Sunday, June 14, 2020

"The Mark of Zorro" (1940)

I love Zorro.  I've loved him since I was a tiny person -- he was one of my first heroes.  In fact, I think only Robin Hood and the Lone Ranger have been heroes of mine longer, and Zorro is sort of an amalgamation of the two of them, isn't he?  Championing the poor and oppressed, wearing a mask to strike fear into the heart of any evildoer who crosses him, and so on.

The first time I encountered Zorro, it was in a picture book based on the Disney Zorro series from the 1950s that starred Guy Williams.  Then I watched a few episodes of the early-nineties TV series that starred Duncan Regehr before finally getting to see a handful of the Guy Williams episodes on VHS.


But in my late teens, I got to see The Mark of Zorro (1940) for the first time on VHS as well.  Or maybe on PBS?  I remember there being a documentary with it too that talked about how Basil Rathbone was a wonderful swordsman for real, and that Tyrone Power had to learn a lot to keep up with him.  That the little trick Zorro does toward the end of this movie, where he slices through a burning candle and it stays upright and burning -- Basil Rathbone could do that for real.  They had to fake it for Power in the film by drawing in the end of his sword across the candle in post-production.

Anyway, this movie is a rollicking good time.  It opens in Spain, with handsome cadet Diego Vega bidding farewell to his friends because his family has called him home to California.


He's not pleased with having to go home to boring California where there's nothing to do but get married to some provincial girl, raise fat children, and tend vineyards.  He's used to dueling, riding fast horses, and pursuing beautiful women around the academy.


He's in for a surprise when he gets home, however.  His father is no longer the alcalde of Los Angeles.  And the new alcalde has a sly and smug henchman, Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), who enjoys threatening strangers with his sword.  On the spot, with no apparent premeditation, Diego affects the demeanor of a harmless dandy, dabbing at his forehead and lips with a scented hankie and acting distressed by the sight of a sword.


The new alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward. Bromberg), is a pompous fool.  Anyone can see Pasquale is the real power here.  But Diego pretends not to.


Anyone can also see that Pasquale has the hots for Quintero's wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard).  Inez promptly sets her sights on Diego -- she seems to have grown tired of Pasquale and is eager for a handsome new plaything.


Diego plays along with Inez, flattering her and bolstering her vanity.  But he's spotted Quintero's niece Lolita (Linda Darnell) and his thoughts and eyes belong to her now.


Diego finally returns to his family's hacienda, reuniting with his father (Montagu Love), mother (Janet Beecher), and his old mentor Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette).  He continues pretending to abhor violence and long only for peace and quiet.


The people of Los Angeles are suffering under the rule of Quintero/Pasquale, who tax them close to death and are generally crabby and grabby.  One day, two soldiers put up a notice about more taxes to be collected when a stranger rides into the square.


He wears all black, including a black mask, waves a sword around a lot, and rides a black horse.  And he pulls down the taxation notice with the tip of his sword and makes the soldiers put up his own announcement instead.


Next, Zorro visits Quintero at night, appearing in his office seemingly by magic.  He frightens Quintero and tells him he won't rest until Quintero goes back to Spain.


They do some really nice things with shadows in this movie.  Here, Zorro's shadow looms over Quintero.


Here, he towers above soldiers that he's about to rob of the unfair taxes they've collected.


While Zorro dashes around the countryside robbing the rich and looking all debonair and exciting, Diego pretends to be bored pursuing the hand of Lolita Quintero in marriage.  We all know he actually likes her a whole lot, but he keeps up the facade of a popinjay.  Still, when they dance after dinner at her father's house, Lolita can't help feeling there's more to Diego than meets the eye.


Eventually, Pasquale begins to figure that out too.  He and Diego have a magnificent sword fight, though (SPOILER) he dies before confirming his suspicion that Diego and Zorro are one and the same.  (END SPOILER)

This is a really splendid duel, by the way -- because Rathbone was a fencing champion, he did all of his own fencing!  Power did a lot too, but did have a double for some of the trickier bits.


Everything ends happily, of course, with peace restored to the land.  Zorro can hang up his mask and sword, and Diego can wed the beautiful Lolita, settle down, and raise fat children and tend a vineyard.

This is not a deep film, but it's a highly enjoyable one.  If you'd like to see a different adaptation that uses the exact same script, but with a different cast, try to find the 1974 version, which is also lots of fun!


