Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Sunday July 15, 10:00am, The Castro, San Francisco

"Fear not - their wits are as slow as their blades."

In Old California, an effete member of the aristocracy disguises himself as a masked avenger and rallies his community to overthrow their corrupt oppressors.

 The creation of United Artists Corporation brought greater artistic freedom to all of its founding members. Already an established star, Douglas Fairbanks caused a sensation in 1920 with The Mark of Zorro, the first in a series of costume spectacles that launched an entire genre and defined his contribution to popular American culture. Nowhere is Fairbanks' almost superhuman athletic ability more apparent than the final two reels of this film. Alistair Cooke described the "delicious moment" of crisis when "Doug" pauses to consider his options, a reoccurring theme in The Mark of Zorro, his subsequent films and an essential ingredient in Fairbanksian action-adventure. Marguerite De La Motte as the love interest, with Noah Berry and Robert McKim as the villains, complete the package in archetypal performances.

Where action heroes come from …

In the spring of 1915, Douglas Fairbanks hopped a train and headed west, for Hollywood. Already an established Broadway star, Fairbanks' disdain for "the movies" was satiated by the whopping $2000 a week Triangle Corporation was offering. A man of many hats in his youth, Fairbanks had dabbled in acting, finance, manufacturing and law, tramped around Europe and finally settled back on what he did best to support his wife and child. Prior to 1915, motion pictures and their newly developed technology were held within the iron grip of the patent holders. Actors were viewed as property and on-screen credit was generally avoided. The film companies feared the commensurate salaries that came with star recognition. While his future wife, Mary Pickford began her career in 1909 with Biograph, working in anonymity for ten dollars a day, Fairbanks was becoming a bankable name on the Broadway stage. From his beginning at Triangle, D. W. Griffith saw the thirty-one-year-old actor as an undisciplined disruption. Fairbanks boisterous good nature in the end however, became his making. In his 1940 monogram Douglas Fairbanks: The making of a Screen Character, Alistair Cooke describes the essence of the restless and high-strung, but jovial prankster, "Fairbanks all his life loved this rather elaborate sort of joshing and would often hold up the making of a picture, at considerable expense, to change into costume as alien as possible to the period and style of the picture." Fairbanks never took himself too seriously and found enjoyment in all things. By his third film, a dower and scrutinizing Griffith had seen enough.

Fairbanks was eventually teamed with director John Emerson and legendary Hollywood writer, Anita Loos. Their first collaboration had him leaping from an ocean liner and pummeling a boxing champ to try and get, His Picture in the Papers (1916). The film was a roaring success, and "Doug" was born. He went on to appear in a string of films featuring his athletics and buoyant enthusiasm while a Fairbanksian vocabulary filled with clever eccentricities and ridiculously verbose intertitles, slowly developed. Fairbanks also began working with Griffith protege and renowned Hollywood workhorse, director Allan Dwan in 1916 and they produced ten features together over the next thirteen years.


In The Matrimaniac (1916), the numerous telephone calls between Doug and his girl are connected by a cherubic angel-baby switchboard operator, surrounded by hearts and flowers, who laughs at their happiness and weeps at their misfortune. Reggie Mixes In (1916), features a spectacular brawl with the gangster who has been menacing Doug’s girl Agnes (Bessie Love), while The Half-Breed (1916), has Doug battling a forest fire. In The Americano (1917), Doug single-handedly saves an entire country from a military overthrow. A Modern Musketeer (1917), was the harbinger of Fairbanks’ ultimate mastery of action-adventure. In it, D’Artagnan is seen for the first time as a fantasy, intercut with the modern story. When the Clouds Roll By (1919), begins with title credits featuring images of production crewmembers at work as their names appear. The story includes a bizarre plot to give Doug nightmares by feeding him raw onions, lobster and mince pie before bedtime. The resulting gastric distress is shown as the meal dances in his stomach, then chases Doug through the countryside in his pajamas. His Majesty the American (1919), begins with Doug bursting through the titles to introduce the film. "Gee, folks, I hope you like it!" The Mollycoddle (1920), has Doug playing a monocle wearing eastern dude and ex-patriot from Arizona. A disappointment to the memory of his heroic ancestors, he ends up changing his ways "all for a girl" and the picture finishes with a fight at a Hopi cliff village in which Doug throws Wallace Beery through an adobe wall, after a spectacular landslide, "…some bally fool tipped a mountain on me." By 1919, the stage was set…

Visiting the set of The Kid (1921)

At this point, Fairbanks career, and his place in film history underwent a profound and monumental change. With the forming of United Artists in 1919 by Fairbanks, Pickford, Griffith and Charles Chaplin, a successful attempt was made, to circumvent the distributors insistence of block booking, and also to retain the creative control many other stars were slowly losing within the new studio system. Fairbanks had become increasingly involved in all aspects of his work, from screenwriting to production design, and broke from his contemporary American hero / action-comedy formula to and produce a costume drama, The Mark of Zorro (1920). At precisely the same time Hollywood art direction, camera technology and its ability to present a visual narrative was at its peak, Fairbanks produced a series of films that set the standard for the action-adventure genre. His work from this period is among the most memorable of the late silent era. The combination of Fairbanks popular screen image and athleticism, along with beautifully conceived and executed productions make The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926), The Gaucho (1928) and The Iron Mask (1929), the most thoroughly entertaining and original films of their kind.

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, with live musical accompaniment performed by Dennis James on the Castro's 4/21 Wurlitzer organ.

1 comment:

  1. A great overview of Doug's rise to glory. Love the photos of him with the dog and on the set of THE KID. I am ampped to see Doug play one of my childhood heroes on the big screen.