There has never been another Errol Flynn…although the same could be said of Stewart Granger, and, of course, Tyrone Power. To some degree, virtually all of the aforementioned inherited their mantle of quality from the swashbuckling arena of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. – arguably, the screen’s first modern-day rapscallion. Despite changing times and tastes, and the introduction of sound in 1928, the poses struck by these he-men of the cod piece and sword remain variations on a template first trademarked by Fairbanks in his prime. Indeed, The Mark of Zorro had been a much-celebrated 1920 adventure; the thirteenth movie in Fairbanks’ career, for which Douglas eschewed the comedic trappings to don the black cape and mask of author, Johnston McCulley’s famed hero, Zorro (Spanish for ‘fox’). The novel, The Curse of Capistrano was serialized to great acclaim only one year earlier and Fairbanks’ depiction of the cloaked crusader sent romanticized chills of exhilaration down the spines of his adoring female fans. Fairbanks, whose career had momentarily sagged just prior to the release, was to quickly discover an entirely new outlet for his finessed athleticism. From this movie on, he would be popularized on celluloid and immortalized for all time in the hearts and minds of millions around the world as the epitome of the dashingly robust rogue. Fairbanks would also set the standard for Zorro’s wardrobe; the black satin mask, large hat and flowing cape not a part of McCulley’s original characterization.
Two decades later, the legend of Zorro returned; this time resurrected by Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox for the biggest thing to hit the back lot since sound: Tyrone Power. Heralding from a thespian’s background – Ty Sr., also an actor – Power’s early appeal lay in his impossibly beautiful fine-boned features, a pair of dark and flashing eyes, framed by thick brows and a pate of slick black hair; his screen presence oddly boyish yet manly. At least in hindsight, Power owed more to the legacy of the late Rudolph Valentino than Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, Power would be cast in a glossy Technicolor remake of Valentino’s bullfighting classic, Blood and Sand one year after The Mark of Zorro, and, go on to star in a half dozen actioners as the devilish heartthrob who either took what he desired by force or could just as easily charm any woman of his choosing into handing it over for nothing. Power’s slender build may have lacked Fairbanks’ barrel-chested/bicep-popping muscularity, but otherwise he proved the perfect fit for Zorro, revealing a rather edgy sense of mischief married to his undeniable sex appeal. The latter is worth considering for just a moment.
Sex appeal on the screen is as much, if not more so, the yardstick by which public response to both men and women is duly measured. Some actors have it. Others do not. The public decides exactly what sex appeal is on an individual basis. If one has it, then name your price. Yet, sex appeal goes well beyond the physical contents of any man or woman. It is a perennial state of mind; an elixir more imagined than ascribed; an intangible for which Power arguably matched Metro’s he-man, Clark Gable, and Warner’s Tasmania devil, Errol Flynn, sly grin for grin, and with a diseased little twinkle caught in his eye, suggesting he had lived a man’s life and was equally as unashamed of it.
Zanuck would exploit The Mark of Zorro to launch the career of another Fox contract player into the stratosphere. Linda Darnell had been ‘discovered’ by the studio’s talent scouts in her native Dallas in 1937. Pushed into the limelight by an overzealous stage mother who likely wanted this dream for her own, but settled to live it vicariously through her daughter’s accomplishments, Darnell was thrust into the gristmill of Hollywood’s star-making machinery, by her own admission, without the blind ambition to excel at becoming a ‘great star’. With only a few artistically negligible movies to her credit, Darnell set the screen afire opposite Power’s lusty bandit in The Mark of Zorro, as the lovely, Lolita Quintero. Alas, unlike Power’s reign at Fox, Darnell’s meteoric rise in popularity as ‘the fresh-faced’ sex bomb would be brief; her plummet from this perch, as swift as it proved devastating. In later years, Darnell would suggest her overnight flourish had been deliberately sabotaged by Zanuck’s deliberate mis-casting of her in shoddy parts after she refused to acquiesce to his lascivious advances. “He was after something I wasn’t willing to give,” Darnell mused, “…and so I found myself at the back of the line, other actresses getting the parts that ought to have come to me. Even if the public wanted me.” Indeed, Zanuck’s transparency in letting Darnell ‘know her place’ was only slightly offset by his disastrous gamble to cast her in one of the studio’s biggest costume epics; Forever Amber (1947) – the story of a treacherous courtesan brought to heel by her own greed; equally as big a disappointment at the box office.
