Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

SFSFF 2012: ‘The Mark of Zorro’ and the Birth of the Swashbuckler

One of the beauties of the SFSFF program is its balance of rarities and classics. I cherish the discoveries (or rediscoveries) that every festival brings, but just as valuable is the opportunity to revisit a well-known classic for a fresh experience under the most ideal conditions: big screen, live music, excellent print, and appreciative audience. I’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 The Mark of Zorro, directed by Fred Niblo, a couple of times, but never has it come alive for me as it did in the Sunday morning screening with Dennis James accompanying with a muscular organ score on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer.

While Fairbanks is remembered as the great swashbuckling action hero of the silent era, inspiring stars from Errol Flynn to Jean Dujardin in The Artist (Fairbanks is the acknowledged model for the fiction silent star of the movie), The Mark of Zorro was his first adventure movie. Before that, he was the all-American hero of contemporary comedies, the charismatic everyman who turns can-do hero with dashing feats of heroism performed with comic flair. The genius of The Mark of Zorro is dropping the Fairbanks persona into a costume adventure. His Robin Hood of Old California is an action hero defined by jaunty energy, acrobatic physicality, a zest for life, and sheer pleasure of performance. And that was all new to the movies thanks to Douglas Fairbanks, who took his career in an entirely new direction and changed the course of cinema with it.

There was no American action film tradition in 1920, and in fact the most spirited action in American cinema belonged to comedies, including those of Fairbanks. Otherwise, costume dramas and action spectacles were rather serious affairs, not necessarily ponderous but certainly lacking a sense of humor. The classic chase / rescue sequence as perfected by Griffith (and imitated by others) was often exhilarating in terms of momentum but otherwise was defined by the gravity of the stakes. It took Fairbanks to bring his sensibility and his personality to the genre to infuse it with fresh blood, boyish enthusiasm, and joie-de-vivre. Fairbanks made action fun.

Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks) registers his protest

On the small screen the film can seem a little static despite the action. Fred Niblo never moves the camera and generally frames his scenes as full shots with characters playing their sequences out as if characters on stage. That is, until Zorro appears and starts leaping around the frame and Niblo shoots and cuts to the action, carrying us (and the film) along with Fairbanks’ momentum.

But on the big screen (especially the Castro’s big screen) we can see just how much is actually happening in the frame, much of it defined the playfulness of Fairbanks in both roles. While the defining body language of the two characters—hunched, dainty, aristocratic fop Don Diego and zesty, zippy, spring-loaded Zorro—couldn’t be more different, they are both constantly in motion. Even in Don Diego guise, surrounded by the puffing and bullying of Spanish soldiers, he is reacting to every utterance with both comically exaggerated cringes and shrugging indifference to serious matters, turning to parlor tricks which he executes as a two-fold sleight-of-hand, showing off his cleverness as the arrogant aristocrat and distracting from any consideration of who this Zorro might be. Also standing out in the frame is the defiance of leading lady Marguerite de la Motte’s Lolita, the principled daughter of a nobleman who stands up to the corruption of the Spanish rulers and impresses Diego even as he plays the pompous ass in her presence. The film builds its small, human-sized dramas that explode in the acrobatic bounce of Zorro’s appearance.

One thing, though. While I understand the spontaneous applause that accompanies the appearance of a beloved star or the cheers of a magnificently-executed stunt or sequence, the practice of hissing the villain is beyond me. It’s become a cliché that isn’t even accurate to the experience, at least not the experience of seeing a film in a first run show palace, and has about as much place in a screening as having a picnic and tossing the scraps on stage during a Shakespeare play. Sure, it happened at the original Globe performances, but we like to treat our plays as command performances. We should treat our screenings the same and leave the hissing to the summer stock melodramas where audience participation is part of the show.

Jeffrey Vance, author of the superb biography “Douglas Fairbanks,” introduced the show with comments on the legacy of this film (including its direct inspiration on Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, another hero with a cape, a secret identity, and a hidden lair), but more than anything, The Mark of Zorro redefined the action movie as a blast of energy and adrenaline and romantic adventure, and redefined Fairbanks as America’s first action hero.