The Mark of Zorro (1940)
When you do a search of movies/TV shows based on the character of Zorro, it’s amazing just how many there are. But for me, this one is still right up there. Made in the golden age of Hollywood swashbucklers, it features Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, both rising stars of the time, as well as a cast of notable secondary actors and a director who added quite an artistic touch to the film.
In the 1820s, Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) returns to California from Spain to discover that in his absence, his father (Montagu Love) has been replaced as the Alcalde by the corrupt Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) with his evil henchman Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Diego quickly surmises the caliber of men they are and adopts a sissified manner to hide his exploits as the masked avenger Zorro. But even if Don Luis is an idiot, he and Esteban won’t be fooled for long. Can Diego continue his daring do and manage to woo Luis’s niece Lolita (Linda Darnell) without being caught?
This is as much a talkie Zorro as it is an action one. There are scenes of Power riding at top speed through the towns and countryside, slashing his famous “Z” and escaping from the soldiers sent after him as well as a wonderful duel with Rathbone. But for an action picture, it seems more confined to a sound stage than does “Captain Blood” or “Robin Hood.” However considering the dual nature of the hero, who must play both fop and man of action, maybe that’s not as bad a thing as it sounds. The scenes of Diego the pseudo effete provide comic relief though it is required that viewers swallow the disbelief that none of the evil villains ever put 2 and 2 together until the very end.
Power is wonderful as Diego. He can dance the newest steps with Lolita, whinge to Don Luis’s social climbing wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) about the trouble with getting his bath water to just the right temperature before adding scent, suffer the disparagement of his father in the face of all this and then swing into action to the rousing score of Alfred Newman. He’s a lover as well as a fighter as seen in a funny scene when he first meets Lolita while disguised as a priest and later when he echoes a scene from “Robin Hood” and climbs a balcony to woo her a bit more. I just wish Darnell had been given more to work with as she’s mainly just there as pretty scenery to be wooed then put aside for more the manly stuff.
Among that manly stuff is a spectacular escape scene wherein Zorro gets his horse to jump off a bridge into a river thus eluding the soldiers. As well, there is the duel with Basil Rathbone – one of if not the best actor swordsmen in Hollywood at the time. It’s got the standard ripostes, verbal taunting, and tight close ups required but it’s still fun to watch before poor, sneering Basil must die in true villain fashion. Watch for the way his character plays with his sword almost like worry beads. The later mob fight scenes are a bit too crowded. It’s as if they tried to pack too many extras into the scene but didn’t allow them enough room to actually swing their swords and truncheons.
Bromberg manages the bombast required of him before the one scene in which he displays some intelligence and actually figures out who Diego is. Sondergaard is perhaps a bit too archly flirting – she always seems to have something in her eye as she bats them at Diego. Eugene Pallette basically repeats his Friar Tuck role right down to the same robe and tonsure but he makes the most of his smaller role here.
But I would urge people to take their time with this picture. Director Rouben Mamoulian sets up some beautiful shots throughout the movie, especially the street scenes of old Los Angeles. He and cinematographer Arthur Miller use light and dark to make it almost a film noir swashbuckler. This is especially effective given the black mask Diego uses and how he slips into and out of the shadows. I know there is a colorized version of the film but, not having seen it, I wonder if it actually adds anything to this masterful use of black and white photography.
This version is short and sweet – shot for the era when theaters needed to get their double headers in. Power makes a handsome Zorro and he and Darnell have good chemistry together. He’s also not bad with a sword. Maybe he’s not quite up to Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling level but backed by a solid cast and crew this turns out to be an entertaining film from the “they just don’t make ’em like that anymore” era. B