Only in retrospect does the oddity of Linda Darnell’s stardom become more perplexed; seemed effortless, mildly erotic and very appealing when working opposite Tyrone Power, but elsewhere faintly benign with an almost petulant attitude when cast opposite other big male stars on the Fox back lot. The romantic chemistry between Power and Darnell is palpably adversarial in The Mark of Zorro, particularly during their early scenes where Power’s ego-driven fop sparks fiery discontent; a little of the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland attraction smoldering like sensitive embers all too ready to ignite into a four-alarm blaze. For the vial Captain Esteban Pasquale, Zanuck turned to a rather predictable, though no less effective choice; Basil Rathbone, who, apart from appearing to excellent effect as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Edwardian-era sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, in two lavishly appointed pictures made back to back at Fox the previous year, was better known for his expert swordsmanship, culminating in an, iconic duel opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
The Mark of Zorro is an obvious prestige picture for Fox; John Taintor Foote’s screenplay cribbing only partly from McCulley’s novel and tricked out in Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright’s stunning art direction, magnificently photographed in B&W by Arthur C. Miller – a true artisan of his craft. To helm the production, Zanuck hired Rouben Mamoulian; one of the screen’s unbridled romanticists, better known for coaching performances from temperamental beauties like Greta Garbo than for his swashbuckling prowess. What Mamoulian brought to the palette goes well beyond his usual idiosyncratic lushness; the open air training grounds (supposedly photographed in Madrid – actually, on the Fox ranch with matte paintings to add an air of authenticity), where young blades are taught the fine and fashionable art of killing, and the palatial settings of ole Spain – again, built on the back lot, exquisitely contrasted against the relative squalor of ancient Los Angeles and the rural trappings of California. Mamoulian’s penchant for stylish film-making elevates the picture’s glamour and escapism. But he does not cheat the audience out of its oft dark, and suggestively homoerotic subtext brewing between Rathbone’s majestically vial Pasquale, overcompensating with a sword perennially clutched in his fist, and Power’s impossibly handsome, Don Diego, feigning effeteness as a dandified fop to guard against his truer intentions as the masked savior of the people; the perfect camouflage.
Don Diego is a respected guardsman. But his training in Madrid is cut short by an urgent request from his beloved father to return home at once. At first, Diego is bitterly disappointed to give up his appointment in Spain. He is a respected caballero with a wicked track record for satisfying gentlemanly duels. Asked by his fellow guardsmen what he will do in California, Diego bitterly explains the tepidity of the people will yield no earthly pleasures for his adventurous spirit. Alas, Diego is in for an happy surprise. Informed by his boatman (Victor Killian) of the people’s displeasure with the reigning Alcalde’s (a.k.a. governor) mismanagement – a post, Diego’s father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love) once occupied – this errant knight’s anxieties are only marginally relieved upon discovering that his father has since resigned the post. Don Vega is still one of Los Angeles’ most respected citizens. The same cannot be said of the newly appointed Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) who cruelly manhandling its citizenry with Captain Esteban Pasquale’s uncompromisingly militaristic might. Quintero’s wife is the coolly aloof gargoyle, Inez (Gale Sondergaard), immediately attracted to Diego’s suave – if slightly effeminate – interests in ‘the latest fashion’. Alas, Diego is distracted by a glimpse of the couple’s young ward, the virginal, Lolita. Having only just missed out on the opportunity to meet Diego for herself, Lolita persists to have Inez make the necessary introductions; her aunt jealously threatening to have her sent off to a convent – in these ole-fashioned times, a fate to result in the depravation of a young woman’s fancies for attractive young men Inez would rather keep for herself.