This has been my contribution to the Suave Swordsman: Basil Rathbone Blogathon hosted by Pale Writer.  Follow that link to find the other posts people have contributed to this event!

Is this movie family friendly?  Yes!  All innuendo about Inez's extramarital activities is veiled and oblique, and all violence is non-graphic.  There are a couple of kisses, but that's it.  I hadn't watched this movie for a few years, so I showed it to my kids for their first time this week, and they got a huge kick out of it!

16 comments:

  1. I enjoy this movie, though I grew up on the 74 version with Langella, so it cracks me up that the plot is almost exactly the same, word for word. But it is one of Rathbone's best, and I LOVE that he did all his own swordplay. He was so splendid at it.

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    1. And the first time I watched Langella's, I was like, "Why is this exactly like Power's version?!?" Lol.

      I wish Rathbone could have played the hero in a swashbuckler, just once. Wouldn't that have been fun? Rapier-sharp sarcasm AND a sharp rapier AND the hero?

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  2. Guy Williams was my first TV crush and I obsessed over all things Zorro.

    I first saw the Tyrone Power movie in my tweens and I was in Heaven. I still enjoy it, after all it is so expertly made, with one complaint. I wish it were longer and there had been a sequel.

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    1. Caftan Woman, well, there's no surprises there -- Guy Williams is extremely crushable. I actually have a poster of him hanging in my hallway upstairs, alongside John Wayne and Alan Ladd.

      Yes, another half hour of running time would not have gone amiss here to do things like develop Diego and Lolita a bit more, as well as their romance, and toss in another action sequence or two :-)

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  3. I've actually seen this one.
    I think I was about seven when I first saw it, and have loved it ever since. Of course, just put swords in a movie, and I loved it, lol.
    I don't think I've ever seen the '74 version, though. I'll have to look into it.

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    1. McKayla, yay! It's such a rousing good time, isn't it?

      The '74 version is hard to find, but you can catch it on TV from time to time. I don't think it's been released on DVD.

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  4. Robin Hood, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, yes!! I love all of their legends so much!! I haven't seen this, but now I really want to because of Rathbone and the amazing cinematography. Wowza!

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    1. MC, they're all just such cool dudes, aren't they? Definitely try to find this, it's excellent fun.

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  5. Hamlette, I know how you feel. Years ago and long before the Broadway musical came out, I was a 14 year old kid looking for something to read among some dusty library shelves. I pulled out a book at random called The Scarlet Pimpernel, and have never been the same. For me, Sir Percy Blakeney will always be a paragon of all manly virtues (sigh)~*

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    1. Blakeney, oh, that's awesome! The Scarlet Pimpernel is on my TBR shelves, actually. I know that Johnston McCulley was inspired by Sir Percy when he came up with Zorro!

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    2. Oh wow, I never knew that! Zorro is another dashing, wonderful character. Don't know what version of TSP you have but the Leslie Howard one is very sigh-worthy.

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    3. Blakeney, yup! Totally true. I have the book on my to-be-read shelves, but I've watched both the Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews version :-)

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  6. Oh, we have this Zorro! I really like it! There are few black and white movies my whole family enjoy, but this is one of them. :)

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    1. Gabby, that's awesome! I'm glad you and your whole family like it -- and I'm not surprised you all do :-) It's so fun!

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  7. It's kind of blowing my mind a little that there are black and white film and TV versions of this story featuring what sounds like a very different plot to the one I'm familiar with... the only adaptation of Zorro I've actually ever really been aware of up to now is the brilliant 1998 Antonio Banderas movie The Mask of Zorro!

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    1. Kirsty, I love The Mask of Zorro! I aw it at a drive-in movie theater when it first came out and have been entranced ever since. Everything about it is basically perfect.

      But yes, that movie is sort of a continuation of the traditional Zorro story, which is about how Diego became Zorro, and then how Zorro went on to have many adventures. Mask picks him up when he's middle-aged and goes from there.

      Zorro was created by author Johnston McCulley and his first adventure, Curse of Capistrano (which this movie is based on) was published as a serial in a magazine in 1919. The first film came out in 1920, a silent one starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Zorro fandom snowballed from there. McCulley wrote a lot more Zorro stories, and there have been so many wonderful film and TV adaptations! So, if you've a mind to explore it, there's a lot of delicious Zorro-ness for you to discover :-D

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