Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Z" for Zorro--Tyrone Power's 1940 Version

Tyrone Power in full Zorro guise.
For me, Errol Flynn dominated the swashbuckler genre from his appearance in Captain Blood (1935) through Against All Flags (1952). However, I freely admit that I can't envision him as the lead in one of the best swashbuckler pictures of that period. Simply put, The Mark of Zorro is not a Flynn vehicle--but it fits Tyrone Power like a glove...or rather, a black mask with holes for the eyes.

There may be some of you that argue The Mark of Zorro isn't really a swashbuckler film at all. You would be wrong, of course. The setting may be Los Angeles in the early 19th century, but the plot and sword fights are straight out of Sherwood Forest with perhaps a dash of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Power plays Diego de Vega, a Spanish officer-in-training known for his prowess with a sword and his cocky attitude (due to his American upbringing, his nickname is the California Cockerel). When Diego's father suddenly calls him back to California, the dispirited young man tells his friends: "Think of me in the land of gentle missions, happy peons, sleepy caballeros, and everlasting boredom."

Diego playing the aristocratic dandy.
Of course, shortly after his arrival back home, Diego learns that things have changed for the worse. A greedy buffoon has replaced his father as alcalde (i.e., magistrate), the cruel Captain Pasquale mistreats the villagers, and taxes are high and going higher. Assessing the situation quickly, Diego decides to play the role of an aristocratic fop more interested in fabrics, scents, and lotions than politics. His deceit not only fools the alcalde and Pasquale, but also Diego's parents. Meanwhile, the young Spaniard dons a black mask and takes up the people's cause as the defiant Zorro--who steals from the rich and distributes the gold to the villagers through the local padre (Eugene Pallette).

No, Eugene Pallette is not playing Friar Tuck!
Although based on Johnston McCulley's serialized 1919 novel The Curse of Capistrano, The Mark of Zorro is highly derivative. The premise of a bold hero disguised as a fop has appeared in numerous literary works, most notably Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Not only is the plot lifted from the Robin Hood legend, but whole scenes are strongly reminiscent of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), such as robbing the coach, appearing on his love's balcony, and the climatic sword duel with--yes--Basil Rathbone. I would also be remiss to not mention Douglas Fairbanks' splendid 1920 silent Mark of Zorro, which undoubtedly provided the impetus for this remake.

Power and Rathbone cross swords.
Yet, while The Mark of Zorro lacks originality, it is executed with flair (underlined by Alfred Newman's rousing Oscar-nominated music score). I disagree with Leslie Halliwell, one of my favorite film critics, who wrote in Halliwell's Harvest that Diego is "unsatisfactorily played by a chubby young Tyrone Power, who simply can't manage, without unseemly grimaces, the elements of self-mockery which came so easily to Errol Flynn." I think Power is well-cast as both the effeminate Diego and the robust Zorro. He certainly handles a sword well, with the big showdown opposite Rathbone (a fine fencer in real life) ranking as the film's highlight.


Linda Darnell dressed in black and white.
The rest of the cast lends solid support, except for the lovely Linda Darnell. Granted, her role is barely developed as the film's heroine (in contrast to Merle Oberon's prominent role in the 1934 Scarlet Pimpernel). My chief complaint is that her line readings simply sound too contemporary. Perhaps, it was just a young actress still learning her craft--this was easily her biggest part to date.

Michael Curtiz might have directed a more lively film, but Rouben Mamoulian adds his own distinctive touches. His use of deep black contrasted against white is highly effective, especially when Zorro makes his first appearance--dressed head to foot in black aboard his black stallion as he rides swiftly through a sleepy village filled with drab off-white colors. (I have no idea why Fox bothered to colorize the film for one of its DVD releases, thereby ruining Mamoulian's photography.)

The success of The Mark of Zorro led to other action hero roles for Power (e.g., Captain from Castille, Prince of FoxesThe Black Rose). Zorro continued to be a popular character and has been played by: Guy Williams (in a Walt Disney TV series); Frank Langella (in a made-for-TV movie); George Hamilton (in a spoof); Antonio Banderas; and others.

14 comments:

  1. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I just cannot get into Zorro movies or novels at all. However, I agree that Tyrone Power is fairly good as Zorro.

    Love the phrase "unseemly grimaces".

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  2. Power charms me completely as Diego/Zorro. Grand job by all on a fun flick.

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  3. It's a fun film, and Power is fun to watch in it. Glad you're giving the film and star their proper credit.

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  4. I'm not a great fan of "swashbucklers," but do love Tyrone Power in "The Mark of Zorro" and "The Black Swan."

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  5. This film is my favorite Zorro and one of my favorite swashbucklers. Frankly I can't see Errol Flyn carrying off the fopish aspect of this film, which, however derivative, works so well in the plot. I was a fencer and competed on my college team, and as far as I'm concerned, the duel scene here is the best on film.

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    1. My favorite movie sword fight is in SCARAMOUCHE But had it been a real duel, the participants would have collapsed from exhaustion long before its end!

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  6. Wonderful post, Rick. This is a terrific movie. For me, Tyrone Power seemed born to play Diego. Chubby? Not to my eyes. He isn't Errol Flynn, but he's the next best thing. If this isn't swash and buckle, I'd like to know what is.

    I always had the feeling though, that once Zorro married Linda Darnell, he'd find out about everlasting boredom soon enough. But maybe that's just me. :)

    Loved the soundtrack as well, Rick. I've heard it used (borrowed?) by several other films over the years.

    And of course, I love Basil Rathbone in just about anything.

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    1. Yvette, I agree about Linda Darnell's character. I like Linda in other films, but she has little to do in ZORRO.

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  7. Great article on one of my favorite movies. It's pretty obvious Fox is looking to emulate Flynn's Robin Hood. Not only Basil Rathbone and Eugene Pallette, but there's Montagu Love as well.

    I think this ranks with Power's best screen work, after "Nightmare Alley." For me, it's one of the best lead performances I've ever seen in a swashbuckler.

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    1. Kevin, thanks for adding Montagu Love!

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  8. I recall Bob Kane saying in an interview that he derived the idea of Batman from Zorro - a wealthy superhero with no superpowers and a duel identity (the public persona a bit of a dolt), with a secret cave near the mansion.

    Tyrone Power is my favorite male star of the '40s because he's serious about his work, and fits very easily into so many different roles, period and modern.

    - Java

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    1. I've read about the BATMAN connection, too, Java. Thanks for mentioning it!

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  9. Rick - great overview of this, one of the finest swashbucklers no doubt. I also couldn't imagine any being a better fit for Zorro than Tyrone Power. He's great as Zorro, but even better (and funnier) in his foppish alter ego, Don Diego Vega. THE MARK OF ZORRO is also one tightly-constructed movie, with no fat on the bone, just pure goodness.

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  10. I, too, really enjoy "The Mark of Zorro." Tyrone and Basil are excellent and Mamoulian's use of contrast with black and white photography is wonderfully effective. A most excellent critique, Rick, of a swashbuckling classic!

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