On the road to his ancestral home, Diego encounters Sergeant Gonzales (George Regas), a simple-minded oaf commanding a small contingent of Pasquale’s men. Gonzales casually admits to using his whip on ‘stubborn’ peons who are unable to pay their strained share of the ever-escalating taxes leveled against their homes and families to satisfy the expensive whims of His Excellency. A brighter outlook emerges upon Diego’s arrival at his father’s estate; his mother, Isabella (Janet Beecher), father, and friar, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette) most eager to welcome him with open arms. Diego discovers his father did not retire, but rather was forced out to make way of this new corrupt regime. Don Alejandro refuses to take up arms against the government he has served for thirty years, much to Felipe’s chagrin. But soon, the Don and this padre are aligned in their disturbing contempt for Diego’s laissez faire disinterest in their present woes. Diego’s indifference is, of course, a ruse, designed to throw everyone off his grand plan: to avenge the people by using a mysterious alias to achieve the miracle for which they have all been praying. In short order, Diego launches a daring counteroffensive, ambushing the Alcalde and Inez in his robber’s disguise on the open road as they are preparing to meet with a banker from Madrid; carving the letter ‘Z’ into the plush upholstery of their carriage before absconding with all of Quintero’s ill-gotten gold ducats and a prized necklace taken from Inez. Aside: in outtakes shown to Zanuck purely for his amusement, Tyrone Power performed this same stunt; but with actor, J. Edward Bromberg’s look of utter bewilderment and nail-biting fear followed by a declaration of ‘Zanuck!’ instead of ‘Zorro!’; Power topping off the gag by adding, “…and let that be a lesson to you – damn it!”
Now, with a 5000 peso price on his head, Zorro’s reputation among Los Angeles’ beleaguered citizenry begins to take hold. He is their savior; not boastful or proud, but a true liberator to challenge Quintero’s authoritarian rule with a clash of steel if necessary. Indeed, Zanuck could not help but see the parallels between Quintero’s fictional regime and that of Adolf Hitler’s SS already sweeping through the whole of Europe with an iron fist. Disguised as Zorro, Diego attends Quintero in his study, blind-folding, then ordering the frightened aristocrat to resign and go back to Spain immediately; also, to appoint Don Alejandro Vega as his replacement or face the full wrath of his sword. Disappearing into the night without further delay, Quintero is discovered by Pasquale, more determined than ever to rid the landscape of this vaporous avenger who would dare dictate his policies to them with unabated aplomb. Diego’s escape is detoured through the chapel with another disguise as the padre. Inadvertently, he meets Lolita praying at the altar. She too is fooled by his appearance at first, but gradually realizes the man in cleric’s robes is no priest. Thus, when Inez bursts in on them, Lolita keeps Zorro’s secret to assure his safety. Diego remains silently grateful for her candor. Alas, he is discovered by one of Quintero’s men in the courtyard, leading to an even more death-defying race on horseback. The price on Zorro’s head is raised to 20,000 pesos.
More than ever, Zorro is the people’s crusader. He thwarts Pasquale and Gonzales’ in their tax collecting and evades capture by Pasquale’s men, doubling back to the monastery. Fray Felipe is befuddled by Diego’s midnight arrival; even more so after a small contingent of the Acalde’s men intrude to question them as to Zorro’s whereabouts. Diego fluffs off their concern in preening jest. This incurs Felipe’s ire once more. To think the boy he once regarded as highly as a son could make light of Zorro’s daring do. But now Diego confesses his secret to the one man he can trust to keep it holy. He is Zorro. Handing over his loot to Felipe for safe-keeping, Diego suggests it is only a matter of time before Quintero peaceably leaves office. To hasten Quintero in his decision, the next afternoon Diego pays a call, exploiting the opportunity to fabricate a tale about a madman from Madrid who, like Zorro, plundered at will. Diego’s ebulliently suggests to Quintero that like this fictionalized villain, Zorro is quite insane and sure to slit many throats before his reign of terror is over. Terrified, Quintero confides this story to Pasquale who is quite unimpressed. Pasquale suggests that since Zorro is demanding Vega’s return to power, Vega himself is likely in cahoots with the masked bandit. Pasquale further proposes an alliance, or rather, a marriage of state to establish a new détente: Quintero’s niece to Diego, sure to keep the peace and put an end to Zorro’s marauding.
