window dressing in this movie, but catch her as the fiery Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine and as the beautiful cavalry widow in Two Flags West.

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