In the meantime, Diego works on Inez’s vanity to convince her she is being wasted in Los Angeles. As the wife of the ex-Alcalde she would most certainly be a welcomed edition at court in Spain. Now, Quintero approaches Vega to propose the marriage. Don Alejandro is, quite understandably insulted by the prospect their two households should be united for the sake of some bastardized political entente. But Diego alleviates their tension, hinting he might be interested, provided he finds the young girl attractive. To sweeten the deal, Diego is invited to dine at Quintero’s estate, making a dandyish nuisance of himself and thus deliberately alienating Lolita, who finds him boorish, silly and quite unsuitable as a love interest. Electing to retire early to her bedroom, Lolita is surprised by Diego, now dressed as Zorro, on her balcony. His confession is thwarted by Quintero’s reentrance, Diego retreating, only to return dressed as himself. Lolita now realizes the man she loves and the one she absolutely abhors are one in the same. But Inez, who has become rather smitten with Diego herself, suggests to Lolita she reject this marriage of state under the guise that no woman should ever be sacrificed for political gains.
Diego applies his most heavy-handed influence to sway Quintero; pretending to be disinterested in Lolita; then, suggesting his disinterest might improve if the Alcalde will fetch them both some wine from Quintero’s private cellar. Beneath his study, Quintero discovers wine barrels with a ‘z’ carved into them and their taps left open, the contents having spilt all over the floor. Zorro’s footsteps have left their imprint in the dirt floor. Yet, they seem to lead nowhere except a solid stone wall. Is Zorro a man or a ghost? Meanwhile, Pasquale discovers the stolen tax monies and Inez’s necklace inside a locked box in Felipe’s monastery. Unable to grind a confession from his lips, Pasquale instead imprisons Felipe without trial to improve his memory. Confronting Quintero in his study, Pasquale finds Diego’s amusement at their predicament quite disturbing. Pasquale challenges this man he has misperceived as a popinjay to a duel, a grueling test of swords that ends badly for the Captain of the Guard, but also for Diego, who has at last been found out by Quintero.
Locked in the same cell as Felipe, Diego tricks their jailer into unlocking the door. Alas, he is too late to plan an escape; Quintero, arriving with Don Alejandro and the caballeros, presumably to gain a confession from Vega’s own lips as to the extent of his own complicity. Unaware, his son and Zorro are one in the same, Vega suggests Quintero to be the biggest fool that ever lived. Now, Diego ambushes Quintero, and, together with the caballeros, launches into a full-scale revolution. The town’s people, barred from the prison, break down the gates and thwart Quintero’s autocratic rule. Quintero is forced into accepting Zorro’s original call for his resignation. Part of the condition is for Quintero and Inez to leave California on the first ship bound for Spain; Vega reinstated to the exalted position as Los Angeles’ Alcalde. Inez is elated by this turn of events until she suddenly realizes her dreams of court life, with Diego as her kept man, are not to be. Diego intends to follow the customs of California; to marry Lolita with all speed, raise a family, and, tend to their vineyards. The crowd rejoices as Zorro hangs up his sword for good.
Given the overwhelming success of The Mark of Zorro, and Tyrone Powers’ iconic resurrection of the masked hero for the sound era, it is rather surprising – and more than a little disappointing – Zanuck never bothered to spin off the story into a lucrative film franchise. Interestingly, 2oth Century-Fox lacked in the serials department. Elsewhere in Hollywood, serials were considered highly profitable B-budgeted programmers. Fox would eventually get around to two franchises of their own; Charlie Chan, and later, Mr. Moto. Oddly, they let one of their very best – Sherlock Holmes – languish after only two pictures; the franchise relocated to Universal where serials were not only prized, but in fact buoyed their yearly output. While the legend of Zorro would remain a perennial part of our movie-going pop culture, with various incarnations attempted elsewhere on the big screen, as well as a TV series produced by the Walt Disney Co. in the mid-1950’s, Tyrone Power would never again don the cape and black mask he had helped make famous herein. Without a doubt, The Mark of Zorro launched Power as a swashbuckling lothario; his youthful virility brought into check with a more earthily rugged appeal. Power’s career was slightly derailed by his enlistment in the marines. From 1942 to 1945, he was absent from the screen; Zanuck only too eager to capitalize on his return with Fox’s biggest prestige picture to date, The Razor’s Edge (1946).
We will never know for certain what sort of movie career Tyrone Power might have had, had he managed to evade military duty as so many others of his ilk chose to do. Unequivocally, the war changed Power’s audience appeal and, equally, his iconic good looks. The Tyrone Power returning to Fox in 1946 is a different man entirely; his adolescent handsomeness given a harsher edge. While Power was eager to return to Fox, he had increasingly tired of Zanuck’s insistence to merely pick up where his career had left off before the war; the cod piece and tights not aligning with Power’s own ambitions to stretch his artistic wings. The spate of pictures that briefly followed retained Zanuck’s high standards in production value, but they no longer suited Power’s transformed mystique, nor did they satisfy his own impressions as to what a leading man he could be given half the chance and better opportunities. Indeed, Power’s singularly impressive post-war achievement would not be made at Fox, but rather as an independent for producer, Edward Small in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1958) in which Power, cast against type, played Leonard Vole, the cold-blooded murderer of an unsuspecting widow.
That same year, Power departed for Spain to begin work on Solomon and Sheba, the movie that prematurely ended his life. Engaging George Sanders for the climactic duel, Power was suddenly taken ill, collapsing on the set. He died on November 15, 1958 – aged, only 44. While great heroes of the silver screen are oft’ judged by their elemental sex appeal; their athleticism and their ability to dazzle us with daring feats, the best of the lot are imbued with a far more intangible quality that transcends mere ‘good looks’. As Power entered middle-age he illustrated he was far more than just another ‘pretty face’. But he was unceremoniously denied the longevity to prove anything else beyond that. Even so, his legacy remains happily ensconced as one of those rarefied male specimens – a great star, stud and vigorous striking hunk du jour. Regrettably, Powers’ real influence in pictures ended much too soon to be more properly assessed. But The Mark of Zorro endures among his finest films and performances given. It still only tells half the story of Tyrone Power – that graceful paragon for the ages.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of The Mark of Zorro is a welcomed improvement. The old Fox DVD was very problematic on two levels: first, because much of the B&W image was riddled in disturbing amounts of edge enhancement (very distracting to say the least) and minor gate weave; and second, because Fox equally elected then to provide us with a painfully ugly ‘colorized’ version of this gorgeous movie that all but destroyed the exquisite tonality in Arthur C. Miller’s original and utterly superb B&W cinematography. Both sins have been rectified for this 1080p reissue. The colorized version is gone. Yes! And the B&W incarnation presented on this Blu-ray reveals a startlingly detailed image virtually free of age-related artifacts. There is a lot to admire here; Thomas Little’s set decoration and Travis Banton’s exquisite costuming, a real visual feast in hi-def. Minor imperfections do exist, but they are negligible. The Mark of Zorro looks very appealing on Blu-ray and we suspect Fox has gone back to the drawing board for this one with admirable results. Great stuff! The DTS 2.0 mono audio offers up exceptional clarity with a few moments of unanticipated bombast – particularly in Alfred Newman’s iconic score. Extras have been ported over from the old 2005 DVD and include an A&E Biography on Tyrone Power, and, a rather bumbling audio commentary from Richard Schickel; plus trailers to promote Witness for the Prosecution (already available via Kino Lorber on Blu-ray) and Rawhide, currently being readied for its hi-def debut. I have to say, it is about time Fox took a more aggressive path to reissuing their vintage catalog on Blu-ray. For too long their association has been limited to Twilight Time exclusives with their trickle of output rather disturbingly subpar in terms of quality in a lot of cases. We could certainly use mainstream Blu-ray reissues of Anastasia (1956), The Song of Bernadette, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and, Jane Eyre for starters; plus a host of iconic film fare from Fox’s early output, including all of their Shirley Temple movies, The Keys of the Kingdom, In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and, The Rains Came (1939) – the latter three, Tyrone Power classics sorely absent in hi-def. We will have to wait and see. But Kino Lorber’s new alliance has already yielded some very good stuff with more promised in the pipeline before year’s end. As for The Mark of Zorro – it comes very highly recommended in 1080p. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)